TUCSON, Ariz.--Arizona drove 80 yards and spent nine minutes on 16 plays to open the game for a 7-0 lead, then came back with a solid showing in the fourth quarter to outdistance Northern Arizona, 21-3, and give Mike Stoops his first head coaching victory Saturday night in the season opener at Arizona Stadium.
Wildcat tailback Mike Bell rushed a career-high 31 times for 118 yards and added three pass receptions for another 17 markers as the featured component in UA's new offense under coordinator Mike Canales. Bell scored the Cats' first touchdown on a two-yard run after the opening drive, and scored the team's next-to-last TD on a nine-yard run six minutes into the fourth quarter.
UA sophomore quarterback Kris Heavner chipped in a highly proficient passing attack with 18 completions in 23 attempts, including a 13-yard scoring strike to Syndric Steptoe to put the game out of reach with 5:40 remaining. Heavner finished with 171 passing yards and did not suffer an interception.
The Arizona defense, meantime, clearly a Stoops' staple, turned in a credible performance against the solid I-AA Lumberjacks, with interceptions by freshman cornerback Antoine Cason, senior safety Darrell Brooks and redshirt freshman corner Wilrey Fontenot.
Cason tallied 13 tackles for the Cats, broke up another pass, had a tackle for a loss and forced two fumbles in his first collegiate start.
"I'm excited with the way our team played tonight, although there are some things I wish we had done better. This game was a great test of our toughness and conditioning. Overall, it was fun to watch and I love the way the team played. We showed the makings of a good team," Stoops said.
"I disliked how we stepped on ourselves offensively, though," he said. After UA's opening drive, its next seven possessions used a total of 35 plays and stalled, with one fumble ending a quick possession and the Cats failing to convert on fourth-and-short on another.
NAU totaled 280 net offensive yards but could only put a 22-yard field goal by Paul Ernster on the scoreboard, that tally helped by a fumble by Bell that gave the 'Jacks the ball at UA's 26 yard-line moments into the second quarter.
The Lumberjack defense held Arizona to 307 net yards, but the Cats were efficient with all three scores coming on red-zone possessions. NAU's offense hurt itself with the four turnovers, with the final interception leading to UA's last score.
Arizona won its season opener for the fifth straight year. The Cats play at home next Saturday against Utah.