The Arizona Wildcats put up astronomical offensive numbers in October. Led by quarterback Khalil Tate, Arizona averaged 48.8 points and 567 yards in four games.
But another number — the tiniest of numbers — stands out just as much: zero.
The Wildcats have not allowed a sack in four straight games. They have surrendered just five this season, the fewest in the Pac-12 and tied for the fifth fewest in the nation.
The offensive line’s shutout streak is a product of several factors. The two biggest: the line’s improvement and Tate’s elevation to the starting role.
Let’s start with the latter. Representatives of the offensive line say that Tate has made their jobs easier because of his athleticism and decisiveness.
“I think a lot of it’s him,” UA line coach Jim Michalczik said Tuesday. “He’s so dang athletic … you can make something great out of something bad.”
Tate’s 71-yard touchdown run against UCLA came on a broken play. His 76-yard score against Cal started out as a pass.
Just as important, Tate has seen the field well and gotten rid of the ball in a timely manner.
“He’s good about knowing when to throw and seeing pressure,” senior left tackle Layth Friekh said.
Tate has been quick to credit his blockers, as all quarterbacks should. The offensive line was supposed to be one of No. 22 Arizona’s strengths, and it has become one of the team’s most reliable groups.
What’s impressed UA coach Rich Rodriguez the most is that the line keeps striving to improve. No unit has more experience; the top six linemen have combined for 130 career starts and 165 total games played. Yet they never seem satisfied with their work.
“For older guys, sometimes they kind of plateau,” Rodriguez said. “But our guys have really worked hard to get better, and they’ve seen a different scheme, it seems like, every week. That’s as hard a working group as we have on our team.”
The veteran group is fully capable of improving within a game. Washington State had eight tackles for losses on running plays last week, the most for a UA opponent this season. But only two came after halftime.
“The mode was to just keep grinding,” Michalczik said. “It’s hard to show them in practice exactly how it feels, all that slanting and movement and pressure. I think we got better as the game went on just because we felt it.”
No. 17 USC will present a different challenge. The Trojans are bigger across their defensive front than the Cougars. USC is more apt to try to win one-on-one battles than rely on pre- and post-snap movement to penetrate the backfield.
“This week it’s taking on a block and sustaining a block,” Michalczik said. “That’s where we have to be a little bit better.”
The offensive line has improved in that regard since the Houston game in Week 2. All-America defensive tackle Ed Oliver dominated that game and taught the linemen a lesson that has stuck with them.
“The biggest thing we learned from him is effort goes way farther than you think,” senior right tackle Gerhard de Beer said. “So what we’ve been doing is finishing blocks.
“Credit to our running backs, our quarterbacks, those guys run like crazy; you can’t take anything away from them. But the biggest things we’ve been focusing on is getting on guys, maintaining blocks and taking that extra two steps to drive a little further.”
Staying on blocks is especially important with Tate at quarterback. He has proved adept at keeping plays alive.
Tate’s emergence has changed almost everything for the football program. It hasn’t changed the mindset of the linemen trying to protect him.
“It’s still block the man until the whistle blows,” Friekh said. “That’s every offensive lineman. It doesn’t matter who’s back there; that’s your job no matter what.”
One more year?
Arizona is looking into getting a fifth year for Friekh, but it might be easier said than done.
Friekh appeared in one game as a freshman in 2014, playing a handful of snaps in a blowout win at Utah. By current NCAA rules, that season can’t be reclassified as a redshirt year.
The NCAA would need to grant Friekh a special waiver, or fast-track a proposal that would change the rules and allow players to play in up to four games while keeping their redshirt year intact.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Friekh said. “They don’t know if I’ll get it back or not.
“I love this place. If I get it, I’d probably take it.”
The end for Anu
Former UA quarterback Anu Solomon’s football career appears to be over.
Solomon, who transferred to Baylor in the offseason, has taken a medical withdrawal from school, according to multiple reports.
Solomon had been in the concussion protocol since mid-September. Baylor coach Matt Rhule told reporters that Solomon had been having difficulty in class because of concussion-related symptoms. He missed time at Arizona because of concussions.
Solomon completed 24 of 55 passes for 399 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions in two games for the Bears.
- Managing emotions will be key for Arizona this week. First place is at stake in Saturday’s game, and many Wildcats are from Southern California. They need to channel those emotions in a positive way during the week, Rodriguez said.
- USC coach Clay Helton, speaking on the Pac-12 coaches conference call, on facing Arizona State and Arizona in consecutive weeks with the South Division lead on the line: “It feels like the playoffs.”
- What’s the difference between the USC defense and others? “Some people get small, athletic guys,” Rodriguez said. “They get big, athletic guys.”
- Rodriguez said Arizona’s tackling “was not good” against Washington State and needs to be a lot better vs. USC. The Wildcats worked on it for about 10-15 minutes Tuesday, but it’s hard to go “live” in-season because of the injury risk.
- Tate, linebacker Tony Fields II and cornerback Lorenzo Burns were named to Pro Football Focus’ Pac-12 Teams of the Week. Tate made it for the fourth straight time, Fields for the second.