If Khalil Tate could play every game against the Colorado Buffaloes, maybe they would have to hand him the Heisman.
The Arizona Wildcats’ senior quarterback returned to action after missing last week’s game with ankle and hamstring injuries to once again wreak havoc on Colorado, throwing for a career-high 404 yards in the Wildcats’ 35-30 win Saturday afternoon at Folsom Field in Boulder.
The win moved Arizona (4-1, 2-0) into sole possession of the Pac-12 South.
Nathan Tilford’s 5-yard touchdown run with 6:51 left, his second of the game, proved to be the winner in a contest with nine lead changes and no team ahead by more than six points. But on a day when the Wildcats couldn’t run the ball effectively they instead turned to a passing attack heavy on short swing routes and checkdowns, with a handful of deep balls thrown in.
Tate was 31 of 41, with three TDs and an interception, spreading the ball around to 11 different receivers. Brian Casteel had seven catches for 74 yards and a TD, running back Michael Wiley had six catches for 48 yards and both Jamarye Joiner and Tayvian Cunningham had four receptions apiece.
In three games against CU, Tate has thrown for 908 yards on 60-of-76 passing and 365 rushing yards with 13 total TDs. That includes his FBS quarterback-record 327 rushing yards in Boulder in October 2017.
Arizona finished with just 83 rushing yards, its fewest in a win since gaining only 75 against NAU in Sept. 2011. J.J. Taylor started the game after missing the last one but after gaining four yards on his lone carry never returned to action, with Gary Brightwell’s 27 yards (on 11 carries) tops on the team.
The Wildcats were outgained 496-487 by Colorado (3-2, 1-1) but their defense stepped up on just enough drives to ensure a fourth consecutive win in Boulder. That included forcing the Buffaloes to turn it over on downs near midfield with 2:23 left, while CU had to settle for field goals on a pair of red-zone possessions in the first and fourth quarters.
Arizona trailed 20-14 at halftime after a wild final few minutes that features three TDs (and nearly a fourth) and a field goal. It needed only 1:49 on its first possession of the third quarter to go up 21-20, with Tate finding Brian Casteel for a 33-yard TD to finish of a six-play drive comprised entirely of completed passes.
The Wildcats forced Colorado to punt on its first two second-half drives but couldn’t take advantage, kicking it right back each time. The Buffs didn’t squander their third possession, with Tony Brown scoring on a 15-yard endaround run one play after catching a 49-yard pass from Steven Montez to go up 27-21 with 5:11 left in the third.
Montez threw for 299 yards on 28-of-42 passing.
Arizona came right back to go ahead 28-27 with 3:42 left in the third on Tilford’s first 5-yard scoring run, with Tate going 4 for 4 for 71 yards on the drive.
Colorado followed that up with a 14-play drive but could only manage three points, going up 30-28 on a 21-yard James Stefanou field goal with 11:29 left in the fourth quarter. Tackles for loss by Trevon Mason and Colin Schooler stalled things after the Buffs got to the Arizona 2.
It was similar to the Buffs’ first drive of the game, a 13-play possession that stalled after Anthony Pandy had a TFL and Jalen Harris forced Montez to throw it away and settle for a 37-yard field goal.
Down 3-0 late in the first quarter, Arizona’s second drive produced points thanks to some big throws by Tate. Tate found Cedric Peterson over the middle for 16 yards on 3rd and 6 from deep in Arizona territory, then he hit a streaking Cunningham on a slant that went for 49 yards to get inside the Buffs’ 10 after a horse collar penalty, and three plays later he connected with Stanley Berryhill III on a 7-yard TD pass for a 7-3 lead with 25 seconds left in the first.
Colorado looked like it was going to retake the lead early in the second quarter but receiver Daniel Arias dropped a wide open pass in the end zone that would have been a 41-yard touchdown. A 39-yard Stefanou field goal with 2:37 left before halftime cut Arizona’s lead to 7-6, the start of 24 points scored in the last 157 seconds before intermission.
The late first-half craziness began with a horrible decision by Tate, opting to throw downfield into a sea of black jerseys rather than into the stands on 3rd and 6 from his own 29. Michael Onu picked the ball off and returned it to the Arizona 38, and one play later Colorado busted out a flea flicker with KD Nixon throwing to fellow wideout Dimitri Stanley for a 38-yard TD pass to put the Buffs up 13-7 with 1:50 left in the first half.
So, naturally, Tate then responded by firing a 75-yard TD pass to Peterson on the very next play to give the Wildcats a 14-13 edge with 1:40 to go. Peterson ran right past Onu for the score.
Colorado retook the lead at 20-14 with three seconds left on a 12-yard TD pass from Montez to Brady Russell. The Buffs squibbed the ensuing kickoff, which Joiner fielded at the 15 and then raced up the left sideline for an apparent 85-yard TD return … had he not stepped out of bounds at the CU 46 to end the first half.
Arizona, which is now 2-5 on the road under second-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, committed just one penalty for five yards (compared to eight for 85 for Colorado) after averaging nine per game coming in.
The Wildcats return home Oct. 12 to host Washington on Family Weekend.