After suffering an embarrassing loss in Houston last week, the Arizona Wildcats returned home and won their first game of the season 62-31 on the back of an impressive passing performance from quarterback Khalil Tate and a strong second-half defensive stand against a stubborn Southern Utah University team.
Arizona is now 1-2 heading into Pac-12 play next week.
For Tate, who had been bottled up in the two games leading into tonight, his passing game marked a return to form. The junior quarterback posted an eye-popping stat line of 349 yards and five touchdowns on 13 of 20 passing attempts.
"I thought he played well," said head coach Kevin Sumlin.
Five of Tate's completions turned into gains of over 30 yards, including a 65-yard toss to Shun Brown and a 75-yard strike to Shawn Poindexter.
The game was initially close, with the score tied at 17-17 midway through the second quarter, but the Wildcats went on an offensive outburst of 31-straight points after that to put the rout on.
"We just made plays," said Tate of the offensive output. "Last week we just needed one more play, we were one play away from a touchdown."
Hailing from Cedar City, Utah, and playing out of the Big Sky Conference, the visiting Thunderbirds started the game strong, with junior quarterback Chris Helbig using both his arm and legs to set up a 32-yard field goal attempt that was missed by placekicker Manny Berz.
The Wildcats wasted no time responding, striking quickly with a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped by a 17-yard pass from Heisman-hopeful Tate to wide receiver Tony Ellison.
At the beginning of the second quarter, the Wildcats would strike again. J.J. Taylor took the kickoff 84 yards to the house, redeeming himself for an earlier lost fumble and pushing the lead to 14-3.
Southern Utah wouldn't be deterred, however. A methodical, 13-play drive capped off by an impressive 10-yard run by running back Jay Green cut the lead to 14-10. Once again, though, the Wildcats would answer, this time with a 32-yard field by Lucas Havrisik.
For the Wildcat defense, abused by Houston last week, the first half offered little in the way of positives. The unit allowed the Thunderbirds to play even with the Division I Wildcats throughout most of the first half.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect for the Wildcats' defense was Southern Utah's ability to keep possession with the rush in the first half, dominating the time of possession by going at the throat of Arizona's defense and keeping Tate off the field as much as possible.
Tate responded to the challenge, helping to give the 'Cats breathing room before the close of the first half, completing an 11-yard pass to Brown for a touchdown to give the 'Cats a 24-17 halftime lead.
That wouldn't be the last Tate-to-Brown connection on the evening.
Things would change on both sides of the ball in the second half as the defense began to settle in, holding the Thunderbirds scoreless in the third quarter before relenting and giving up a two-yard touchdown run in garbage time of the fourth quarter to make the score 48-24.
The defensive unit would also collect its first turnover of the season in the second half, an interception by safety Jarrius Wallace. After the game, Wallace said he was excited for the whole defense.
"It felt great to get [a turnover] for the entire defense," he said.
At the post-game press conference, offensive lineman Layth Friekh, who had been suspended the previous two games, spoke about how the defense knew it had to step up in the second half.
"We came to play," he said. "Everybody did their job, and we fired on all cylinders. We showed what we can do."
The 'Cats scored again in the third quarter after forcing the T-Birds to punt, this time on a Havrisik 35-yard field goal to push the lead to 34-17. From there, the rout was on. Tate would return to Brown again for a rocket, 65-yard pass to the senior receiver in the second half that resulted in an electrifying touchdown, extending the Wildcats' lead further.
The win, the first of Sumlin's tenure as head coach, was the first over Southern Utah in Arizona program history.
"Anytime you win its always good right?" Sumlin said. "Your first win is always something you remember, though, no matter where you're at."
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