The Arizona Wildcats (2-1) got their season back on track Saturday night when they used a stunning defensive performance and a relentless running attack to defeat the previously unbeaten Texas Tech Red Raiders, 28-14.
It wasn’t a perfect performance from the Cats, who weren’t great offensively, but there was no doubt that it was a step up on defense from both their first two games of the year against Hawaii and NAU.
Arizona allowed just fourteen points to the Red Raiders (the UA hadn’t allowed less than 40 to start the season) and forced two turnovers and seven punts as well.
To put that last number in perspective, the Wildcats’ defense had forced just three combined punts in their first two games of the season.
Offensively, the Cats racked up over 300 yards on the ground and were paced by, yup, quarterback Khalil Tate. Tate finished with 129 rushing yards, including a 2017-esque 84-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
By beating Tech, Arizona guaranteed its record would be over .500 before the start of Pac-12 play - a crucial feat, considering just how difficult the Wildcats’ conference schedule is.
Here is what head coach Kevin Sumlin said after the pivotal victory.
On his biggest takeaways from the win: “We did some smart things tonight. We stayed in bounds, taking care of our business, tackling in the open field, for the most part was good. But we can be better. And that’s what these next two weeks are about before we get into conference play. We know a little bit more about our team in personnel wise and what to expect. And as coaches, we’ve got to put our guys in a position to be successful.”
On what it means for the season and the team going forward: “Anytime you win, you gain some confidence. But the message in the locker room was, yeah, right now everybody remembers this feeling. But remember what it took for this feeling. Remember what happened during the week. Remember how we approached it. Remember the things that we corrected.”
On how the defense responded in the victory after its rough start to the season: “It was the response that we were hoping to get out of everybody. That locker room feels a lot different right now than it did last weekend, even when we won. You don’t win games like that without a completely different effort from everybody during the week.”
On the versatility of Jace Whittaker, who played both corner and safety against TTU: “Jace is a really good player. He’s a coach on the field, and he gives us some flexibility in coverage. We move him around just like everybody else is moving their receivers around. We try to make people play left-handed if we can and we did that tonight. It took them a while to figure it out.”
On having Schooler, Tony Fields and Anthony Pandy on the field at the same time: “We want to get our best players on the field. I think the advantage with Pandy is that he’s a really good pass rusher. So, you can play with three linebackers because Shooler can run, Tony Fields is experienced and Pandy is standing up as a really good rusher. It also gives us the opportunity to rotate. If we are in a diabolical situation, we got confidence in all three of those guys.”
On what the 99-yard drive says about his offensive line and running backs: “You remember the 99 (yard drive), but with the 2-point conversion also those guys did a nice job. I think the rotation of running backs too, J.J. (Taylor) got nicked up early and that’s why we have the guys that we have and why we’ve been talking about the running backs. I thought Gary (Brightwell) came in and ran hard and whether it was Gary whether it was Bam (Smith), (Michael) Wylie—that’s where the depth comes in.”
On Khalil Tate’s performance: “There were some things he was frustrated at a little bit early, but he was fine. It’s funny, the long run (Tate’s 84 yard touchdown run) I said it looked like he was jogging and was still faster than everybody else on the field. Like why not open it up and actually run? But he’s got real talent. And real speed. There were probably more yards out there than everybody saw, but he’s a real threat whenever he has the ball in his hands. Some of the blitzing that we saw early in the game calmed down right after that long run. That really changed their plan of attack from what I could see, because once he broke the first level, it was over. He puts pressure on people and from that standpoint and I think that really helped our running game schematically, just because just because of that big play.”
On how Arizona can carry this momentum through the bye week: “The opposite of how we carried over Hawaii, right? We know we’ve been down this road before. We played 10 straight last year, so I’m not complaining about the three bye weeks. We get an opportunity right now to get healthy. School is kicked in high gear now, we got tests, we got papers, we got exams, we got things and now we can get our guys to take a deep breath before we get into conference play.”