With Arizona’s defensive line depleted and the Wildcats struggling as a whole on that side of the ball, it’s tempting to put the onus of winning the Territorial Cup on the sturdy, but still developing shoulders of quarterback Khalil Tate.
But Tate doesn’t need to be Superman for the UA to defeat Arizona State on Saturday. Khalil doesn’t need to be Kal-El.
All Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez wants from his sensational sophomore is execution “within the framework of the offense.” Tate’s natural ability begets big plays, but he can’t force the issue.
“Just take what they give us,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes the big play’s not always going to be there. Take the smaller play and get first downs.”
Rodriguez thought Tate and the offense pressed at times last week at Oregon, especially in the second half. Arizona trailed 28-21 at halftime and lost 48-28.
The Ducks limited Tate to 32 rushing yards — 169 below his average over the previous six games. Tate completed a career-high 18 passes in 35 attempts, including five drops.
He said immediately afterward that he had played “the same” against Oregon as in previous games. He altered that assessment a few days later after reviewing the film.
“I didn’t play well,” Tate said. “Missed a couple of reads, and it affected us.”
Asked to divulge what he meant by missing reads, Tate laughed.
“If I tell you,” he said, “that’s like telling everybody how to stop us.”
It’s probably a stretch to say Oregon came up with a blueprint for others to copy. The Ducks simply executed better than the Wildcats, tackled well and got the better of a quarterback who’s still young and learning.
ASU coach Todd Graham isn’t assuming anything. He described Tate as “a dynamic player – as dynamic as anyone in the country.”
“Fast, skilled. Impressed with his ability to throw the ball as well,” Graham said. “A player that you have to have a very specific game plan to try to keep controlled.”
Cal and USC stifled Tate for a half, but he responded each time. Rodriguez expects the same at Sun Devil Stadium.
“Khalil’s a really competitive guy, and he’s shown it,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes he can make a play happen when maybe it’s not happening, but I think sometimes that’ll come back to get you too, if you don’t let the game come to you.
“That’s part of the maturation of a guy that’s a really good football player and is going to get a whole lot better. But there are still some learning experiences. I think this past game should serve as a huge learning experience for all of us, and particularly our young guys like Khalil.”
Tate didn’t participate in last year’s Territorial Cup, so Saturday’s rivalry game will be his first. He grew up in Los Angeles, rooting for UCLA over USC, but got a sense of the intensity of Arizona-ASU by being on the sideline last November at Arizona Stadium.
The Wildcats dominated the line of scrimmage in that game so much that they didn’t need to attempt a pass in the second half. Would that work for Tate this time?
“Whatever we have to do to win,” he said, “I’m riding with it.”
Turn for the worse
Arizona allowed 30.3 points per game in its first eight contests. It has allowed 41.7 in its past three.
What’s been the biggest difference?
“We need two or three turnovers a game for us to be a decent defense,” defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said. “We haven’t done that the last three games.”
The Wildcats forced two or more turnovers in seven of their first eight games. The lone exception was the Colorado game, which Arizona won 45-42 as Tate came off the bench to rush for a record 327 yards.
The Wildcats have forced one takeaway each of the past three games. With their defensive line dinged and their freshmen starting to wear down, that isn’t sufficient.
“Even when we were struggling getting stops at times earlier in the season, we were getting turnovers,” Rodriguez said. “We haven’t been able to get many turnovers the last couple weeks. That’s going to be critical for us. Some of it is luck. Some of it is also making plays and recognizing things differently.”
Rodriguez said Arizona hasn’t played the ball as well in recent weeks. One of the reasons for that, Yates said, is the Wildcats’ inability to stop the run.
“It goes hand in hand,” Yates said. “When teams are able to run the ball against you, as a DB, you tend to lose focus a little bit. You try to help out on the run. So now your eyes probably aren’t as good as they need to be.
“We’ve worked on it. We’ll be ready to go this weekend.”
Taking the ball away from ASU won’t be easy. The Sun Devils have lost only nine turnovers, tied for fourth fewest in the nation.
The Wildcats have lost the turnover battle four times this year – going 1-3 in those games. In Arizona’s only other defeat, against Houston, each team had two turnovers.
Cats a hot commodity
Arizona appears to be in play for four bowl games: Foster Farms, Holiday, Sun and Vegas. All bowl matchups will be revealed Dec. 3.
The Star reached out to representatives of all four bowls to gauge their interest in the Wildcats. Two responded.
“We would love to have the Arizona Wildcats here,” said Eddie Morelos, media relations director for the Sun Bowl Association. “They have had a great season and seem to have surprised many media members. El Paso had a chance to see the Wildcats early in the year when they played the UTEP Miners, and the hope is that many fans would follow the team back to the Sun City.”
El Paso is about a 4½-hour drive from Tucson. The UA last played in the Sun Bowl in 1992.
Arizona never has played in the Foster Farms Bowl, which pits the Pac-12’s No. 3 pick against a school from the Big Ten in Santa Clara, California.
“Having hosted Arizona in the first Pac-12 football championship game played at Levi’s Stadium in 2014, we are certainly familiar with Coach Rodriguez and the Wildcats,” said Ryan Oppelt, executive director of the Foster Farms Bowl. “They have one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the nation in Khalil Tate, and it’s been exciting to watch him and the entire team’s resurgence this season.
“Given that Arizona hasn’t previously played in the Foster Farms Bowl, they certainly are a team that we’d consider bringing out to the Bay Area.”