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What we learned from Arizona’s win at Colorado

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NCAA Football: Arizona at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats beat the Colorado Buffaloes 35-30 in Boulder on Saturday to improve to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-12, claiming sole possession of the South division.

Our full recap can be read here, and here are some additional takeaways.

Not the prettiest win, but it was a big one

We will get into the specifics in a second, but it is hard to overstate the importance of this win.

Arizona collected a rare road victory (just its second away from Arizona Stadium under Kevin Sumlin), claimed sole possession first place in the Pac-12 South, and now enters the tough part of its schedule with room for error when it comes to bowl eligibility.

By outscoring Colorado 7-3 in the fourth, Arizona now owns a 29-3 scoring differential in the final quarter in the last three games, making it clear this team has learned how to win.

They’ve come a long way since Hawaii.

Khalil Tate owns Colorado, had his best passing game of his career

You know the story. The last time Tate play at Folsom Field, he rushed for an FBS QB record 327 yards and four touchdowns. But this time, with a healing hamstring, he burned the Buffaloes with his arm.

Tate went 31 for 41 for a career-high 404 yards and three touchdowns. Arizona’s ground game was ineffective (3.2 yards per carry), so the Wildcats smartly used their running backs in the passing game with short passes, especially in the flat.

Michael Wiley and Bam Smith combined for eight catches. Overall, Tate spread the wealth, connecting with 11 different pass-catchers at all levels of the field. The play-action game was effective, creating throwing lanes down the seams.

Tate’s accuracy and decision-making was exceptionally strong, except when he got intercepted after throwing across his body while being forced to the sideline. Throwing it out of bounds would have been the sensible play.

Tate bounced back nicely from that mistake, heaving a 75-yard touchdown to Cedric Peterson on Arizona’s very next offensive play, allowing the Wildcats to take a 14-13 lead in the second quarter.

And while Tate’s rushing total was small (23 yards), he did use his legs to buy time in the pocket—and scampered for the game-clinching first down late in the fourth quarter.

The dude simply owns Colorado. In three games against CU, Tate has accounted for 908 passing yards (on 60-of-76 passing) and 365 rushing yards with 13 total TDs.

Defense bent but didn’t break

OK, let’s switch to a negative. Tackling.

The Wildcats gave up too many yards after the catch and/or after contact. That led to some pretty big chunk plays that otherwise should have been short gains.

Luckily, it was a bend-don’t-break kind of day. Colorado advanced into the red zone three times, but twice had to settle for short fields. Since it ended in a five-point game, you could argue it was the difference in the game.

Arizona’s defensive tackles had some good moments, with Finton Connolly and Trevon Mason making some key third down stops. The Buffaloes were just 6 for 16 on third down.

Linebacker Tony Fields II (11 tackles) was a menace for the second straight game. And it won’t show up on the stat sheet, but he pressured Steven Montez on a big fourth down play in the fourth quarter that forced a high throw and essentially ended the game.

Cornerback Jace Whittaker had some tough moments individually, getting beat over the top by Tony Brown for 49 yards, then whiffing on a tackle that turned a short catch into a 29-yard gain for Daniel Arias.

Arizona’s pass rush was very hit-or-miss too, going another game without recording a sack. Jalen Harris was not on the field in some obvious passing downs, which is a head-scratcher.

The coverage was OK, allowing Montez to go 28 for 42 for 299 yards and a touchdown.

Brian Casteel had a roller coaster day

Casteel had a rough day in the return game, catching two punts around Arizona’s 5-yard line, a no-no. One of them, he was back-pedaling and actually muffed the catch before falling on it. It was the kind of mistake that could have derailed the game.

He also dropped a well-placed back-shoulder throw in the end zone in the first quarter. Fortunately it did not prove costly, as Tate found Stanley Berryhill III in the end zone on a rollout two plays later.

But it wasn’t all bad for Casteel. He caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Tate down the seam, and wound up leading the Cats with seven catches.

Arizona can be disciplined

Arizona entered as the most penalized team in the Pac-12, averaging nine per game. It finished with one—an offsides penalty on defensive tackle Kyon Barrs.

The fewest penalties Arizona had committed in a game this year was five, so this was a pleasant surprise, and certainly one of the reasons they were able to escape with a win.

Meanwhile, the Buffaloes, who were averaging a conference-best 5.5 penalties per game, committed eight penalties, six of which were for 10 or 15 yards.

Another costly mistake? Arias dropped an easy touchdown pass in the second quarter, forcing the Buffaloes to punt a couple plays later. Between that and Colorado’s red-zone woes, it left a lot of points on the board.

Running back depth was on full display

J.J. Taylor (ankle) returned after missing last week’s game, but very briefly. He had one carry for four yards on the first series and that was it.

But running back is one of Arizona’s deepest positions, and it was evident in this game. In addition to Wiley and Smith’s contributions in the passing game, Gary Brightwell had 11 carries for 27 yards and Nathan Tilford had five carries for 23 yards and two touchdowns.

Boobie Curry exists

After failing to reel in a pass in tight coverage in the first quarter, Curry hauled in a 16-yard slant in the second quarter for his first career catch—as well as his lone reception of the day.

The former four-star recruit has been nicked up since fall camp, prolonging his debut: