Brandon Dawkins wasn’t the only Arizona Wildcat who felt he let his team down against Houston.
Junior receiver Shun Brown pointed the finger squarely at himself.
The usually sure-handed receiver dropped a pair of passes in the Wildcats’ 19-16 loss to the Cougars in Week 2. He made amends, and then some, at UTEP on Friday night.
Brown caught a 36-yard touchdown pass and returned a punt 63 yards for a score in Arizona’s 63-16 romp. Afterward, he shared a sentiment that is widespread among the Wildcats:
“I feel like we should be 3-0.”
If one of any number of plays had turned out differently, Arizona could have defeated Houston. Brown’s drops came in the fourth quarter, when the Wildcats were trying to rally.
The first didn’t end up mattering; Arizona gained a first down shortly after and made a field goal.
The second greatly reduced the chances of the Wildcats moving into position for the tying field goal. It came on first-and-10 from the UA 20-yard line with 2:59 remaining. Brandon Dawkins’ seam-route pass was slightly behind Brown, but it was a catch he normally would make. Arizona ended up turning the ball over on downs.
“I could have put it a little higher and put it right in his chest and let him catch and run with it,” Dawkins said last week. “Football is a game of inches. You miss one of those by that much, and it could affect the whole play.”
While fans blamed Dawkins, Brown blamed himself. He came to El Paso with a mindset he described as follows: “Whatever it takes for me to get myself going, get my team going, I was going to do.”
It started with Dawkins hitting Brown on another seam route in the second quarter. Two differences this time: Brown ran up the right hash marks instead of the left; and he held on to the ball, turning the completion into a touchdown.
Then came the play that sent the UA sideline and social media into a tizzy.
Brown fielded Alan Luna’s 53-yard punt near the right hash marks at the UA 37.
After picking up blocks from Tony Ellison and Brandon Rutt, Brown slipped out of an arm tackle. He then dashed to the left sideline.
UTEP’s Josh Weeks dove at Brown’s legs but came up empty. At the 25-yard line, two Miners closed in on Brown. He planted his right foot into the ground and spun to his left. Luna and teammate Sterling Napier tumbled to the turf.
Brown didn’t think much of it afterward. He had pulled off the spin move any number of times in practice. He credited his blockers.
“Tony did a great job with the first guy coming in my face,” Brown said. “Once I caught the ball … more guys blocked for me, like Rutt. I broke one tackle and headed to the sideline. Hats off to my punt-return team. Great group.”
Brown’s teammates were wowed.
“It was right out of J.J. Taylor’s bag,” Dawkins said. “Hopefully you’ll see him on the (‘SportsCenter’) Top 10.”
“Shun Brown is amazing,” said cornerback Jace Whittaker, who also threw a block on the return. “I don’t expect (a specific move) from Shun. But whenever it comes, it’s mind-blowing.”
The punt-return touchdown was Brown’s second of the year. He became the first Wildcat with more than one in a season since Mike Thomas in 2008.
If there was one thing the UA defense emphasized above all else during the offseason it was forcing turnovers. Arizona had only 14 takeaways last season.
“That was the main thing,” Whittaker said. “In order to win games, we have to cause turnovers. It gives everybody a sense of, ‘We got this.’ ”
The Wildcats are getting it so far this season. Through three games, Arizona is halfway to last year’s takeaway total.
“It’s so key for us,” said UA coach Rich Rodriguez, whose team opens Pac-12 play against Utah on Friday. “Not only are we getting turnovers, we’re getting turnovers in great field position.”
Nos. 6 and 7 gave Arizona the ball deep in UTEP territory — at the Miners’ 27- and 5-yard lines. Both takeaways led to touchdowns.
“It’s a huge momentum swinger for us,” said freshman linebacker Colin Schooler, who forced a fumble and intercepted a pass against the Miners. “We set up our offense in a good situation, and luckily we scored touchdowns off those turnovers.”
Junior safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles has three interceptions and one fumble recovery. His four takeaways are more than any Wildcat had all of last season.
- Arizona scored 35 points in the second quarter against UTEP, the most the Wildcats have scored in a quarter since they scored 35 in the second quarter vs. Northern Arizona in 2015.
- Friday night marked Arizona’s first victory outside of Tucson since the 2015 New Mexico Bowl.
- Freshman quarterbacks Rhett Rodriguez and Donavan Tate each completed their first career passes. Rodriguez’s went to tight end Jamie Nunley, who recorded the first two receptions of his career. Tate’s went to senior Jack Banda, a defensive end who played tight end at UTEP. It was his first career catch.
- Tate and linebackers JB Brown and Anthony Pandy made their college debuts.
- Freshman Kylan Wilborn recorded a tackle-for-loss for the third straight game.