How would a Khalil Tate-led Arizona offense handle Washington State’s stingy, speedy defense?
That was the question heading into Saturday’s game in Tucson, and Tate and the Wildcats provided a clear answer.
The sophomore quarterback threw for a career-high 275 yards, rushed for 146 yards, and had three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing), as the Arizona Wildcats beat the No. 15 Washington State Cougars 58-37 in front of 42,822 at Arizona Stadium.
It's the fourth win in a row for the Wildcats (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) who are now bowl eligible, a half game behind USC (who they face next week) for the Pac-12 South lead, and still seemingly unstoppable with Tate at quarterback.
Arizona tallied 585 yards of offense against WSU, which entered with a top-20 defense — the biggest proof yet that Tate's emergence isn't a flash in the pan.
Arizona's offense was as explosive as ever, rattling off rushing plays of 82, 79, and 62 yards, and passing plays of 68, 48, 43, and 41 yards as Tate's touch was on display yet again.
J.J. Taylor ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries, breaking off runs of 62 yards and 79 yards.
Arizona averaged 11.5 yards per play, 27.5 yards per completion, and 9.1 yards per rush.
The Wildcats' defense surrendered 649 yards to the Cougars, but continued its penchant for generating turnovers, coming up with four as it did just enough to beat the 15th-ranked team from Pullman.
Lorenzo Burns, Colin Schooler, Tony Fields II, and Jace Whittaker all had interceptions of..... not Luke Falk, but Tyler Hilinski.
Looking for a Tate-like spark of their own, WSU summoned Hilinski in for a struggling Falk late in the first half, and while he was more effective than Falk, who was inaccurate and struggled to see the field, Hilinski's four interceptions loomed large.
Hilinski was 45 for 61 for 502 yards, two touchdowns, and the four picks. He also showed some mobility, rushing for two touchdowns.
Falk was 13 for 23 for 93 yards and a touchdown before being removed. Falk was 32 of 25 for 311 yards and four touchdowns in a 69-7 win over Arizona last year.
The game of the year is next for the Wildcats, as they face the No. 21 USC Trojans in Los Angeles next Saturday with first place in the Pac-12 South on the line.
"This game we talked about redemption and relevance and that was the last thing I said before the game," UA head coach Rich Rodriguez said beating after WSU.
"I said that we had the chance to be relevvant by beating a top-25 team. Every player wants to be relevant. The more you win the more there is at stake and we have a pretty big one next week."
Third down defense
While Arizona struggled to get any sort of pass rush on WSU's quarterbacks and left receivers open quite often, it did limit WSU to 4-18 on third down, a sizable improvement from the 13-19 mark Cal posted last week.
The Wildcats also did a nice job stopping the run, holding the Cougars to just 44 rushing yards. WSU's longest run went for 11 yards.
Arizona's running game certainly had its ups and downs
While Arizona ran for 310 yards and four touchdowns, for most of the game, it had trouble manufacturing yards on the ground.
WSU was focused on defending the edge, forcing the Wildcats between the tackles. It worked for a while — Arizona's running backs had nine carries for six yards at one points and even Tate was bottled up — but eventually the Wildcats broke through and started gashing the Cougars for big yards.
Perfect start nearly ruined
Arizona had a terrific start to the game. The Wildcats won the coin toss and took the ball.
Tate connected with Shawn Poindexter for 42 yards down the middle of the field, which turned into a 30-yard field goal for Josh Pollack.
The Wildcats then forced a three-and-out, and Tate followed that up with a 48-yard touchdown pass to Jamie Nunley to put UA 10-0 with 9:04 left in the first quarter (Nunley later caught a 68-yard pass).
Then, things got a little dicey.
Arizona got yet another stop but Shun Brown muffed a punt deep in Arizona territory, which WSU turned into a touchdown, cutting Arizona's lead to 10-7.
Arizona caught a break on WSU's next possession as a Cougar receiver dropped a sure touchdown, forcing the Cougars to settle for a long field which was missed, shifting the momentum back to Arizona's side.
Shortly after, Tate connected with Brown for a 17-yard TD pass to put UA up 17-7. Tate then appeared to run for an 84-yard TD, but he stepped out at the two-yard line and Arizona eventually settled for another short field goal, making it 20-7 with 2:56 left in the half.
That's when Hilinski entered and immediately led a long TD drive with 10 seconds left in the half to make it 20-14.
Which gets me to this next point.
Not your typical college kicker
After WSU scored with 10 seconds left, Tyrell Johnson had a long kick return, putting Arizona at WSU's 39 yard line with literally one second left in the half.
In came true freshman Lucas Havrisik to attempt the 56-yard field goal, and he drilled it with several yards to spare, putting UA up 23-14 at the break.
WSU actually led in the second half
The start of the second half was just as mind-boggling as the end of the first.
Hilinski drove WSU into UA territory before forcing a pass into triple coverage, which was intercepted by Tony Fields II.
But two plays later, Tate fumbled to give WSU another shot and Hilinski would complete his next three passes, capped by an eight-yard touchdown catch by Tay Martin to trim UA’s lead to 23-20 (PAT was missed).
Tate was intercepted two plays later on a deflected pass (the refs missed a PI) and WSU would take the lead shortly after on Hilinski’s second rushing TD.
But Arizona would re-take the lead two plays later (this was #Pac12AfterDark at its finest) thanks to a 62-yard run by J.J. Taylor and then a two-yard plunge by the diminutive back.
Taylor had a 79-yard TD drive later to make it 37-27.
Erik Powell reponded with a 56-yard field goal of his own to make it 37-30, but that's as close as the Cougars would get.
Tate broke free for a patented 49-yard rushing TD to make it 44-30 with 12:50 left in the fourth, then Schooler got a 66-yard pick-six to make it 51-30 with just under 10 minutes left.
The teams then traded touchdowns later in the fourth.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire