In its heyday, Arizona football was known for two things: solid defense and running it up the middle.
Quite a bit has changed for the Wildcats in the nearly 20 years since the late Dick Tomey was last in charge, mostly for the worse. But for one night, at least, it felt like the ghost of Arizona’s winningest coach had taken over the reigns to guide the team to one of its most significant victories in years.
Arizona’s defense put forth a massive effort against Texas Tech’s explosive attack, while its own normally fast-and-flashy offense reverted to a methodical, ball-control approach down the stretch en route to a 28-14 win over the Red Raiders on Saturday night before 37,207 fans at Arizona Stadium.
“It was the response we were hoping to get out of everybody,” said coach Kevin Sumlin, eluding to the previous game when Arizona allowed 41 points to NAU. “That locker room feels a lot different right now than it did last weekend.”
Gary Brightwell scored twice in the second half for Arizona, including on a 2-yard run with 4:05 left to cap a clock-draining 13-play, 99-yard drive that took more than seven minutes. All 13 plays on that drive were on the ground as Arizona (2-1) ran it 61 times against 23 pass plays.
“That’s an O-lineman’s dream,” senior guard Cody Creason said. “It’s fun blocking for running backs and quarterbacks like that.”
And in shades of the 2016 Territorial Cup, Arizona did not attempt a pass in the fourth quarter, instead gaining all 122 yards on 19 run plays including the game-ending kneeldown.
Arizona ran for 314 yards despite J.J. Taylor missing most of the second half after coming up lame on a run in the red zone. Brightwell finished with 85 yards, one of three Wildcats with at least 60 rushing yards, while Khalil Tate ran for 129, including an 84-yard score, and Bam Smith added 63 as the Wildcats controlled the clock in the second half.
“That’s why we have the guys that we have,” Sumlin said of his backfield. “That’s where depth comes in.”
Arizona’s defense, which had allowed 86 points in the first two games, held Texas Tech (2-1) scoreless until the final minute of the first quarter and kept the Red Raiders to single digits until midway through the third quarter. Tech finished with 415 yards, with 311 through the air, but quarterback Alan Bowman needed 55 attempts and had 30 incompletions, including two interceptions.
Bowman had thrown only 28 incomplete passes in Tech’s first two games.
“Everybody was just doing their job and flying to the ball, playing as a unit and doing our jobs,” junior safety Scottie Young Jr. said.
The Wildcats led 13-7 at halftime but Tech went up 14-13 with 6:08 left in the third on a 7-play, 86-yard drive. Bowman, who had gone to the locker room with an apparent shoulder injury only a few minutes earlier, found McLane Mannix on a crossing pattern that went for 66 yards to start the drive and it ended with Mannix catching an 8-yard TD throw.
Arizona retook the lead at 20-14 on the first play of the fourth quarter on a Brightwell 1-yard run, this coming after Tate was knocked out of bounds just short of the goal line on the final play of the third. The score was set up by a beautiful throw from Tate to Cedric Peterson for 47 yards down to the Texas Tech 2.
Instead of the all-out scorefest from the outset, the first 13 minutes were instead full of punts and turnovers. The teams combined for five kicks and four giveaways in the first 12:41 of play, with very few notable offensive gains.
That all changed when Bowman found top target T.J. Vasher on a 39-yard pass down to the 1-yard line. Two plays later SaRodrick Thompson scored to give the Red Raiders a 7-0 lead with 49 seconds left in the first quarter.
Tech getting on the scoreboard seemed to wake up Arizona’s offense, first with a 46-yard screen pass from Tate to Bam Smith on the final play of the opening period and then a 12-yard Tate TD pass to Stanley Berryhill III to tie it at 7 with 13:37 left in the first half.
Arizona went up 13-7 about five minutes later when Tate showed some of that mid-2017 season speed on an 84-yard scoring run straight through the middle of Tech’s defense. It was the longest run of his career, topping an 82-yarder against Washington State in October 2017, and put him over the 2,000-yard mark for his career.
“We knew that would be an X-factor in this game, using my legs more,” said Tate, who also threw for 185 yards on 14-of-23 passing with a TD and two interceptions.
The Wildcats had a chance to add to the lead later on but Lucas Havrisik was wide on a 51-yard field goal attempt that came two plays after Drew Dixon couldn’t stay inbounds on what would have been a 33-yard TD catch.
And after getting the ball back with just over two minutes left before halftime, Tate was intercepted for the second time when he completely underthrew it to a receiver slashing across his view.
Arizona now heads into its second of three bye weeks before opening Pac-12 play at home Sept. 28 against winless UCLA.