If anyone can understand what Arizona Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate is going through this week, it’s his UCLA counterpart.
Josh Rosen knows what it’s like to deal with the burden of outlandish expectations. Hype? Rosen has been hyped since high school. Three years into his college career, it hasn’t stopped; he’s making a push to enter the Heisman Trophy conversation and could be the first pick in next year’s NFL draft.
But here’s the thing about hype and expectations and video-game numbers: None of it matters if you don’t win.
Tate earned national accolades for his epic 327-yard rushing performance at Colorado last week; hardly anyone remembers Phillip Lindsay’s 281-yard effort because his Buffaloes lost.
Rosen vs. Tate on Saturday at Arizona Stadium is as intriguing a quarterback matchup as you’ll find across the entire college football landscape. Each cares about one-upping the other in only one area: the scoreboard.
“As a quarterback, your main goal should be to win the game,” Tate said. “If you win the game, you have a pretty happy team.”
Rosen echoed that idea while speaking with Los Angeles reporters this week. At the time, he led the nation in passing yards (despite having last weekend off) and ranked second in touchdown passes. It was suggested that if he keeps putting up numbers — and 3-2 UCLA goes on a run — Rosen could generate some legit Heisman hype.
“I would give up all the hype to be 5-0,” Rosen said. “There’s nothing compared to the year in high school where we went 16-0 at St. John Bosco, and I would give anything to have that again. Anything.”
Criticized earlier in his college career for some sophomoric antics – including having a hot tub in his dorm room – Rosen has grown into a leader. Working with new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, Rosen has an active role in formulating the game plan each week.
Is Rosen still sometimes too blunt for people’s tastes? Yes. His candid Q&A with Bleacher Report in August – in which he said, among other things, that “football and school don’t go together” – provided further fodder for the anti-Rosen camp.
But UCLA coach Jim Mora appreciates the way Rosen has handled those mini-controversies and the hype that has accompanied him since he was the top-ranked pro-style quarterback prospect in the recruiting class of 2015.
“It’s a challenge for young players, really at any position, but certainly at the quarterback position, where you get so much attention,” Mora said. “I think Josh has handled it unbelievably. We all have to remember, he (enrolled) here as a 17-year-old. And now going into his third season here has matured to a level where he’s really approaching everything as a professional. He takes to coaching and teaching.”
Rosen started all 13 games as a freshman in ’15, passing for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns and leading the Bruins to an 8-5 record. At that point, the hype train became a bullet train.
Last year, he got hurt halfway through the season, missing UCLA’s final six games because of a shoulder injury. The Bruins slumped to 4-8. USC quarterback Sam Darnold became the toast of L.A.
This year, Rosen has risen again, and he is the undisputed focal point for Arizona’s defense. In two appearances against the Wildcats, both victories, Rosen has passed for 634 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
“He’s a very smart quarterback,” Arizona senior defensive tackle Parker Zellers said. “He knows what he’s doing out there. He seems calm and poised in the pocket.
“At the same time … if we pressure him and get him in some tough situations, get him to make a few mistakes here and there, hopefully we can get in his head.”
Arizona’s defense, which had its worst game of the season at Colorado, understands that it needs to do its part.
The Wildcats can’t rely on Tate to bail them out again. Topping, or even matching, his performance from last week will be nearly impossible.
Not only did Tate set the FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback, he completed 12 of 13 passes. He came within one dropped pass of pitching a perfect game.
How does one possibly follow up an outing like that?
“Keep on being myself,” Tate said. “Keep on making the right reads. Keep on being a leader, putting my team in the best position to win.”
Tate is unquestionably a better version of himself than the last time he had an opportunity like this.
Like Rosen, Tate enrolled as a 17-year-old. Unlike Rosen, Tate played in games as a 17-year-old.
Tate played well off the bench against UCLA and Utah. He made his first career start one week later against USC – 364 days before start No. 2 Saturday – and it was a debacle. Tate completed only 7 of 18 passes for 58 yards. He threw an interception and lost a fumble.
“I don’t know if anybody would have played well against USC,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We played poorly as a team everywhere, in all three phases.
“That was his first start. Either you’re ready to play or you’re not. Again, he should have been redshirted and we had to play him (because of injuries).
“He’s a whole lot better now.”
Tate is in better shape, physically and mentally. He has lost weight and gained knowledge. He’ll be ready this time.
“Nobody wants to fail,” Arizona quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said. “Nobody wants to get beat bad on national TV. But it’s a learning situation. If you learn from it, it can be very valuable.
“He was in a situation where he was forced to play. We didn’t want him to play; we wanted to redshirt him because we saw the potential of what he could be. He needed that redshirt.
“Then everybody got hurt. But the bright side is, it helped him this year because he’s had that experience.”