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'He was unstoppable': An oral history of Khalil Tate's record-setting performance vs. Colorado in 2017

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Arizona Colorado Football

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate bolts away from the Colorado defense for a touchdown in the second half of Arizona’s 2017 win over the Buffaloes. Tate rushed for 327 yards — the most by a quarterback in FBS history — and completed 12 of 13 passes for 154 yards.

Maybe they should have known. Maybe we all should have known.

Khalil Tate revealed some of his flash and flare as a freshman for the Arizona Wildcats in 2016, passing for 243 yards and three scores a≠nd rushing for another 237 yards and a touchdown.

But on Oct. 7, 2017, Tate put on a performance that no one could have predicted.

It wasn’t just a career performance, it was one of the great offensive showings in college football history. By the end of the game, Rich Rodriguez’s status as an offensive wizard was re-affirmed, Tate was a Twitter hashtag, and the Arizona Wildcats were the talk of the Pac-12.

Here’s a look back at one of the wildest nights in Wildcats history:

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate runs for a touchdown against Colorado in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

• • •

Entering the 2017 season, Brandon Dawkins’ grip on the starting quarterback job was tenuous at best. He’d started more than half the 2016 campaign but finished with just 1,348 passing yards on 98 of 182 attempts, with eight touchdown passes and six picks.

On the ground, he displayed some of the elusiveness that had become the hallmark of a RichRod-coached quarterback, rushing for 944 yards on 131 carries. Dawkins had individual games of 97, 118 and 176 rushing yards to start the 2016 season, and he finished off a bad year with 183 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 56-34 thrashing of rival Arizona State.

But even with Tate getting comparatively little time, he and Dawkins were named co-starters to open up the 2017 season.

Tate attempted all of one pass in a season-opening win over Northern Arizona.

Dawkins was firmly entrenched as starter by the time Pac-12 play began. The Wildcats, meanwhile, were just .500 entering a pivotal game at Colorado.

Former Arizona offensive lineman Jacob Alsadek: “We were coming off a loss to Utah, 2-2 going into the game, and this was my last year. I was kinda worried. What I didn’t want was a repeat of the year before. Going into that game, I was nervous.”

Former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez: “The truth is, (Tate) had a hell of a week of practice leading up to that week. For a few weeks or so, very limited in practice. I didn’t know how much of the offense he knew or how prepared he was.

“He came into my office to see me that week and it was a very emotional meeting with him. He wanted to play. I told him simply: ‘I understand but I have to see you practice.’ He practiced all that week and it was the first time in a while he was fully healthy the entire week. I didn’t think he deserved to start at that point because it was his first week in a long time. At the same time, I felt a lot more comfortable putting him in there.”

• • •

Good thing, because Rodriguez’s comfort would be tested — as it had been a year before.

The Wildcats had gone just 3-9 in 2016, a stunning fall. The Buffaloes weren’t exactly world-beaters at just 2-3 and 0-2 in conference play, but in the abundant altitude of Boulder, bizarre things are bound to happen.

And they did, straight from the start. Nine plays into what appeared to be a successful opening drive, Dawkins absorbed a late hit and headed to the sidelines. Tate entered the game, and two plays later, passed the ball to Shun Brown for a loss of 6 yards. Brown fumbled on his way down, giving Colorado the ball.

Alsadek: “Brandon goes down, Khalil comes in, and we hadn’t seen that flair from him at all. We were not expecting it at all. A lot of times in practice, quarterbacks are protected: ‘Stay away, stay way away.’ In the NFL, if you touch a QB, you can get cut.”

Rodriguez: “Having done this so many years with a lot of mobile quarterbacks, a lot of times you can tell in a preseason scrimmage or spring ball. But some guys are still even faster in a game. They kinda take off. Some don’t do as well, and some do better. He was one who performed better when we were so-called ‘live’ and getting shots from the other team. Everybody runs faster when someone’s chasing him, but he was running away from people who were pretty good.”

• • •

On Arizona’s second drive, it began. Tate ran 58 yards for a touchdown.

On the next drive, it continued. Tate completed 28-yard pass to Tyrell Johnson, and took a 2-yard run. Then came a 9-yard pass to Bryce Wolma, two J.J. Taylor runs, and Tate’s second score, a 28-yard touchdown run.

Two drives later, Tate rattled off a 37-yard run, part of a three-play drive capped off by a 13-yard touchdown pass to Brown.

In the thin air of Boulder, Tate was flying away from the Buffaloes.

UA defensive tackle Finton Connolly: “The elevation had no effect on him whatsoever.”

Alsadek: “We had no idea that was going to happen. He comes in the game, and I think the second drive, we score. The next drive was a one-play drive, he took one for 60 yards, and at that moment I was like, ‘Wow.’”

Connolly: “We didn’t expect that at all from him. That was truly amazing. The biggest thing I would have said to him was, ‘Bro, stop scoring so fast. I’m getting tired, man.’ But no, it was great.”

Rodriguez: “It was like, ‘Holy cow.’ I can remember thinking he’s faster than I even thought when he was pulling away from people.”

Colorado linebacker Nathan Landman: “It’s hard to prepare for someone you’ve never seen before. When you see a starting quarterback go down, the leader of an offense, you kind of think now we’ve got them where we want them. A backup in a big college game, lot of nerves, you wonder if he can live up to the pressure. You didn’t see that against Khalil.”

Arizona Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate (14) celebrates his touchdown run in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Boulder, Colo. Arizona won 45-42. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

• • •

Not everyone was caught off guard.

