The 58-37 upset of No. 15 Washington State by the unranked University of Arizona Wildcats last night is the fourth straight win with Khalil Tate under center.
Over that span of four games, the true sophomore quarterback has thrown for 852 yards and has run for another 743. Those are the kind of stats that have resulted in Tate’s growing celebrity and, in some circles, made him a late entry into this year’s Heisman trophy discussions.
The story of the 18-year-old’s sudden rise to prominence has attracted the attention of top media outlets like Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports, ESPN, and others who have noticed what’s happening in the Old Pueblo.
So, naturally, the one burning question that is festering in the minds of Wildcat Nation…“What if?”
What if…Tate had been the starting quarterback from the beginning, before Arizona limped out of the gates with a disappointing 2-2 record, something that gave their fans serious cause for concern after last year’s abysmal 3-9 finish?
There was a stable of six quarterbacks vying for this year’s starting job, but it pretty much boiled down to Tate and redshirt junior Brandon Dawkins, both of whom had experience from the previous season. Head coach Rich Rodriguez didn’t announce his decision until just before the opener, deciding to go with Dawkins.
Dawkins had proven himself on the field during the 2016 season, throwing for 1,348 yards and eight touchdowns, despite missing significant playing time with injuries. His 7.2 yards per carry when called upon to run the ball is the most by an Arizona quarterback since at least 1958 and his 94.4 rushing yards per game ranked fourth-best in the Pac-12, the only quarterback among the conference’s top 10 rushers.
Rodriguez had hoped to be able to redshirt Tate last season, but the early departure (prior to his senior season) of Anu Solomon, who had led the Cats to the Pac-12 South title in 2014, combined with the injuries to Dawkins forced Rodriguez to turn to Tate. The true freshman played in seven games last season, passing for 243 yards and rushing for another 237 yards.
Arizona’s wild ride this season with Tate at the controls began in the fifth game on the schedule when Dawkins took a late hit out of bounds on the opening drive against Colorado and the coaching staff decided to keep their starting quarterback on the sidelines for precautionary measures.
Tate, who had been through some injuries himself earlier in the season, led the Wildcats to a 45-42 victory, and in the process set a new FBS rushing record for quarterbacks. His 327 yards was also the second-most in school history. He ran for four touchdowns in that game and added a fifth via the pass while throwing for 142 yards.
The timing may have been right for a change. Dawkins was coming off a terrible performance in the Pac-12 opener against Utah, a 24-30 loss in which he threw three interceptions and fumbled the ball away to kill a scoring drive in the final minutes of the game.
Tate followed up the Colorado victory with wins over UCLA and California before taking down Washington State last night at home. He was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week after each of his first three outings, the first player to win three consecutive times. After his performance last night, he could be in line for a fourth. (*Update 10/30: Tate became the first player to win four consecutive Pac-12 Player of the Week awards and one of only two to win four in a single season; the other was USC quarterback Matt Barkley.)
He rushed for 158 yards against the visiting Cougars (7-2, 4-2), averaging 11.2 yards per carry, and completed 10 of 17 pass attempts for 275 more yards. That passing performance was against the team with the Pac-12’s second-best scoring defense, one that hadn’t allowed more than 27 points in a game coming into last night’s contest.
The Cougars were a dangerous opponent to invite to Homecoming game. On top of that, this was a team that humiliated the Wildcats last season in a 69-7 loss in Pullman. How sweet is revenge!
But Tate didn’t have to carry the rushing load against the Cougars. J.J. Taylor, a 5’6″ redshirt freshman from California, had a break-out game, piling up 157 yards on 13 carries. After Tate was intercepted midway through the third quarter and the Cougars turned it into a touchdown to take a 27-23 lead, it was Taylor who ran for 62 yards, and then three yards into the end zone to give Arizona the lead back, one the Cats would hold the rest of the way.
With Arizona State’s loss last night to USC, Rodriguez & Co. find themselves alone in second place in the Pac-12 South. The Trojans (7-2, 5-1) currently sit atop the division – and will host the Wildcats (6-2, 4-1) next Saturday.
So if Tate can put up at least one more encore performance, Arizona could move to the top of the mountain.
Not bad for a team that won just three games last year.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics/ Chris Hook)