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August 31, 2013
Rich Rodriguez's first Arizona team exceeded expectations via an 8-5 final record and bowl game win. Yet, the lingering question was how much better the Wildcats could have been overall with some defensive depth - any defensive depth.
Friday's 35-0 season opening win over Northern Arizona provided some insight into that hypothetical. In holding the Lumberjacks scoreless, UA both recorded its first goose egg since blasting South Carolina State 56-0 last season and set the tone for a desperately needed defensive renaissance.
The many returners - no team in the Pac-12 Conference brought back more starters from 2012 on that side of the ball - have a year of experience operating in coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 stack scheme.
"We've been under the defense for another year so we're a bit more experienced," defensive lineman Sione Tuihalamaka said in the postgame press conference. "We're a little more physical and smarter."
The defense also is deeper, thanks to an infusion of youth.
Rodriguez and staff stocked the defensive ranks on the recruiting in the offseason, and their work paid immediate dividends.
Holiday showed off his athleticism on a second-half interception, while Wright ball-hawked from sideline to sideline with youthful exuberance - sometimes a little too much.
"He's always going 100 miles an hour. Sometimes it gets him into trouble," linebacker and senior captain Jake Fischer told reporters, adding, "Once he learns all the little details, he'll probably be an All-Pac-12 linebacker."
With six tackles, Wright was near the top of a stat sheet that showed off the Wildcats' mix of experience and youth. Veterans Fischer and Tra'Mayne Bondurant each recorded seven tackles, and Bondurant picked off a pair of passes.
"Tra'Mayne is always around the ball. The ball gravitates to him and he makes plays for us. He's a ballplayer," Fischer said.
Dismissing a rout of the Wildcats' in-state, Football Championship Subdivision counterpart NAU is easy on its face, but there's important historical context that validates Friday's defensive effort.
The 35-point margin was the widest since the Wildcats won 52-6 in 1945. NAU had not been held below double digits by a UA defense since 2004, had not been shut out since 1941.
As telling as the series past is NAU's future. The 2013 Lumberjack football team might be the best Flagstaff has seen, coming off an 8-3 finish and a wealth of veterans returning.
No one is more notable than running back Zach Bauman. The preseason FCS All-American and Walter Payton Award candidate could not get going against a Wildcat rush defense that ranked No. 105 in the FBS a season ago.
Bauman was stifled, gaining just 71 yards on 21 carries. Overall, the Jacks were stymied for just 94 yards - 112 fewer than UA's 2012 average yield.