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Why the Stanford game is Khalil Tate’s last stand as Arizona’s starting quarterback

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Arizona at USC Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

From the moment he entered the game in place of an injured Brandon Dawkins and ran past, around and through the Colorado Buffaloes on October 7, 2017, Khalil Tate had the look of a star.

A sophomore, he was unstoppable as a runner and at times showed potential as a passer. The belief was with a little grooming, he could go down as not only one of the best quarterbacks in Arizona Wildcats history, but even find himself in New York after the season ends hoping to win a trophy.

Tate’s first season under new coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff was hardly smooth, but he still showed improved passing ability while battling injuries for most of the year. Healthy, as a senior with experience in the offense, he was set to explode.

But after seven games — six of which he started — Tate’s star, which just a couple years ago seemed destined shine brighter than any before it, is poised to burn out and fade away.

Saturday afternoon in Palo Alto, as the Wildcats take on the Stanford Cardinal, Khalil Tate will be making his last stand.

How could he not be?

Sumlin, who has made the decision to pull Tate from each of the last two games, seems steadfast in his commitment to the senior quarterback. It’s understandable, especially since just a few weeks ago Tate had arguably the best passing game of his career against Colorado, and you would not be foolish if you believed he gave the team its best chance to win.

Except, in each of the last two games one could argue Tate gave Arizona no chance to win.

Was Tate the biggest problem against Washington and then USC? Not at all. Both of those teams are more talented than Arizona, and poor offensive line and special teams play along with turnovers did the QB no favors.

Yet, two years ago Tate was the kind of player who could take over a game and make up for the mistakes or lack of talent around him. As it goes, a player of his caliber should be able to help bridge the gap between Arizona and the conference’s best, and if not lead to wins at least keep the Wildcats competitive.

While not the problem, Tate has hardly been the solution. Whether it’s the left-handed fumble against Washington, missing reads in favor of taking sacks or, perhaps the worst of all, consistently running out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage — he has been making mistakes a player with his experience should not.

The alternative to Tate, Grant Gunnell would undoubtedly make mistakes, but freshman mistakes are generally acceptable when they are made by, you know, a freshman.

Not a senior with 25 starts and even more games under their belt.

None of this is to say Tate cannot turn things around and get back on track. Perhaps with a healthier offensive line and, at least for the next couple of games, a downgrade in opponent will be just what he needs. Assuming Tate is healthy that is not out of the realm of possibility, and every Arizona fan should want it to happen.

At 4-3 (2-2 in Pac-12) the postseason is still very much within reach, and an effective Tate is still one of the most dangerous and dynamic players in the college game. Even if he’s not the rushing threat he was as a sophomore, he has improved enough as a passer to make him the type of quarterback that can carry an offense.

None of that has been apparent his last two games, however, and there’s only so many times a coach can pull a starter before that player is no longer the starter.

Which brings us back to the Stanford game. Unlike the previous two, Arizona is not supposed to lose this game by more than a touchdown. In fact, as of this writing the Wildcats are only a 1-point underdog.

Just last week Stanford helped make UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson look like a legitimate Pac-12 quarterback in a stunning loss to the Bruins, and David Shaw’s team comes into the game allowing more than 400 yards and nearly 28 points per game

They are ninth in the conference in passing yards allowed per game (though with a 48-yard gap between them and No. 10 Arizona) and have picked off just four passes. They are fifth in the conference with 17 sacks, however.

Should Tate and the Wildcats find success Saturday it would bode well at least for the immediate future, as Oregon State comes to Tucson next week in another game Arizona will be favored to win. Victories in both games would bring bowl eligibility, which would be nice to have locked up heading into the final three games of the season.

Seeing the senior look like the kind of guy who can lead the Wildcats the rest of the way would validate Sumlin, calm the fan base down and do even more for the team’s psyche, restoring belief that they are capable of beating anybody who’s left on the docket. Tate could then resume his climb up Arizona’s record books, both as a passer and as a runner.

But if Tate struggles in another loss, or is pulled in a Gunnel-led victory, you’d have to believe his issues are greater than just the opponent or an off game. If Saturday brings us turnovers, missed reads, inaccuracy or more self-sacks, it would be impossible to deny that Arizona’s quarterback, a former Heisman-hopeful, is broken. Maybe irreparably.

Should that come to fruition, you’d have to imagine Sumlin would once again pull Tate from the game. He made the move earlier against USC than he did the week before against Washington, yet was quick to go back to the QB for the next game.

While not the plan, Sumlin will once again be prepared to make the switch. This time the hook could come sooner — it has to — before a winnable game gets out of Arizona’s reach.

And this time, it would need to be for good.