We knew the Arizona Wildcats would beat Southern Utah, but they needed to win big to inspire some confidence after opening the season with two clunkers, and they did just that.
Khalil Tate, who was inconsistent the first two games, threw for a career-high 349 yards and five touchdowns, as the Wildcats pounded Southern Utah 62-31 to improve to 1-2, their first win under Kevin Sumlin.
“Anytime you win, it’s always good, right?” Sumlin said. “Your first win is something that you always remember. For us, we’ve been through a lot the last couple of weeks. You can take a deep breath right now, but it’s back to work tomorrow. We’ve got conference play.”
Arizona, which shuffled its offensive line due to the return of left tackle Layth Friekh, had no trouble moving the ball, amassing 626 yards and scoring on 10 of 12 drives.
“We try to not make excuses, but it does help to have him back,” Tate said. “He’s a great left tackle that I’m safe with.”
Tate was kept clean all night and completed 13 of 20 passes, including several down the field, as the Wildcats generated the explosive plays they’ve been searching for all season. The junior connected with Shawn Poindexter (75 yards), Shun Brown (65 yards), Tony Ellison (55 yards) and Devaughn Cooper (53 yards) for big gains.
“Like I’ve been saying, we were one play away and as you could see tonight, we made that one play and that showed in the outcome of the game,” Tate said.
The Wildcats found room to run, too. Gary Brightwell scampered for 86 yards on nine carries and J.J. Taylor had 54 yards on eight carries. Anthony Mariscal and Branden Leon each scored TDs in garbage time. Tate carried the ball four times for 19 yards and appeared to be favoring his left ankle at times.
One promising first-quarter drive ended with a Taylor fumble in SUU territory, but he made up for it by returning a squib kick for an 84-yard touchdown that put Arizona up 14-3 early in the second quarter.
It was UA’s first non-onside kick return for a touchdown since 2010 when Travis Cobb took one for six against Iowa.
While Shawn Poindexter had been UA’s go-to receiver in the first two weeks, it was Ellison and Brown receiving the bulk of the targets in this one. Ellison had four grabs for a career-best 114 yards. Brown had five catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Poindexter only had one catch but it went for a 75-yard score.
“There’s no secret formula, there’s nothing special we’re doing. It’s just going out there and trusting the coaches to put you in a successful position and that’s what we did tonight,” Ellison said.
After SUU clanked a 32-yard field goal off the uprights in its opening drive, Tate found Ellison deep for 55 yards then again for a 17-yard touchdown to give the Wildcats an early 7-0 lead.
“Whenever I’m in trouble I look for him,” Tate said. “He’s somebody that has sure hands and that helps a lot as a quarterback.”
The Thunderbirds cut the deficit to 14-10 and eventually tied it at 17-all with 2:39 in the second quarter after a 13-play, 75-yard drive in which they twice converted on 4th-and-1.
Arizona’s defense struggled to get off the field. Southern Utah was 10-22 on third down and 5-6 on fourth down. The Wildcats tightened up a little in the second half, but the defense is a major concern moving forward, especially with injuries mounting.
Defensive end Justin Belknap may be out for the season with a broken foot, defensive tackle PJ Johnson missed another game with a leg injury and Jace Whittaker played one series Saturday before sitting out the rest of the game.
“We were more of a four-down front today than we have been in previous weeks,” Sumlin said. “We’re missing a couple of people. You saw some guys in boots and on scooters that we could use, so the improvisation with personnel was as big as anything.”
The Thunderbirds racked up 468 yards on 98 plays and had the ball for over 37 minutes, forcing Arizona to rotate players in and out.
“It was a weird game in the fact that (our defense) was on the field the whole night,” Sumlin said. “I was just looking at the drive charts and I’ve never seen a drive chart like that. The longest time we had the ball the whole time was two minutes, and we didn’t punt, so that puts a lot of pressure on your defense.
“We’ve got to get off the field on third down.”
The positives: The Wildcats got their first sacks (Anthony Pandy and Kylan Wilborn) and their first takeaway (a Jarrius Wallace interception in garbage time) of the season.
“It feels great to get one for the whole entire defense. That’s what we wanted, to get some momentum,” Wallace said. “We have to get one to get two so hopefully we go into Pac-12 play causing turnovers and getting picks.”
Pandy said the Wildcats need to be more physical on defense.
“It’s just a mindset, because we have the best strength coaches in the country right now,” he said. “We just have to want it more.”
Tate found Brown on a rollout for an 11-yard touchdown just before halftime to put Arizona up 24-17, then threw a two-yard TD pass to Cedric Peterson to open the third quarter.
Lucas Havrisik made a 35-yard field goal on Arizona’s next drive to extend the lead to 34-17, and then Tate found a wide-open Brown for a 65-yard touchdown to make it 41-17 with 8:14 left in the third. After UA’s defense got a fourth-down stop deep in its own territory, Tate found Poindexter for a 75-yard touchdown.
Tate’s 17.45 yards per pass attempt set an Arizona school record.
“It’s a new offense. It takes time with anybody and Khalil is the best quarterback in the country and now he’s rolling,” Friekh said.
Mariscal bolted for a 33-yard touchdown to make it 55-24 and Leon later plunged in for a one-yard TD after Wallace’s interception.
The Wildcats will head to Corvallis next weekend to take on Oregon State to open Pac-12 play. The Beavers (1-2) missed a last-second field goal in a 37-35 loss to Nevada on Saturday.