By JOHN MARSHALL
PHOENIX — Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez never revealed which quarterback would start the Wildcats’ opener against Northern Arizona, not even to his players.
So when the time came for the offense to take the field, B.J. Denker simply trotted out with them.
The senior handled it well, too, leading the Wildcats to a rout with his arm and legs while earning a chance to start again this week.
“I thought B.J. played pretty well,” Rodriguez said. “He was solid. He understands our system pretty well.”
Arizona wasn’t the only Pac-12 team that had a prolonged quarterback competition heading into the season.
Half of the conference’s teams were set with returning quarterbacks or backups who had been groomed to take over, including Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and UCLA’s Brett Hundley.
The rest of the teams had competitions that lasted well into preseason camp and some right up until the first snap of the season.
Like Rodriguez, Southern California’s Lane Kiffin played it close to the vest in naming his starter for the Trojans’ opener against Hawaii.
Cody Kessler got the start, but Max Wittek played nearly as much.
Problem was, neither sophomore played well enough to separate himself from the other in the 30-13 win.
Kessler completed 10 of 19 passes for 95 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Wittek went 5-for-10 for 77 yards and was sacked twice.
Kiffin hasn’t named a starter again this week for Saturday’s game against Washington State, though both should get some playing time — maybe.
“I don’t think anything’s ever certain,” Kiffin said. “We’ll go into the game and see what happens, how everything plays out.”
Oregon State coach Mike Riley had two solid choices for his starter in Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz. He ended up going with Mannion, who threw for over 2,400 yards and 15 touchdowns in the Beavers’ break-out season a year ago.
Mannion had a solid opening game, throwing for 422 yards, three touchdowns and had two big completions in the closing seconds to set up a potential game-tying field goal. Good as he was, Mannion still couldn’t lead the Beavers to victory, ending up on the short end of a 49-46 loss to FCS school Eastern Washington.
“I thought he was well-prepared, played a really solid game,” Riley said. “He did a nice job and we want to continue to build on that.”
First-year Colorado coach Mike McIntyre didn’t wait quite as long to name his starter, tabbing junior Connor Wood over freshman Sefo Liufu a week before the Buffaloes’ first game.
Wood was good in the opener, too, throwing for 400 yards and three touchdowns while leading Colorado to a 41-27 win over rival Colorado State.
“Connor graded out with a winning grade,” McIntyre said. “Like all situations with a quarterback, he had some throws on the field where he would have checked down or went to a different read there would have been some very exciting plays. He’s seen that on film and understands that, and will be even better this Saturday.”
First-year California coach Sonny Dykes let his quarterback competition go until about two weeks before the Bears’ opener, when he named Jared Goff the starting quarterback.
The first true freshman to start a season opener for the Bears, Goff handled pressure well, throwing for a pair of touchdowns and 445 yards, second-most in school history. He also had three interceptions, but two of those came on tipped passes.
“I thought he did some good things for the first time out,” Dykes said. “And I think he’s just going to continue to get better and better.”
Arizona had been searching for a starting quarterback since Matt Scott’s final game last season.
Denker and junior college transfer Jesse Scroggins appeared to be the front runners, but Rodriguez was coy about who would start, listing those two and Javelle Allen as potential starters against NAU.
Denker got the call and played well, throwing for a score and running for another in the Wildcats’ 35-0 win. Allen ended up being the backup and raced for a long touchdown run, but Denker is the starter — for now.
“B.J. will be our starter,” Rodriguez said. “But it’s still (early in the week), so we’ll see what happens.”
As tight as the quarterback races were, a handful of other Pac-12 coaches could be feeling the same way.