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Solid start: Arizona Wildcats ‘not off the charts’ but shut out NAU in opener

Arizona offensive lineman Chris Putton sings Bear Down in the postgame celebration with the band. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona offensive lineman Chris Putton sings Bear Down in the postgame celebration with the band. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

For all the talk, debate and consternation about the Arizona Wildcats’ quarterback race, coach Rich Rodriguez never even named a starter.

“I never had a conversation with any offensive coach,” senior B.J. Denker said about the starting job. “When it was the first play of the game, I ran out there onto the field and they didn’t stop me.”

Denker, who has been the leader since spring, ended up playing most of the game, playing efficiently if not with Matt Scott pizzazz, as UA opened Rodriguez’s second season with a 35-0 victory over lower-division NAU at Arizona Stadium on a rainy Friday night.

“We got the victory, so that’s what I was looking for,” Denker said. “Obviously, the stats weren’t off the charts, but we got the win and I’m happy about that.”

Denker was 9 of 13 for 87 yards, harkening back to the kind of quarterback numbers you might have seen from Dick Tomey’s option offense more than two decades ago.

NAU played slow-down and keep-away for much of the night, holding the ball for 40 minutes, 16 seconds. The Wildcats, who averaged better than 83 plays per game last season in RichRod’s up-tempo attack, had a mere 47 snaps.

“When they have a kill-the-clock kind of offense, you have to be very effective with your possessions,” Rodriguez said. “But we have to get more plays. Some of that is getting more first downs, too.”

While the game slowed, especially after the Wildcats hummed for a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown march on the opening possession, Arizona put together enough big plays to fill a TV highlight package.

It started with a 91-yard touchdown burst from running back Daniel Jenkins, who started in place of Ka’Deem Carey, suspended for the opener because of off-field incidents during the offseason. That was the third-longest run in school history, and it made the score 14-0 with 5:32 to go in the first half.

“He is probably going to tease Ka’Deem because Ka’Deem hasn’t had one that long,” Rodriguez said.

Jenkins took a handoff up the middle, found plenty of running room and then left the Lumberjacks eating cork and rubber pellets in his wake on the new FieldTurf CoolPlay surface of Arizona Stadium.

“The offensive line did a good job first of all,” he said. “The hole just opened up like the Red Sea and I took it.”

The play that gave the Wildcats a comfortable cushion came on the first snap of the second half. Freshman outside linebacker Scooby Wright tipped a pass from Kyren Poe, with the ball landing in the hands of safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant, who returned it 23 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead.

Arizona picked off three passes in the third quarter, including a second from Bondurant, who corralled a high throw tipped by NAU receiver Nick Cole.

“Whenever the ball gets tipped, it goes to him somehow,” linebacker Jake Fischer said of Bondurant. “He makes a ton of plays for us.”

Denker got into the big-play action with a 30-yard scramble for a score with 8:34 to go in the third quarter. Arizona had only three full possessions after that, totaling just 5:29.

The final highlight was provided by redshirt freshman quarterback Javelle Allen, who somewhat surprisingly got the backup nod over junior college transfer Jesse Scroggins. Allen, reading the defense, took a shotgun snap and darted through the middle, showing good speed in covering 61 yards for the final touchdown.

“It looks to me like he made the right read,” Rodriguez said.

“He ran faster than I thought. I think a lot of guys run faster when they’re getting chased. He might be one of those guys.”

Arizona didn’t commit a turnover, although freshman Nate Phillips dropped two punt catches that the Cats managed to recover. Denker didn’t have turnovers, so that goes into his “plus” column, although the Wildcats will need to do a better job of threatening defenses with the down-field pass.

Denker ran 13 times for 71 yards.

“I thought he was solid,” Rodriguez said.

“He took care of the ball and made a lot of good decisions. There were a couple of throws he would like to have back, and we didn’t try to throw the ball very much. He did a nice job of running the offense and getting his eyes in the right place on the defense.”

Arizona posted the second shutout of the Rodriguez era — the other came last year, 56-0 against another lower-division team in South Carolina State — helped by missed field goals of 42 and 45 yards from NAU.

So, it’s on to a game at UNLV on Sept. 7.

The usual stuff applied after the opening game — there is plenty of stuff that needs improvement. The quarterback job could be a week-to-week thing.

“My job isn’t safe because I got this week,” Denker said. “I can’t be relaxed because I won my first start. And I’m not going to be. I didn’t do all the things right that I wanted to do.”

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