Khalil Tate is one of 18 semifinalists for the Maxwell Award, which is given to college football’s top player. Tate has led Arizona to 15 touchdown drives that took up less than two minutes over the past four weeks.
The Astros and Dodgers aren’t the only ones who’ve been hitting home runs in bunches in October.
The Arizona Wildcats have made a boatload of big plays during their four-game winning streak. Quarterback Khalil Tate alone had four rushes of 70 or more yards. Tailback J.J. Taylor had a career-long 79-yard touchdown vs. Washington State last week.
Through eight games, No. 23 Arizona has more than twice as many touchdowns of 50-plus yards (11) than it had all of last season (five). That total includes Tate’s 56-yard touchdown pass to Shun Brown against Cal.
But wait, there’s more.
Arizona leads all FBS teams with 36 offensive plays of 30-plus yards. Bill Connelly of SB Nation’s “Football Study Hall” measures explosiveness through a points-per-play metric. The Wildcats rank first in that category too.
So what’s behind this explosion of explosive plays, behind the emergence of Tate? Well, his presence is the biggest factor. His running ability has changed the way defenses play Arizona. They’re so intent on crashing into the backfield that it’s leaving little protection on the back end.
“When you do put the safeties down and play cover zero (no deep safeties), if you can burst through the first or second level it bodes well for big plays,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said Monday. “You’re taking a risk not just in the pass game, but in the run game.
“If a guy doesn’t fit right and you’re bringing all 11 in the box, it tends to lead to big runs. That’s what has happened in some of these last few games.”
Since Tate rushed for 327 yards at Colorado, breaking the FBS record for quarterbacks, opponents have been determined to take that away from him. Cal and Washington State did better than Colorado and UCLA did. But neither could stop Tate from going long.
Tate had 137 rushing yards against the Golden Bears, including a 76-yard touchdown. He had 146 yards against the Cougars, including an 82-yard run and a 49-yard score.
Arizona totaled 310 rushing yards against Washington State. Tate’s two long runs — plus Taylor’s 79- and 62-yarders — accounted for 272 of them. The Wildcats’ 30 other rushes netted just 38 yards.
To extend the baseball analogy, you can limit Arizona to singles, or even strikeouts, for a while. But eventually, the Tate-led Wildcats are going to take you deep.
“We’ve had more explosive plays in this four-game stretch than I can remember,” Rodriguez said. “On the other side of the ball, we need to get more three-and-outs. We’ve had to play a lot more plays defensively than offensively, and it’s concerning. But we’re scoring, so that’s OK.”
Arizona actually has forced more three-and-outs (32) than it did all of last season (30). But the Wildcats are scoring so quickly that they’re putting their defense back on the field before it has time to catch its breath.
Since Tate became the quarterback, Arizona has had 15 touchdown drives that took up less than two minutes of clock time. Seven consisted of just one or two plays. All lasted less than a minute.
Colorado, Cal and Washington State each ran 90-plus plays against Arizona, while the Wildcats averaged 56. That isn’t necessarily something Rodriguez wants. But he’ll never say no to a touchdown.
“I’m not going to tell the guy to stop,” Rodriguez said.
Tate makes history
Tate is in the midst of an unprecedented run, and the accolades keep pouring in.
On Monday, Tate became the first player to be named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week four times in a row.
Former USC quarterback Matt Barkley is the only player to win the award four times in a season, but he didn’t do it consecutively. Arizona (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) visits No. 17 USC (7-2, 5-1) this Saturday.
“Sometimes you worry about a guy getting a lot of attention,” Rodriguez said of Tate. “Is it going to go to his head? I haven’t seen anything change in his demeanor. He’s handled everything about as well as you could hope (for someone who has) had such a phenomenal four weeks, and I wouldn’t expect anything different.”
Tate also was named one of 18 semifinalists for the 81st Maxwell Award, given to the Collegiate Player of the Year. Three finalists will be announced Nov. 20, and the winner will be revealed during ESPN’s awards show on Dec. 7.
- Arizona’s final home game, against Oregon State on Nov. 11, will kick off at 8:15 p.m. It will be televised by ESPN2. Every UA game this season has started at 5 p.m. or later.
- Freshman kicker Lucas Havrisik was named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week. Havrisik tied the school record with a 57-yard field goal, and nine of his 10 kickoffs went for touchbacks. It’s the second week in a row that Arizona has claimed two of the league’s three player-of-the-week awards. Freshman linebacker Colin Schooler was the Defensive Player of the Week last week.
- Rodriguez on Schooler, who seems to make a big play every week: “Some guys just have a knack for the game.”
- The Football Writers Association of America named Arizona its National Team of the Week after the UA’s 58-37 victory over then-No. 15 Washington State.
- Rodriguez said the team’s demeanor has mirrored Tate’s, despite several tight games over the past month. “When you have young guys, you worry (that) they’re going to panic if something goes bad or they don’t have the best moment,” Rodriguez said. “I haven’t seen any of that this season.”
- Rodriguez wasn’t pleased with the pass rush, or lack thereof, vs. the Cougars. “We did not affect the quarterback,” he said. “We didn’t touch him.” Arizona registered just one sack against WSU.
- Rodriguez on USC tailback Ronald Jones II, who had 216 rushing yards against Arizona State last week: “He’s a freak athletically. He gets to full speed in a hurry. His fast is fast. I think he’s one of the best in the country.”