Football beat writer David Skinner and Rob Kleifield give their thoughts on some of the most notable topics surrounding Arizona football as the regular season comes to an end in two weeks.
Q. Arizona has suddenly found itself in contention for the Pac-12 South title which, a month ago, seemed nearly impossible. What’s been the key for the sudden turnaround?
David: For me, the second half of the season has been all about J.J. Taylor. The 5-foot-5 running back has been the workhorse, battering ram and pack mule for this Wildcat team. Khalil Tate’s health and the inconsistencies on the defensive side of the ball have weighed down a team with high expectations coming into this year. Taylor has quietly established himself as one of the nation’s best ball carriers as Tate’s play, or lack of it, has stolen much of the headlines this season. Taylor has carried this team to bowl contention, while also putting himself into position to collect some awards after the season ends.
Rob: I’ll sum up Arizona’s first ten games as a period of trial and error. We’ve seen a different team take the field the last two games — one that has hinged on its defense’s performance. As much as I’d like to say defensive coordinator Marcel Yates has finally found his groove leading the ‘Cats defense, I’m not entirely convinced that the third-year coach has been the biggest difference-maker in Arizona’s last two wins. I think Khalil Tate deserves that recognition slightly more than a defense that has finally started to play up to expectations. Tate hasn’t been as dynamic of a runner as he was last season, but his passing game has made tremendous strides as of late. His ability to stretch the field and keep defenses on their heels has opened up enormous lanes in the running game, and has translated to a breakout campaign for redshirt sophomore running back J.J. Taylor. In my mind, Tate’s consistent play — whether as a passer or runner — is the most important thing for Arizona moving forward.
Q. Khalil Tate has looked like a much better quarterback since sitting out the UCLA game. Should Arizona have rested him sooner?
David: Hindsight is 20/20, so I’m going cut Kevin Sumlin some slack on this decision, because Tate went down at the worst possible time for Arizona. But to answer the question, I think if there was a game to sit him, it would have been the Southern Utah game to rest up for the Pac-12 games, but the importance of getting the first win of the season was understandable. Sitting him for UCLA was the right move in my eyes, as the loss to the lowly Bruins and sitting out seemed to spark a fire inside the Inglewood-bred quarterback.
Rob: There’s no question that Tate looks reinvigorated since returning to the starting lineup versus Oregon, but I’m still not convinced that he is 100 percent healthy. If anything, I think sitting out against UCLA motivated Tate to rejoin the offense and reclaim his starting role; it’s not like Rhett Rodriguez was going to back down from the spotlight. I think Tate’s revival has been thanks to a combination of improved mobility in his ankle and his desire to silence his critics and get the ‘Cats back on track. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder why Arizona didn’t rest Tate sooner. If nothing else, the time out could have sparked something in Tate that we’re more or less beginning to see now. Hopefully, coming off of a bye week, Tate’s ankle will be as close to 100 percent as it has been all year.
Q. Arizona travels to Pullman this week to take on No. 8 Washington State. What’s your confidence level toward Arizona pulling off an upset?
David: A lot higher than it was a couple weeks ago for a couple reasons: For one, Arizona’s defense has shown not only signs of life, but signs of improvement, which has given me confidence. Second, Washington State hasn’t been incredibly convincing since their first half showing against Oregon where they looked like the nation’s most explosive offense. If Arizona’s defense has a night like they did against Oregon, they have a puncher’s chance. If not, it could be a long and cold night for Arizona in the Palouse.
Rob: After doubting the ‘Cats on Homecoming night versus Oregon, I’m convinced that anything is possible this weekend in Pullman. Pulling off an upset against the No. 8-ranked Cougars will be Arizona’s most difficult test of the season — but it’s not impossible. Cal stuck with Wazzu until the end several weekends ago, despite being a far inferior team. The Golden Bears nearly pulled off an upset behind a terrific defensive performance and a little luck thrown their way. Arizona will need all the luck they can get Saturday night, but more importantly, they’ll need to replicate the offensive success that they displayed versus Colorado and the defensive prowess they inflicted on the Ducks. If the ‘Cats can get off the field defensively, they should have ample opportunity to establish a dominant rushing attack. Time of possession will likely be more crucial than ever this weekend.
Q. When all is said and done the next two weeks, who will wind up winning the South?
David: I think Utah will sneak into the Pac-12 South, even with its two recent injuries to starting running back Zack Moss and starting quarterback Tyler Huntley. If you thought that I was going to be an unbiased media member and even think about picking Arizona State, then you are deeply mistaken. I think Arizona will be able to handle the Sun Devils in Tucson in front of a rabid and packed house after a Thanksgiving weekend that will have people rested and ready to get loud.
Rob: As much as it pains me to say, after the smoke clears at the end of the tunnel, I predict Arizona’s rival to win the South. I think Arizona State is playing its best football of the season and is riding enough momentum to clinch the division in Herm Edwards’ inaugural season. The Sun Devils have garnered valuable victories against USC, Utah and UCLA in recent weeks, and they’ve already demonstrated their ability to stick with the big dogs in the North. Edward’s team is loaded with talent at key positions and has an experienced leader behind center in Manny Wilkins. At the end of the day though, I’m picking Arizona State for two reasons: N’Keal Harry and Eno Benjamin. Harry is the best receiver in the country, and, after Utah’s Zack Moss suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice last week, Benjamin is the best back in the conference.