Khalil Tate got injured and hardly played in the second half, ultimately leading to UA’s demise (along with some poor special teams play, and we will address that in a second).
Our full recap can be found here, and here are some positive and negative takeaways from the game:
Yes, Arizona gave up 42 points, but that number is not exactly representative of how the defense played.
ASU was held to 390 yards, the second-lowest mark a Pac-12 opponent has posted against Arizona all season.
The Sun Devils averaged 4.6 yards per carry, but that number is also inflated by a 62 yard scamper by Demario Richard that happened with the game out of reach. Take that run out and ASU ran for 162 yards on 48 carries (3.4 ypc) — an admirable performance by the UA defense that was without two starters on its defensive line in Justin Belknap and Luca Bruno. Tight end Trevor Wood even saw a few snaps at defensive end.
Arizona’s defense got burned by its offense and special teams. Arizona only had 188 yards of offense in the second half, and had several quick drives that didn’t give the defense time to breathe. And the punting game was so disastrous that it gave ASU a short-field to work with several times.
The Sun Devils had three drives in the second half start at the UA 33-yard line or closer and would have had a fourth if they didn’t touch that botched punt by Josh Pollack (more on that later).
Arizona’s defense received a lot of criticism the last several weeks — and rightfully so — but it certainly wasn’t the reason UA lost the Territorial Cup.
Also, shoutout to freshman linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II. They each had a sack and double-digit tackles, and are a reason to be optimistic about this program’s future.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Lorenzo Burns tallied his fifth interception, too, becoming the first UA defensive back to have five interceptions since Trevin Wade in 2009.
There’s a ton of young talent on that side of the ball.
Before being sidelined by a left shoulder injury, Khalil Tate looked sharper than ever. The sophomore quarterback completed 10 of his 11 pass attempts in the first half, with that one incompletion coming on a Hail Mary at the end of the second quarter.
Unfortunately, he got popped pretty badly on that play and would eventually be replaced by Brandon Dawkins in the second half, which did not go well.
Tate’s value to the Wildcats was more apparent than ever. Without him, this team probably wins four or five games at best.
The biggest concern — as it seems to be the case with all of Rich Rodriguez quarterbacks — is Tate staying healthy.
When Arizona’s passing game stalled with Dawkins at quarterback, Taylor churned out some difficult yards to keep the chains moving.
Taylor wound up finishing with 12 carries for 74 yards and a touchdown. He also caught a five-yard pass from Tate that appeared to be a touchdown, but was ruled down at the 1-yard line.
Taylor probably should have gotten more touches as Nick Wilson had 15 carries for just 51 yards.
Rich Rod’s playcalling
The Hail Mary that got Tate hurt (or at least got him more hurt, as Rodriguez said he was ailing before that play) should have never happened.
Up 24-14, Arizona had the ball at its own 45-yard line with a minute left in the first half, and was content with running the clock out, for whatever reason.
Arizona ran the ball three times, let time tick off, and then had Tate heave a pass into the end zone as the clock hit triple zeros. While doing so, a pair of ASU defenders put a huge hit on Tate, who never returned to form afterwards which is the No. 1 reason UA lost the game.
What didn’t make sense: One, Tate was 10 for 10 entering that drive and there was more than enough time for the UA to throw the ball to get into field goal range or even score a touchdown.
Two, if Rodriguez was OK with taking a 24-14 lead into halftime, he should have just had Tate kneel and end the half right then and there, rather than leave him susceptible to a hit on an unlikely Hail Mary.
Personally, I would have gone for that first option and tried to score. The Wildcats had all the momentum up until that point and going up 31-14 or even 27-14 at the half — and getting the ball at the start of the third quarter — could have devastated ASU.
Rodriguez didn’t regret his course of action in that final minute, but he did admit that his playcalling in the fourth quarter when the UA got stopped at the goal line could have been better.
“I wish I had those two plays over and would certainly call different plays,” he said.
Aside from the injury to Tate, the other reason Arizona lost was because of its punting game, if you can even call it that.
Arizona punted five times for 114 yards — a 22.8-yard average. Seriously, the best punt was courtesy of tight end Trevor Wood, who punted for 40 yards.
That meant ASU had favorable field position all game.
Jake Glatting had two punts for 74 yards, but also dropped the snap on another which resulted in his attempt being blocked and returned to the UA 5-yard line. ASU scored a few players later to cut UA’s lead to 24-21 at the beginning of the third quarter — a huge swing in momentum.
The most laughable punt attempt was by Josh Pollack who dropped a perfectly-placed snap and kicked the ball with his left foot to avoid the oncoming rush. The ball traveled like 10 yards, but it hit a Sun Devil and was recovered by Arizona, giving the UA a first down.
Arizona has had trouble punting all season, and Rodriguez summed the mess up with this comment after the game:
“Holy cow, a Division I team and we can’t punt? We can’t catch a snap and punt the ball? It’s just unfathomable," he said. "Kids are trying, but it’s kind of remarkable."
At the beginning of the season I predicted Arizona would finish 5-7, and the Wildcats were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South. So you would think finishing 7-5 with a trip to a bowl game would be a successful season.
It sort of is from that standpoint, but then you think about how many games they let slip away and it’s agonizing.
The losses to Utah and Houston probably don’t happen if Tate is the starting quarterback/not injured at the beginning of the year, and the loss to ASU was most definitely a winnable game.
So, yes, Arizona was 7-5 and exceeded everyone’s expectations, but a few small changes and the Wildcats come away with eight or nine wins.
Plus, finishing the regular season on a two-game losing streak, including a loss to ASU, is certainly not the way you want to head into the postseason. All that excitement after Tate’s emergence has waned significantly.
On a brighter note, Arizona fans will likely get to enjoy a trip to Las Vegas instead of the Sun Bowl in El Paso.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire