The Arizona Wildcats left the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum early Sunday morning disappointed but far from discouraged.
Arizona lost to bigger, faster, deeper USC 49-35 on Saturday night. The defeat ended the Wildcats’ four-game winning streak. It also effectively ended the race to win the Pac-12 South. USC needs just one more win against Colorado or UCLA to clinch the division after beating Arizona State and Arizona in back-to-back weeks.
The Wildcats (6-3, 4-2) already are bowl-eligible, and they showed the nation that they could go toe-to-toe with the West Coast’s strongest program – even if it ultimately ended up in a loss.
“It’s a real big learning experience,” UA freshman linebacker Tony Fields II said. “Never give up, never quit. We tied the game up. We had our chance. We had momentum. And then small mistakes. They capitalized on those small mistakes.”
What, exactly, did the Wildcats learn about themselves Saturday night? What did we learn about them?
Here are some of the biggest impressions from a wild game in L.A.:
1. Khalil Tate really cares
A video tweeted after the game showed Tate crying while exchanging hugs and well wishes with some of his former high school teammates and USC coach Clay Helton.
That’s the sort of all-in commitment UA coach Rich Rodriguez wants from all of his players — but especially his quarterback, who must serve as a team leader.
“Whenever I lose, I’m emotional,” Tate said. “It’s not any certain game. I don’t like losing. I don’t think anybody does. If you do, then that’s on you.”
Tate played better than his previous outing against USC, when he was an in-over-his-head, 17-year-old true freshman. Helton came away from Saturday’s game with even more respect for Tate than he had entering it. Helton made a last-ditch effort to recruit Tate from nearby Serra High.
“He’s a very special player,” Helton said. “I told him afterward he honored his family and his city. We’ve watched him grow up. He’s going to be a true talent in this league. He played beyond honorably tonight. A special kid.”
2. Tate has room
to grow — and the defense does too
As he conceded after the game, Tate wasn’t as sharp as in previous outings. He completed only 14 of 31 passes, threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.
It’s easy to forget amid all the highlights and accolades — including an unprecedented four straight Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week awards — that Saturday night marked Tate’s fifth career start. Tate, who just turned 19, remains a baby in quarterback years. As talented as he is, he’s bound to endure some growing pains.
“There’s a lot to correct at every position, but quarterback is the obvious one because everybody is looking at the position,” Rodriguez said. “If I know Khalil, he’ll work hard to correct it.”
Tate said he would go “back to the drawing board” in practice this week after some misreads and missed throws. Look for Arizona’s defense to take a similar approach.
The Wildcats allowed more than 600 yards for the second straight week. For maybe the first time this season, the defense looked its age. Arizona started three true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen. First-year freshman safety Scottie Young Jr. also played extensively.
The Trojans often bullied the Wildcats, many of whom have yet to experience a full offseason in the weight program.
3. Arizona is capable
of coming back
This was undoubtedly the biggest positive to emerge from Saturday night. Arizona trailed 28-6 with 6:04 left in the third quarter. The Wildcats then scored touchdowns on four straight possessions to tie the score at 35 with 8:23 remaining.
With Tate at quarterback, the Cats believe they’re never out of a game. He rushed for a touchdown and threw two TD passes to fuel the rally.
When Tate finally broke free for a 32-yard score in the third quarter – the start of the comeback – the Wildcats could sense a swing on their sideline.
“Our whole feeling changed about everything,” Fields said. “Khalil will never give up. He’s such a momentum shifter. Once he makes a big play, everybody can bounce back off of that.”
The UA couldn’t complete the comeback. USC scored touchdowns on its next two possessions. Arizona’s ended in interceptions.
4. The defense can’t rely on turnovers
Every defense wants to take the ball away. The Wildcats worked on it all offseason, and it has paid off in a big way: Arizona has forced 20 turnovers in nine games, six more than it had all of last season.
But statistical studies have shown that there’s a luck element associated with turnovers. Aggressive play and the ability to play the ball in the air lead to takeaways. However, it’s not something you can assume will happen every week.
Arizona surrendered 653 yards to Washington State but took the ball away four times, including a pick-six. The Wildcats’ bend-but-don’t-break defense splintered against the Trojans. Arizona forced only one turnover, a first-quarter interception by Dane Cruikshank in the end zone.
USC became the first UA opponent this season top 300 yards rushing and passing. The Trojans’ 49 points were a season high for a Wildcats foe.
“We just need to watch a little bit more film, tighten up a little bit more,” Fields said. “Everybody needs to lock in. Once we lock in, we’ll be right.”
- Arizona, which entered the AP Top 25 last week at No. 23, fell out of the rankings released Sunday.
- Arizona surrendered five sacks, matching its season total entering Saturday. The Wildcats had not allowed a sack in their previous four games.
- Arizona has rushed for 200 or more yards in seven straight games and eight of nine games this season.
- Tate has rushed for 100-plus yards and at least one touchdown in five consecutive games. He also has a rush of 50-plus yards in five straight. His 100-yard streak is UA’s longest since Ka’Deem Carey in 2013.
- Receiver Shun Brown established a career high with eight receptions. His 32 catches for the year are a career best and three more than he had last season.
- Fields tied his career high with 11 tackles. He has double-digit tackles in three straight games and leads all Pac-12 freshmen with 69 tackles.
- Cornerback Lorenzo Burns has broken up a pass in five straight games.