As Arizona gets better and better, as it moves closer and closer to the Pac-12 South championship — as it becomes one of the most irresistible stories in college football — attendance at Arizona Stadium gets smaller and smaller.
After 15th-ranked Washington State was flattened 58-37 by the onrushing Tate Train Saturday night, the Wildcats became something like a good movie you’ve never seen.
Here’s what you missed by the home team:
An 82-yard run.
A 79-yard run.
A 66-yard interception return.
A 57-yard field goal.
A 49-yard run.
A 48-yard pass.
The Wildcats ran so fast and so far so often that it was like releasing 11 butterflies from a bottle and trying to catch them.
Washington State, which was one of the most exciting teams in college football for the first two months of the season, simply got in the way as Khalil Tate and his friends all but honked a horn and yelled “move it!”
And yet only 42,822 Homecoming fans walked through the gates, and thousands of those vacated the premises at halftime.
Can there be that much else to do on a Saturday night in Tucson?
This was not a low-stakes game, played by three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust teams. Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and WSU’s Mike Leach invented contemporary offensive systems. They play fast. Their teams fling the football around like a Frisbee and on Saturday they combined to gain 1,212 yards and score 95 points.
It was like Tecmo Bowl.
Yet attendance fell 6,000 from a mid-October blowout victory over UCLA, and is now at an average of 42,961 for the season, the lowest at Arizona Stadium since 2003.
UA’s lack of community support is confounding, almost as unexpected as the Wildcats joining Iowa State as the Best Stories of the Year in college football.
A year ago, Arizona lost 69-7 at Washington State. The Wildcats finished 3-9. They were predicted to finish dead last in the South division again. Tate was just another guy on the roster.
No wonder ticket sales were slow.
But, c’mon, this is 2017. It has been three weeks since Tate came off the bench to rescue a sinking program. Taco Bell even offered 2-for-1 tickets to the Washington State game. Given the digital behavior of society, most Tucsonans became aware of Tate and the UA’s revival sometime the night of Oct. 7.
It’s no fluke, Luke.
Tate is surely no worse than the co-leader with Stanford’s Bryce Love as the Pac-12 offensive Player of the Year. If Tate doesn’t win a fourth consecutive Player of the Week award on Monday, it’ll be very suspicious.
But does it even matter any more? Arizona is now playing for bigger stakes.
Tate has been so good that when you look at Saturday’s numbers — 146 rushing yards and 275 passing yards — they almost seem modest. But that’s 421 yards, which rivals the 481 he had at Colorado when he introduced himself to college football, and put Arizona back on the map.
RichRod used a new pair of R’s to describe the motivation for Saturday’s game.
“Redemption and relevancy,” he said in the postgame interview room. “It’s a great night to be an Arizona Wildcat. It was a lot of fun.”
At mid-week, UA defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said the Wildcats were “a little angry” after losing 69-7 at WSU 11 months ago, a day it yielded 614 yards and hit bottom about as hard as a football team can hit bottom.
Yates tried to describe WSU’s feared offense, but, oddly, he turned out to be describing Arizona’s offense.
“(The Cougars) spread you out and hit you in space,” he said. “The thing is to put the game in space. They seem to have an answer for everything.”
On Saturday, Arizona snapped just 51 plays and gained 585 yards. Do the math. That’s space. That’s an answer for everything. It was more than an answer for WSU’s defense, which entered the game ranked No. 7 nationally allowing just 284 yards per game.
Washington State’s defense over-corrected early in Saturday’s game. It spent too much time spying on Tate, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He’d only started two games. How much could he know about the X’s and O’s. How much attention had he paid in film sessions? Could he absorb it all?
Tate’s learning curve was impressive.
As instructed in practice and film sessions, he became more patient, staying in the pocket and letting passing routes develop. He didn’t throw on the run, outside the pocket when it wasn’t necessary. His early touchdown passes came against man-coverage, which is the benefit of having an opponent fear your running game.
The Cougars discovered that if you take one thing away from Tate, he can beat you with another. That was the big unknown.
As for shrinking attendance, some of it can be seen in the way Millennials have disengaged from live sports. Some of it is probably because college football games now take 3½ hours to play. And some of it is because Arizona fans could not possibly have seen this coming.
The Tate Train is on the tracks, rolling to the Los Angeles Coliseum with first place at stake.
It would make a good movie.