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Arizona football

Arizona midseason analysis: Khalil Tate-led Wildcats have become dominant run-first team

Arizona Wildcats running back Zach Green (34) rumbles ahead for yardage late during the fourth quarter of the University of Arizona Wildcats vs. UCLA Bruins college football game at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz. Arizona won 47-30.

This is the first in a two-part series analyzing the first half of the Arizona Wildcats’ football season. Part 1 breaks down the offense. Part 2, coming Wednesday, will examine the defense.

When assessing the Arizona Wildcats’ offense over the first half of the season, it’s tempting to break it up into two segments: before Khalil Tate took over at quarterback — and after.

Tate obviously has given the offense — and the entire program — a turbo boost. His play the past two games has been nothing short of sensational, and no breakdown of Arizona’s offense would be complete without him.

But its identity was established long before Tate became the starter.

It began at the end of last season, a year the Wildcats and their fans otherwise would like to forget. Arizona rushed for a school-record 511 yards in a 56-35 victory over rival Arizona State. The Wildcats have been running the ball down opponents’ throats ever since.

Starting with that game, Arizona has run the ball 68.4 percent of the time. (For the purpose of this exercise, sacks — which technically count as run plays — are being counted as pass plays.) Through six games this year, that figure sits at 66.2 percent. That’s a higher percentage than in any of Rich Rodriguez’s first five seasons at Arizona.

Some of that is a product of game flow, of course. The Wildcats built huge leads against Northern Arizona and UTEP. They also led throughout against UCLA, running the ball 15 straight times in the fourth quarter before a game-ending kneel-down.

But for the most part, the game situation hasn’t mattered. Nor has the defensive alignment. The Cats are going to run the ball and dare you to stop them.

“I like scoring,” UA co-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said. “Whatever the identity has to be, the way the game is going, the way the defense is playing, I like that identity.

“That’s not a problem at all, to be known as a team that’s running the ball first. That’s not what we go into the game planning (to do). But you always want to run the ball.”

Rodriguez said he doesn’t pay attention to Arizona’s run-pass ratio; stats such as first downs and total plays carry more weight with him.

His play-calling of late tells a different story.

In the past two games — which have featured Tate at quarterback for all but nine plays — the Wildcats have run the ball 103 times. They have passed it 27 times. That’s a run percentage of 79.2.

Taking it a step further, guard Jacob Alsadek said the UA ran fewer than 10 called pass plays in each game. The rest were run-pass options, the foundation of Rodriguez’s system.

Despite defenses regularly crowding the line of scrimmage, Arizona has enjoyed staggering success on the ground. The Wildcats average 342.3 rushing yards per game, most in the Pac-12 and fourth most in the nation. The three teams ahead of them — Army, Navy and Georgia Tech — run the option. Arizona has a higher average per attempt (6.94) than all of them.

“When you can run the ball and they have that many people in the box, that’s really good for us,” Alsadek said. “It shows we’re taking care of business.”

The offensive line has jelled and had its best performance of the season against UCLA, Rodriguez said. The relentless way the Wildcats ran at the Bruins — accumulating 457 yards, Arizona’s fourth 400-plus-yard outing since the ASU game — eventually frustrated them.

“They started fighting each other at the end of the game,” Alsadek said. “We just kind of sat there and laughed: ‘Man, we did that to them.’ It’s a good feeling.”

It’s a different feeling from last year, when the Wildcats were the punchline. Riddled by injuries at quarterback and running back, Arizona lacked a consistent offensive rhythm until the Territorial Cup. The Wildcats reached the 40-point barrier only once in the first 11 games last season. They have eclipsed it five times in their last seven contests.

Having tailbacks Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor healthy has proved invaluable. Both are capable of running inside and outside, and both are adept at picking up blitzes.

Then there’s Tate, who has elevated the offense from good to great.

“It always starts at that position,” Rodriguez said. “Last year we all know what happened there, and it happened early in the season. You can’t get any continuity going.”

Anu Solomon began last season as the starting quarterback. He suffered a knee injury in practice between Games 1 and 2, prompting Rodriguez to insert Dawkins. Dawkins played well at times, but also struggled to remain in the lineup, suffering a rib injury and a concussion. That forced the Wildcats to make moves out of desperation, including lifting then-freshman Tate’s redshirt.

When the inconsistent Dawkins got hurt early in the Colorado game two weeks ago, Tate — now a year older and a year wiser — took charge and took off. His running ability has opened lanes for Wilson and Taylor. The running game’s overall effectiveness has created one-on-one opportunities in the pass game. Tate generally has cashed in on them.

“It’s a lot of fun when everything is clicking,” Alsadek said. “Everything feels like it’s flowing so well.”

How can Arizona get even better? Rodriguez would like the offense to get going earlier in games. Arizona hadn’t scored a touchdown on its opening possession until the UCLA game.

That also happened to be Tate’s first start.

Extra points

  • Rodriguez said he’s “hopeful” that defensive tackle Luca Bruno will return for Saturday’s game at Cal. Bruno missed last week because of a concussion. Arizona will be without DT Parker Zellers for the first half as he sits out because of a targeting foul incurred vs. UCLA.
  • The injury report doesn’t come out until Thursday, but a program source told the Star that free safety Scottie Young Jr. (knee) is unlikely to play vs. Cal.
  • Is there any chance Dawkins could play another position this season? “No,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a quarterback.”
  • Tate was named to Pro Football Focus’ All-Pac-12 Team for the second week in a row. Also making it: Alsadek, cornerback Jace Whittaker and safety Kwesi Mashack.
  • Arizona is exploring alternatives at punter, where Jake Glatting has struggled at times. The options include Josh Pollack, Matt Aragon and … offensive tackle Gerhard de Beer? “He might have the best leg on the team,” Rodriguez said. “I just can’t imagine putting a 320-pounder back there. But he’s begging for an opportunity. … He’s done it in practice. You know when Gerhard’s punting because you can hear it. It sounds like a shotgun going off.”

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