Arizona entered the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s contest versus Cal clinging onto a 3-point lead. Cal’s deficit would eventually grow, but not before giving the Wildcats everything they had. Despite an efficient start for both sides of the ball, the Wildcats' confidence and production vanished before halftime. Fortunately, for Arizona, their defense stole the show in a second half that ultimately led to their 24-17 win. Here are the five defining moments of tonight’s game:
1. Jamarye Joiner fills in for Tate, for a series
Rumors circulated pregame that Joiner may be in line for some playing time against Cal. Nobody expected the local high school star to take starting snaps in place of Tate, but when Joiner began working with the second-team offense during the week of practice, the idea of a true freshman taking the reins no longer seemed foreign. So, when Tate appeared to aggravate his ankle injury late in the first quarter against Cal, Joiner’s name again popped into the discussion.
Likely worried by Tate’s ability to contribute on the ground and facing a porous Cal rushing defense, Arizona’s coaching staff made the decision to insert Joiner into the game during the offense’s first series of the second quarter. The move winded up being extremely premature. Joiner took three snaps, rushed for 2-yards and was dropped for a six-yard loss on third down.
As a result, Tate rejoined the lineup on the ensuing offensive series, however, the decision proved costly. Arizona’s offense lost any and all rhythm it had acquired during its 10-point first quarter. Even if Joiner’s usage was merely to spell Tate – Kevin Sumlin mentioned that Joiner was supposed to see the field on the team’s third series no matter what – it diminished the offense’s confidence, and in turn caused Arizona’s defense to revert back to its old ways.
2. McIlwain makes Schooler miss
Exiting a timeout, Brandon McIlwain brushed off an attempted tackle by Arizona’s all-everything linebacker. Although Colin Schooler was able to slow Cal’s quarterback down, his teammates failed to flock to the football, resulting in McIlwain’s second rushing touchdown of the evening. Although Arizona’s defense regrouped after the break, McIlwain’s second trip to pay dirt emphasized a trend that has plagued the Wildcats defense all season long – stopping the run.
Perhaps though, McIlwain’s dash to the end zone right before halftime was exactly the motivation Arizona’s defense needed. After allowing the Golden Bears' dual-threat signal-caller to run rampant for 85 yards, the Wildcats did a much better job of containing the opposition in the second half. McIlwain managed to find some success in the passing game, but it wasn’t without eventual mistakes. Thanks to Arizona’s defense buckling down against the run after halftime, the Wildcats were able to force McIlwain into throwing more often than he would have liked.
3. Tate tries triple-coverage
Tate has yet to compose a performance that mirrors his 2017 breakout campaign. Hindered primarily by a bum ankle, the one-time Heisman candidate has been forced to alter his style of play. Through five games Tate regularly displayed the rare ability to perfectly place deep throws down the sideline. His biggest knock to date as a passer has been his decision making. After refuting that he remembered throwing an interception in the post-game press conference following last weekend’s defeat to USC, Tate filled the sky with several errant throws on Saturday night.
Near the beginning of the third quarter, a stare down for the ages highlighted Tate’s debatable execution. Aiming downfield, Tate blatantly kept his eyes on his intended target for the duration of the play. After rolling slightly out to his left and setting his feet, Tate fired a missile into triple-coverage.
RELATED: Families bond through sports
The attempted pass was easily picked off, gifting Cal even more momentum than they seized before heading into the locker room for halftime. Despite Tate’s ongoing struggles, his third-quarter interception likely changed his mindset for the remainder of the game. Although his ankle was still a visible ailment, Tate chose to tuck the ball and run on multiple occasions later in the game. His wheels may not have been as explosive as last season, but the conscious decision to tuck-it-and-go proves that Tate was attempting to take care of the football and conserve time of possession, both of which are signs of good things to come.
4. Colin’s INT turns into Hearn’s TD
Schooler secured Arizona’s first tackle of the game in Cal’s backfield, an act he’s replicated in seemingly each quarter of every game. The sophomore linebacker visibly impacted the Wildcats defense from the start of Saturday night’s match up, playing with maximum effort and sporting relentless energy. His attitude had an immense impact on his teammates and the flow of the game, as did his third quarter interception. Sinking deep into coverage in the middle of the field, Schooler played the eyes of Cal quarterback McIlwain perfectly, securing his attempted pass and immediately darting towards the sideline.
As strong as Schooler is, his lack of experience as a ball carrier resulted in one of Cal’s offensive players knocking the ball free just past midfield. Thankfully, Arizona cornerback Azizi Hearn scooped up the loose ball fumble in stride and capitalized Schooler’s supposed house call. The wild play changed the outcome of the game, putting the Wildcats back in the driver’s seat, 17-14.
5. Scottie Young’s late INTs
Young corralled a pair of picks in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s game. The first came with eight minutes to play and consisted of a lengthy return by Young, eventually running out of bounds – and gas – just outside of Cal’s red zone. The second was a game-clinching pick-six that caused a riot along Arizona’s sideline.
The Wildcats have been desperate for takeaways, logging just one interception prior to tonight’s game. Young, who missed game action earlier in the season, has suddenly emerged as one of Arizona’s top playmakers in the secondary. Not only did his two interceptions add to the Wildcats season-high four takeaways, they also took the life right out of Cal’s comeback.
As for the Golden Bears, McIlwain strayed away from the run game in the second half, the Wildcats found themselves in an advantageous position. Forcing Cal into pass-heavy situations is exactly what the doctor ordered for Arizona. McIlwain may have surpassed 300-yards passing, but it was only a matter of time before he began to force the football. By seizing the moment, Young secured Arizona’s third win of the Sumlin era.
Follow Rob Kleifield on Twitter