Every Monday throughout the season, we’ll take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching it via the TV broadcast and present five key takeaways. Here are the five from the UA’s 58-37 victory over then-No. 15 Washington State on Saturday night:
1. Latest Tate takes
We begin with the weekly, mandatory breakdown of all things Khalil Tate. Two things stood out most about this particular Tate gem: (1) his accuracy. Technically, Tate’s 10-for-17 performance yielded his lowest completion percentage of the season (58.8). The numbers don’t tell the entire story. Tate’s pass to Cedric Peterson down the right sideline in the first quarter was perfect; Peterson just happened to drop it. Downfield throws to Shawn Poindexter and Tony Ellison were right where they needed to be; WSU defenders just happened to break them up. (The defenses wins sometimes, even against Tate.) Tate’s interception should have been wiped out by pass interference; Wazzu DB Marcellus Pippins clearly contacted Poindexter before the ball arrived. And (2) Tate’s acceleration. Surely you’ve heard the expression, “If he’s even, he’s leavin’.” Well, that’s Tate. Once he sees a crease, it’s as if he hits the turbo button. The Cougars had no chance once he split the defense on his 49-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The most surprising play of the night might have been when they did catch him just shy of the end zone on his 82-yard dash in the second.
2. Losses and gains
When I asked Tate after the game about Washington State slowing down Arizona’s offense early, he glanced at the stat sheet and gave me a puzzled look. The truth is, the Cougars did bottle up the Wildcats’ run game for a while. Arizona had 99 rushing yards in the first half – 82 via Tate’s run. The other 17 carries netted 17 yards. What did WSU do that others haven’t? Led by Hercules Mata’afa, the Cougars used their quickness to penetrate the backfield. The slanting action of the defensive line gave Arizona’s offensive line trouble; as noted in this week’s interactive report card, WSU had eight tackles for losses, the most for any UA opponent this season. But the line eventually figured things out and opened huge holes for J.J. Taylor in the third quarter. (Kudos to sub Michael Eletise for clearing a swath for Taylor on his 62-yarder.) Additionally, because they were selling out to stop the run, the Cougars regularly left receivers in one-on-one coverage – or, in the case of tight end Jamie Nunley, one-on-none coverage. This is going to happen every week as long as Tate is the quarterback. He’ll happily take whatever the defense gives him.
3. Defensive issues
Compared to the previous two games against Washington State, Arizona’s defense did a decent job. Twenty of WSU’s points came directly off turnovers, and Luke Falk struggled to decipher the Wildcats’ mix of fronts and drops. In a vacuum, it wasn’t a stellar performance. Two main issues: (1) lack of a pass rush. Some of this was a product of Marcel Yates rushing three and dropping eight, a frequently used strategy. But Arizona sent four or five (or six) rushers at times and had trouble getting home. It looked as if the Wildcats’ rushers were glued to the Cougars’ blockers at times. Yates is going to have to come up with some wrinkles to generate pressure against Sam Darnold this week and Justin Herbert (probably) later in November. And (2) poor tackling. This was easily Arizona’s worst tackling performance of the season. The back end of the defense repeatedly took bad angles, allowing WSU receivers to turn short passes into long gains. Third downs were the biggest point of emphasis for the defense last week; tackling has to rank high on the to-do list this week.
4. This time it’s personnel
Every week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … What’s wrong with Taylor? Nothing. He just needs some space. He’s a not a yards-after-contact back. … Ellison continues to impress. Tate slightly overthrew him on that 41-yard pass in the second quarter, but Ellison adjusted to it, made a fingertip grab, brought the ball into his body and protected it as he tumbled to the ground. … DE Justin Belknap made some plays that didn’t show up in the boxscore, including a passing-lane leap that messed up the timing on a bubble screen that failed to produce a first down on third-and-short. … Dereck Boles is Arizona’s best interior defensive lineman. He’s the quickest off the ball and doesn’t give up on plays when runners get past him. … This was freshman LB Tony Fields II’s most physical performance – one week after suffering a concussion at Cal. One play in particular stood out: Fields took on a fullback before helping to bring down James Williams on a first-quarter run. … CB Sammy Morrison played Tavares Martin Jr. really well on two incomplete passes into the end zone in the first quarter but was among multiple Wildcats to whiff on Tay Martin’s 49-yard catch-and-run TD in the fourth.
5. Great expectations
So Arizona is bowl-eligible before Halloween. And ranked in the AP Top 25. Raise your hand if you saw this coming. I projected a 6-6 season, which was actually better than many prognostications. No one – including Rich Rodriguez – knew Tate would be this good if given a chance. He has changed everything on offense. On defense, it was natural to be skeptical of freshmen and redshirt freshmen who hadn’t played college football before. Yet it’s all come together, and the expectations have changed. Anything less than an 8-4 record at this point would be considered disappointing. Despite this recent run of success, it’ll take some work to get there. Three of the final four games are on the road. Arizona is a seven-point underdog at USC. Autzen Stadium is a tough venue no matter what state Oregon is in. And the Territorial Cup is always a crapshoot. Assuming a victory over Oregon State at home, Arizona needs to win at least one of those three to finish this season in proper fashion. Then it’s just a matter of which bowl game wants the Wildcats the most. Crazy, huh?