UA junior defensive end J.B. Brown was well aware of Tate’s reputation. Tate was a star at Gardena Serra High School, one of the most successful schools in all of the Los Angeles area. Brown played at nearby Long Beach Poly.

Brown: “I’m from Southern California, so I had seen Khalil in high school. I knew he was capable of it. Everybody else didn’t, but I expected it.”

Alsadek: “Khalil was very focused. (Quarterbacks coach Rod) Smith did a really good job coaching all of them the same — first string, second string, third … Kahlil got thrown into something, and the way we had reps in practice, he had the same reps as Brandon. That’s special. In reality, football is a violent sport, and you have to throw those people in there.”

Landman: “I’ve never played against someone with those unique attributes. There have been dual-threat QBs, but none as successful as him. The thing that sets him apart is the ability to leave the pocket and also attack down the middle. Some quarterbacks have tendencies, when they do escape, to find their favorite spot. He does it all. That’s what makes it unique. He has so many exit routes. You can’t really put a spy on him.”

• • •

If the Buffaloes made any halftime adjustments, it didn’t show. On Arizona’s first drive of the third quarter, Tate rushed for a 47-yard touchdown.

Two drives later, Tate bolted 75 yards for a touchdown, putting him over the 200-yard mark.

Arizona safety Scottie Young Jr.: “On the defensive end, we were going against Philip Lindsay. Khalil would go back on the field, and he’d make a great play. They were just kind of going back and forth. It was crazy watching Khalil go off like that.”

Landman: “I remember coaches scrambling to get an adjustment in and nothing seemed to work.

Rodriguez: “I just thought, where has he been?!”

Landman: “We tried spying him, went to base defense, no one seemed fast enough to lock on to his speed and vision. I remember him running down the sideline for one of his long runs, and you don’t think he’s that fast, but he is that fast.”

Alsadek: “A lot of the plays Khalil would score on was just Khalil. He’d literally just go for a run. I think we called a play, a sprintout, someone got beat, Khalil went off the back and he broke off 55 yards. A lot of the times, it wasn’t designed for him to keep and run. He turned a bust into a big play. That’s what you want out of a guy, a lot of savvy to him.

“That’s what I loved about the offense. We’d call run plays and they’d turn into pass plays. All the keeps, the QB had all the options. That’s so dynamic and it’s so hard for defenses to stop. You look at RichRod’s track record, he’s done some amazing things. My redshirt freshman year, we went to the Fiesta Bowl and I don’t think anyone would think we could do that. At West Virginia, at Michigan …”

Landman: “I remember a lot of that game even though I didn’t play. Being on the sidelines, it’s always kind of a sting when you see a player tear up your defense that much. Credit to him, though. He’s one of the most athletic players in college football. I remember a couple plays where he scrambled, kept plays alive and it wasn’t a 15-yard gain, it was a touchdown. It can demoralize a team. I’ve always kept that game in the back of my head.”

Arizona offensive lineman Cody Creason: “Really, I had no idea honestly (how many yards Tate had). I knew he had the long runs. But I didn’t put into perspective how many yards he had. It was a close game, so I was more focused on doing my job to make sure that we came out victorious.”

• • •

Tate finished with 327 rushing yards, an FBS record for quarterbacks. He also completed 12 of 13 passes for 154 yards and a score, and Arizona won, 45-42.

Rodriguez: “I had no idea it was a record. I knew it was a lot. I had no idea it was whatever it was, 300-something yards. I don’t know who it was who told me. I had no idea. I thought he had a pretty big yardage game.”

Alsadek: “To be a part of something like that is something special. I really don’t know anyone else who can do something like he did that game. And Khalil took it like, ‘Ah, whatever.’ He’s never been an entitled, ‘I’m-the-man’ guy. For us, as an offensive line, that’s pretty special. We don’t get a lot of credit, and he’d always come up to us, good job, keep it going. That meant a lot to us.”

Creason: “In the locker room, Coach Rod said something about Khalil broke a record for most rushing guards by a QB or whatever record he broke. He announced it after in the locker room. That’s when I kind of realized how special it was.”

Rodriguez: “Any winning locker room is kind of special, but theirs is really small and cramped in there and it’s a tough environment to play. And when you face adversity and your quarterback goes down and a guy goes in and does what he did, everybody was pretty excited. I think they were excited for him too. When you see a guy have a breakout performance like that, it’s kinda neat to watch. I don’t know if they knew it was a record or anything like that, but they knew it was a special performance for sure.”

• • •

Tate’s performance went viral, and he got a shout out from LeBron James. Brown remembers watching and his jaw dropping, not realizing he was partaking in one of the great sports performances in recent college football history.

Brown: “Breathtaking.”

Young: “That was a video-game-type game for him. He did something I’ve never seen before from a quarterback — really, from anybody. He was unstoppable.”

Brown: “It was amazing. I remember it being so loud in Colorado, but every time he took off, it got back quiet. I remember the crowd being right behind us, yelling, talking noise. It was just an amazing experience to be a part of.”

Rodriguez: “You never think it’s going to happen with that many yards. But if you looked back and saw his high school film, he ran around making plays. He also had an unbelievable touch. We thought when we signed him that if he could harness those skills, if we put him in an offense where he could use some of that, he could be pretty special.”

Connolly: “I just remember him scoring every time. He was just a dominant force. He just blew up. He’s still blowing up. I expect the same thing … this week.”

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