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McFeely: Bison running headlong into 'The Jayden de Laura Experience'

Arizona quarterback is dynamic playmaker, but his play can take you on a wild trip

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arizona
Arizona Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura (7) throws a pass during the first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Sept. 10, 2022 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona.
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports
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FARGO — It was the football equivalent of an acid trip.

Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura took a snap last Saturday night, faced immediate pressure from a Mississippi State defender and turned things into Haight-Ashbury circa 1967.

He rolled left. He pump-faked. He spun back to his right and sprinted across the field. He somehow escaped the grasp of two defenders, ducking out of a sure sack. He ran back to the left. He threw a wild pass downfield into triple coverage. Receiver Jacob Cowing deflected the ball and it was intercepted.

From the time de Laura took the shotgun snap until he released the pass, it took 15 seconds. He ran about 50 yards behind the line of scrimmage to avoid being sacked. The entire play took nearly 30 seconds.

"What a mess of a play," FS1 announcer Alex Faust declared.

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Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch called it "the longest play of all-time."

Welcome to The Jayden de Laura Experience, as coined by one Twitter wag, which turned the Pac-12 After Dark into a mind-bending experience suitable only for those with strong dispositions. If you want discipline and by-the-book college football, the sophomore from Honolulu isn't for you.

“Sometimes it’s a no-no-yes. Sometimes it’s a yes-yes-no. And it’s everything in between,” Fisch said at his weekly press gathering.

This is the wild ride North Dakota State will face Saturday at Arizona Stadium when it plays its first game against a Football Bowl Subdivision foe in six years. It's unlike anything the Bison have faced in their most recent FBS games, when schools like Iowa, Iowa State and Kansas State played mostly reserved Midwest football.

Up here, the quarterback might scramble, might extend a play, might even run for yardage, but is almost always going to play it safe and throw the ball into the fifth row of the stands if things are getting hairy. Live to play another down, is how the coaches say it.

De Laura didn't get that memo yet. There's nothing reserved about him.

"He's definitely a dynamic playmaker," Bison safety Dawson Weber said.

After being named the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman Player of the Year at Washington State last season after throwing for a league-best 2,751 yards and 23 touchdowns, de Laura hit the transfer portal and joined Arizona.

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He played a mostly clean game in the Wildcats' 38-20 opening victory at San Diego State, but was a wild child in a 37-19 home loss to Mississippi State. De Laura was 23 of 45 for 220 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.

The quarterback showed startling athleticism and deflating inexperience. Usually on the same plays.

Fisch said de Laura has to know "when to say when" and throw the ball away.

"There’s times when ... he’s in the middle of the end zone, they bring the corner cat (blitz) and he spins around, makes a play and converts a 16-yard gain. You live with those plays because of the fact that he’s so gifted as an athlete," Fisch said. "It’s our job to continue to help him play within the parameters of the system and help him understand there’s times you don’t have to do that. There’s times you can just hit a guy in rhythm. And then there’s also times that you can use your legs to your advantage."

The quarterback will present a unique challenge for NDSU's defense, not only because of his mobility, but because Arizona has several top-end receivers who can cause problems when de Laura turns to backyard football.

Texas-El Paso transfer Jacob Cowing is de Laura's favorite target, a shifty speedster who will be tough to tackle in the open field. Dorian Singer, a St. Paul product who NDSU offered in high school, is a burner. True freshman Tetairoa McMillan is 6-foot-5 and the highest-rated recruit ever for the Wildcats.

The matchup that might decide whether NDSU wins this game is Arizona's explosive offensive talent vs. the Bison defense.

It'll start with de Laura.

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"He's a quarterback that can continue to extend plays. He avoids pressure to pressure. We're going to have to do an unbelievable job of tackling, maintaining the cup, maintaining appropriate leverage," NDSU head coach Matt Entz said. "We've got to find a way to try to slow them down a little bit. If you can get them off schedule, they seem to slow down. ... I get concerned about some of their athletes that they have."

De Laura can turn plays into a circus, running whichever direction he needs to avoid being sacked. Including backward. The Wildcats were in field goal range near the end of the first half against Mississippi State, but the quarterback spun out of pressure toward midfield and took a 15-yard sack that ended the scoring threat.

The Bison will need to get pressure on de Laura in hopes of triggering a mistake or two, but even if he's running helter-skelter in the backfield they'll have to maintain discipline. Entz recalled a play against San Diego State when a defensive back dropped coverage and de Laura found the open receiver for a touchdown.

"It's definitely tempting once he's running back 45 yards to try and come up and make a TFL (tackle for loss) or something like that," Weber said. "You just have to know your role, know your job on that play. If you're in man coverage, just cover your man for five seconds or 35 seconds. He can extend plays for a while, so we have to man up in the back half and trust that our d-line and our linebackers will get home and contain him a little bit."

There will be good Jayden. There will be bad Jayden. The key for NDSU will be limiting the good and forcing some bad.

If the Bison do that, they can survive The Jayden de Laura Experience.

Even if they're hallucinating by the end.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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