It’s never easy to ask a group of young men to get their minds ready for a game a day earlier than usual. But, that’s exactly what the Arizona football team will be asked to do just six days after the first signature win of the Kevin Sumlin-led era.
Arizona hosts the Colorado Buffaloes on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. It won’t be the first time that Sumlin’s team has played under the Friday night lights this season, but hopefully, for Arizona’s sake, they’ll approach it as if it were.
The last time the Wildcats took the field on a Friday night, they were trounced 42-10 by Utah. In hindsight, though, the Utes may have done the ‘Cats a favor.
Sophomore quarterback Rhett Rodriguez ended up salvaging Arizona’s pride in Salt Lake City – when he relieved Tate and freshman Jamarye Joiner from action in the second half versus Utah – and even managed to put his team in position to win a close game the following week at the Rose Bowl.
Ultimately, Arizona failed to garner a win in Tate’s absence, but the shuffle behind center may very well have been the spark that this team, so desperately, needed.
In Tate’s return to form – not on the ground, but through the air – the Wildcats went Duck hunting, defeating then No.19 ranked Oregon, 44-15.
For the first time all season, it felt like Arizona was capable of living up to its highly touted offseason expectations.
Instead of being a one-man offensive dynamo, Arizona’s defense stole the show, demonstrating that defensive coordinator Marcel Yates might actually have the wherewithal to dial up an efficient game plan.
The ‘Cats limited Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert – who some NFL scouts have dubbed as a potential top-ten draft pick – to just 186-yards passing, good enough for a measly 35.8 QBR (quarterback rating).
Tate connected with speedster Shun Brown for a career-high 10 receptions, and Arizona’s once-lifeless rushing attack leaned on J.J. Taylor en route to a career-high 30 carry, 212-yard performance.
In doing so, Sumlin’s team defied all odds – and restored hope to the possibility of going ‘bowling’ later this year.
Arizona will need to collect a pair of victories down the final three-game stretch in order to become bowl eligible, but after last weekend’s improbable upset, nothing is off the table.
On Friday night against Colorado, the ‘Cats will look to build off of their most dominant performance of the season.
Perhaps, even, Tate will look to reestablish the most instinctive part of his game.
Colorado is, after all, the team responsible for thrusting Tate into the Wildcats starting lineup last season.
Before busting loose for 327-yards rushing – a single-game NCAA record for a quarterback – versus the Buffs, and causing Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre a lifetime supply of nightmares, Tate was eagerly awaiting an opportunity to make his mark in Rich Rodriguez’s offense.
Now, Tate will gear up to remind Colorado fans just whose house they’re visiting – and to be weary of any leftovers from last year’s brilliant display of speed and athleticism.
Tate may not be an overnight sensation anymore, but he has started to develop into a viable asset throwing the football – and even more importantly, he’s recently shown that he’s willing to take on a leadership role for the ‘Cats.
After last week’s win over Oregon, Tate flashed his million-dollar smile in the postgame press conference. It marked the first time all season long that he’s seemed to enjoy what he and his teammates were out there doing.
It makes a whole lot of sense. Sometimes all anyone needs is some perspective.
Tate admitted that it felt unusual to roam the sidelines during Rodriguez’s first career start at UCLA. It was the first time in his football career that he’s missed a game due to injury. And, he likely found himself wishing it to be the last.
No matter which Tate shows up for Friday night’s game – the elusive dual-threat capable of lowering his shoulder and making defenders miss, or the conservative passer willing to occasionally stretch the field – one thing will be for certain: his teammates will be ready for the test.
Arizona is no longer a one-man wrecking crew, and it’s definitely for the best. Taylor ranks third in the FBS, averaging 175.44 all-purpose yards per game. He’ll largely be counted on as Arizona’s primary back, again, this week after fellow ball carrier Gary Brightwell suffered an ankle injury in the onslaught of the Ducks.
Veteran receiver Shawn Poindexter has flourished in his jump ball role out-wide. Through nine games, he’s nearly doubled his career reception and yardage totals. Poindexter’s six touchdown grabs is tied for third in the Pac-12 this season.
Defensively, Colin Schooler’s consistent play at the second level has helped elevate the games of safeties Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and Scottie Young Jr.
Along the defensive line, Dereck Boles, PJ Johnson and Finton Connolly have all made major strides, reinforcing the efforts of Arizona’s entire front-seven.
Most noticeably, the ‘Cats defense is beginning to play with some swagger.
Yates has taken his fair share of criticism in his third year leading the defense, but if Saturday’s performance against Oregon was a sign of what’s to come, then there may not be a cloud looming over his head for much longer.
Another strong defensive showing versus the Buffs will bode well for Yates’ future at Arizona – as well as the Wildcats chances of becoming bowl eligible this season.
After last weekend’s shocking performance, it’s impossible to count the ‘Cats out just yet.
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