It’s amazing what a single month can do for the Arizona Wildcats’ season outlook.
In September, it looked like the same miserable season that everyone in Tucson endured a year ago was happening again. After looking good against FCS opponent Northern Arizona and winless UTEP, trying to find four possible wins within the conference slate was as challenging as doing taxes.
One quarterback change later and the Wildcats are now ranked for the first time since 2015 and will travel to USC with first place in the Pac-12 South on the line. The Trojans are one of five Pac-12 teams that are undefeated at home, but Arizona is the only team in the conference that is undefeated on the road.
Thanks to quarterback Khalil Tate, the Wildcats have scored more points than anyone else in the conference — 40 more than the next team, the 5-4 Oregon Ducks. In the four games that Tate has started in, the lowest scoring total for the Wildcats was 45.
Not only has the offense has been transformed into a juggernaut, but it also Twitter-friendly too. If you live in the East Coast, like me, having Arizona games on the Pac-12 Networks can be the bane of your fandom’s existence. However, most of the scoring plays have been explosive runs from Tate that can easily be packaged and viewed by everyone via Twitter.
“We’ve had more explosive plays in this four game stretch than I can remember, which is a good thing,” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said during his weekly press conference.
The way Tate ran in his first two games was something that Arizona fans have never seen before. Against Colorado, Tate outran the opposing team by himself and 208 of his 327 rushing yards have been on scoring plays (58, 28, 47, 75). Against UCLA, Tate started the blowout with a 45-yard touchdown run and insured Wildcat fans that their first win over the Bruins since 2011 would be well at hand with a 75-yard touchdown dash.
“When you do put the safeties down, and do play Cover 0, and you can burst through the first or second level it bodes well for big plays,” Rodriguez said. “You’re taking a risk not just in the pass game, but also in the run game. If you bring all eleven in the box it tends to lead to big runs. That’s what has happened in some of these last few games.”
Tate ran for another 75-yard score against California in the first quarter but played a more balanced game in order to keep pace with the Golden Bears and win in overtime. Washington State came into Arizona Stadium ranked No. 15 — and with a top-20 defense — and didn’t even stand a chance against the Wildcats.
Unlike his first two games, Arizona saw a more balanced offense light up the Twitter timeline with a 48-yard pass from Tate to Jamie Nunley in the first quarter, a 79-yard run by J.J Taylor to keep the Wildcats up by double-digits in the third quarter and 49-yard touchdown run by Tate in the fourth quarter, just for old time’s sake.
Tate’s play has people thinking that the Wildcats are back to what they were in 2014, but it wasn’t like he fell from the sky a month ago. Tate played in seven games last season and was the first true freshman to start for the Wildcats since Willie Tuitama in 2005. That first start came against USC at home and before his 18th birthday, and it was rough.
It’s amazing how much change can occur in just a year.
“It’s his second year in the system,” Rodriguez said, “so certainly he knows the system a little better. His timing will keep improving as his career goes along. He’s always had a great natural throwing motion, it’s just understanding the offense and the timing of it, and each particular play. That’s what is overlooked a lot of times in the pass game, the timing of it all, not only from a quarterback’s standpoint but a receivers as well. It’s been good in a couple of the big plays the last few weeks.”
Tate is now the type of player that gives an upstart team like Arizona legitimacy going into the stretch run of the season.