As the embers of the Homecoming bonfire breathed their last breath, the Arizona Wildcats defeated the No.19-ranked Oregon Ducks in Arizona Stadium to put a ceremonial bow on the week-long festivities, beating the Ducks 44-15.
Quarterback Khalil Tate returned from injury and started for the Wildcats, turning in his best performance of the season with 189 yards passing and three touchdowns. Running back J.J. Taylor added another strong game to his growing resume as the sophomore ran for 212 yards and two touchdowns.
The Wildcats came into the contest as a five-loss team backed into a corner, forced to scratch and claw its way out of the seemingly two-month funk that saw a team with so much preseason hope re-evaluate its seasonal goals midway through its campaign.
With last week’s loss against UCLA putting the Wildcat’s bowl chances in jeopardy, Arizona answered the bell against an Oregon team led by a potential top-five pick in next spring's NFL Draft in dual-threat quarterback Justin Herbert. Arizona limited him to a 24-48 passing performance that saw him tally 248 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, with about one-third of the passing yards coming in garbage time.
Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin couldn't praise his defense enough after the game.
"I thought we tackled well, we really didn't let the ball get overhead for big plays," Sumlin said. "We rushed the passer really well; we made [Herbert] a little uncomfortable, because when he sits in there and has time, he's something else."
RELATED: Arizona vs Oregon halftime recap
The Wildcats frustrated the highly touted prospect from the opening kickoff, making him complete throws on the run while being under constant pressure from the scrappy and resilient Wildcat defense that has been the Achilles' heel of this Arizona team all season.
In the biggest game of the season, Marcel Yates’ defense never shied away. The Wildcats forced three fumbles, recovering one, while Arizona’s Scottie Young Jr. picked off Herbert’s desperate heave down the sideline. This only added to the misery that enveloped the Ducks' offense through the first two frames, as the visitors only mustered a single touchdown with 124 yards on 33 plays.
The Wildcats' struggles defending on third downs have been well documented, as has Oregon’s ability to convert them – the Ducks entered this matchup converting just under half of them on the season. Arizona’s struggles seemed to evaporate into the dry Tucson air as Oregon converted just one out of its eight attempts on third down, even having a period where the team went three-and-out on three consecutive drives.
Tate and the Wildcat offense took advantage of a defense that was lacking rest, jumping out to a 16-point lead with just over 11 minutes to play in the first half. The quick start laid the foundation for Arizona to be able to work the clock and limit the amount of times Herbert and the Oregon offense had the ball as they entered the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility at halftime with 23-8 lead.
This was Tate’s first game back since leaving the game in the first quarter against Utah in Salt Lake two weeks ago, and his return seemed to revitalize the offense. Tate kept the Ducks' defense on their toes all game, mixing in smart runs to extend plays and move the chains while also using the short passing game to build back his confidence.
Arizona's dynamic quarterback was relieved to put his early season obstacles and struggles seemingly behind him.
"I felt like it was a long time coming," Tate said. "We haven't been playing well all year and it was the first time we played all four quarters offensively and defensively, and we came out with the win."
The passing game wasn’t the only thing clicking for the ‘Cats, as Arizona continued to feed its workhorse, J.J. Taylor, with the Wildcats breaking the century mark in rushing yards in just two quarters while finishing the night with 30 carries and 212 yards and two scores. This further establishing Taylor as one of the Pac-12's most dangerous running backs.
Sumlin could not say enough about the Wildcat star running back after the game, commenting on his play but also his character.
"[Taylor] is a great example to our younger players, just how he approaches his daily life on and off the field," said Sumlin. "The way he approaches the game, very intelligent player and young man. He is a guy who is a leader, but also is a guy who pushes other people. He is a great example for this program ... as a competitor, as a person and just how he approaches everything."
The second half went very similarly to the first one, as Arizona took advantage of Herbert’s poor decisions, while also sticking to the game plan and not making any mistakes. Tate’s eight-yard touchdown toss to Shawn Poindexter four minutes into the third quarter put the game essentially out of reach, taking the wind out of the visitors' sails.
The Wildcats weren’t satisfied, as they continued to pressure the Ducks, making sure that the upset they worked so hard for was going to come to fruition, as Shun Brown’s 27-yard touchdown catch from Tate and ensuing celebration all but extended the Homecoming celebrations.
Arizona beat a ranked Oregon team for the fourth time since 2007 and the third time in Arizona Stadium, as the scrappy Wildcats pulled off the semi-unthinkable to snap their two-game losing streak.
When asked if this win was a glimpse into the program's future, as Sumlin notched his first top-25 win as head coach, he didn't get too ahead of himself, yet he let it be known what his future expectations are.
"That's what we want to be," said Sumlin. "That's our goal. To be a top-25 team. In order to do that, we have to beat teams in that range. That's where we want to be at, but we have a long ways to go."
If the Wildcat team that showed up on Saturday night shows up for the rest of the season, Wildcat fans might just have to add another football game to their schedules on the fridge.
Follow David Skinner on Twitter