Cats dominate first half, hang on for home-opening win
Senior safety Darrell Brooks said it best following the Arizona football team's home opening win over NAU Saturday night.
"A win's a win," he said. "It wasn't pretty, but we got the win."
The Wildcats (1-1) jumped on the Division I-AA Lumberjacks (1-1) early and held on for a 31-12 victory at Arizona Stadium.
"I thought Northern Arizona played a feisty game all night," said Arizona head coach Mike Stoops. "They gave us some problems doing some things."
A crowd of 54,728 saw Arizona rumble to a 24-3 halftime lead. It appeared that the Wildcats were going to blow out their cross-state opponent until an unproductive third quarter got NAU back into the game.
The Lumberjacks out gained the Wildcats 139-6 in yardage and scored nine unanswered points to trim the Arizona lead to 24-12 going into the fourth quarter.
"I don't think we let up," said sophomore quarterback Richard Kovalcheck. "I think we just got out of our rhythm."
Kovalcheck tied his career high for passing yards with 255 and added two touchdowns, completing 19 of 31 passes. He was intercepted once in the first half by the Lumberjacks' K.J. Gerard.
Arizona 31, Northern Arizona 12
"You never try to lose focus," said sophomore linebacker Dane Krogstad, who with eight tackles Saturday has led the team in both games in 2005. "You know they are going to come back strong, too.
"You just have to fight it, and I think we did a good job. They just made a few plays."
Arizona offensive coordinator Mike Canales said the NAU defense made it difficult for the Wildcats because of the Lumberjacks' unusual 3-3 set.
Arizona's struggles in the red zone didn't help either, he said.
"In my mind we left 17 points on the field, and that's upsetting," he said of Arizona's blocked field goal and two turnovers in NAU territory.
Although the Wildcats struggled to put away the Lumberjacks, there were several bright spots, including senior running back Mike Bell's 24 carries for 122 yards and a touchdown.
"There were a lot of good things," Stoops said. "I think our offensive line is much improved and we had balance in the offense."
Arizona gained 187 yards on the ground and 255 yards in the air while getting touchdowns from four different players including Bell, sophomore receiver Anthony Johnson, junior tight end Brad Wood and senior running back Gilbert Harris.
The Wildcats scored first on Bell's three-yard touchdown and added a 33-yard Nick Folk field goal in the first quarter.
The team pushed the lead to 17-0 on Johnson's 25-yard touchdown grab before NAU got on the board following Kovalcheck's interception. Wood capped the first half scoring with a nine-yard touchdown catch.
Lumberjacks quarterback Jason Murietta gave the Wildcats trouble more on the ground than in the air.
The junior was held to five yards passing in the first half before leading NAU on an 80-yard scoring drive in the third quarter.
He ended the game with 20 carries for 56 yards, including Arizona's five sacks that cost him 17 yards.
The Lumberjacks' final points came when Arizona's punt coverage team snapped the ball into the end zone and punter Danny Baugher kicked the ball out of bounds for the safety.
The Wildcats scored one more touchdown in the fourth quarter on Harris' run.
"I think we saw improvement," Krogstad said. "It might not have shown up like everybody wanted in the 'big blowout game,' but I think we played well."
Arizona lost its second defensive end when senior Marcus Smith was taken out with an undisclosed leg injury. Stoops said he was unsure how long Smith would be out. The Wildcats lost senior Copeland Bryan last week in a loss to Utah. ... The Wildcats won their fifth straight home opener and 17th in 19 seasons. ... Junior Syndric Steptoe led the Wildcats' receiving attack with six catches for 76 yards. ... NAU fumbled five times but Arizona recovered only one of them. ... Sophomore Chris Henry had eight carries for 41 yards, but lost his third fumble of the year. ... Arizona hosts Purdue on Saturday. The Boilermakers beat Akron 49-14 over the weekend.