The real deal
Khalil Tate's rise has made Arizona football relevant again
Arizona quaterback Khalil Tate walks off the field after the UA-Houston game on Sept. 9 at Arizona Stadium.
After week one of Pac-12 play, the Arizona Wildcats looked to be a program moving in the wrong direction. Former starter at quarterback, Brandon Dawkins, fumbled and threw an interception in the game’s deciding minutes, and Arizona walked off the field unsure of which way it was headed going into a bye week.
Then Colorado changed the fate of Arizona football.
In Boulder, with 12:18 on the clock in the first quarter, Dawkins took a snap and rolled to the left side. As he stepped out of bounds, Colorado defensive back Ryan Moeller hit Dawkins late, forcing the quarterback into the benches of the nearby sideline and unknowingly changing the script on the Wildcats football season.
To say that incoming quarterback Khalil Tate performed well in Dawkins absence would be a severe understatement. Tate came in and broke the NCAA single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 327. Every decision after that first initial drive seemed to work out in his favor. The question was, could he do it again?
Against UCLA, a foe head coach Rich Rodriguez had never beaten, Tate did, in fact, do it again, leading the Wildcats to a 47-30 victory. Amassing 230-yards rushing and some timely downfield throws, Tate became the first Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback in 20 years to rush for over two-hundred yards in back-to-back games, since Chris McCoy of Navy. Tate also became the first UA player to win two Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week Awards in the same season since 2013 and the first back-to-back recipient since Tom Tunnicliffe in 1982 according to Arizona Athletics.
Tate’s meteoric rise has been somewhat surprising. A season ago, Tate was in a similar situation and did not fare well. Against the USC Trojans, Tate started his first game as a true freshman. He looked like it. Tate went 5-for-16 for 58-yards and one interception on the day before getting replaced by tight end Matt Morin.
In the offseason, Dawkins out performed Tate to get the starting nod. Couple that with an apparent injury and it seemes his time to shine may still be in the distant future.
“Frankly, he was a young guy still learning, Brandon played better in August camp,” head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “…In the Colorado week he was healthy. He had a good week of practice and we talked about it and said if he got an opportunity, I didn’t know when it was going to happen, and when he got his opportunity he has made the most of it. I’m not totally surprised that he is performing really well…he’s actually playing better than even we anticipated he would, especially running wise.”
The speed that Rodriguez is referencing is, perhaps, the most surprising element of Tate thus far. Several times in the past two games, the sophomore has fooled the defense and beat out angles defenders have had on him. Tate has touchdown runs of 28, 45, 47, 58, 71 and 75-yards. His break-away speed has been a bi-product of losing 20 pounds in the off-season according to Rodriguez. It has been a noticeable change from a year ago.
Suddenly, the Wildcats find themselves on the outskirts of a conversation of potential teams that can win the Pac-12. Yes, those Wildcats, the team selected to finish dead last in the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll with 61 votes, three votes behind Cal at 64. At 2-1 in the South Division, Arizona has an opportunity to literally go from worst to first, finishing at the bottom of the division a season ago.
Arizona will travel to Cal to take on the Golden Bears in what has become a game of significant importance. The last time Arizona and Cal faced each other was in the 2014 season in the infamous Hill Mary game.
With a win, Arizona would come home to take on Washington State, and have a chance to be bowl eligible. The Wildcats face just two ranked teams the remainder of the season, Washington State and USC, so a bowl game is not out of the realm of possibility, an outcome not likely just 10 days ago.
Tate’s impact has been far more than on the field. Due to his performance, the murmurs of Rodriguez losing his job have ceased and the attention towards the men’s basketball program has been displaced, temporarily.
Running back Nick Wilson has also benefited from the sudden attention Tate is receiving on the field. Against UCLA, Wilson rushed for 135 yards, his first 100-yard game since Grambling over a year ago. Wilson, according to Rodriguez, has lost weight in the same program Tate is a part of.
Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter