USC, Arizona eye Pac-12 South title runs ahead of showdown

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate looks to pass against Washington during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz.

Every week throughout the season, we take a look back at the Arizona Wildcats’ previous game after re-watching it via the TV broadcast. Here are five key takeaways from the UA’s 51-27 loss to Washington on Saturday:

1. THE CONFOUNDING QB

Khalil Tate remains an amazingly talented player – and an incredibly confounding one. His performance at Colorado two Saturdays ago felt like a breakthrough, the next step in his evolution as a true quarterback. Then he made a series of perplexing decisions against Washington that made you question everything you had seen the previous week. This was not a strong game for Arizona’s offensive line, as our review of the game confirmed. But on several occasions, Tate made a bad situation worse by rolling to the perimeter into pressure or holding onto the ball too long. Tate had outlet receivers open a handful of times but either didn’t see them or chose not to throw to them. Those plays might not have gained much, but they likely would have led to fewer third-and-long situations. Tate’s awareness, or lack thereof, of game situations continues to be concerning. He again took a sack by running out of bounds, which has happened multiple times this year. And he had no prayer of making a play on that sack-fumble that turned into a Washington touchdown. The term “game manager” carries a negative connotation, but every quarterback has to manage the game based on score, field position and situation. As FS1 analyst Spencer Tillman said, Tate shouldn’t be making those kinds of mistakes as a senior.

2. BAD DEFENSE … OR GOOD EASON?

The UA defense truly rose to the occasion in the first half. Repeatedly put in bad situations by the offense and special teams, the defense limited Washington to two field goals. The Huskies’ average starting field position in the first half was their 42-yard line – and they didn’t score a touchdown. Remarkable. The second half was a different story. What changed? Two things stood out: (1) Washington QB Jacob Eason played like a first-round pick in the second half. Time and again he put the ball in perfect spots down the field. Lorenzo Burns and Christian Roland-Wallace had exquisite coverage on two deep balls, but the Huskies completed them anyway. Could Arizona have put more pressure on Eason? Sure. But on one of his big passes, a 19-yarder to Aaron Fuller on the opening drive of the third quarter, Eason got drilled by a blitzing Tony Fields II just as he released the ball. And (2) Washington hurt Arizona with perimeter runs. The Huskies were able to outman and outflank the Wildcats to the edges, often pulling stud tackle Trey Adams to lead the way. Upcoming opponent USC no longer runs that style of offense, but you can be sure its coaches will watch this film and add some of those wrinkles.

3. DECISIONS, DECISIONS

It’s easy to second-guess the coaches. We try to ignore that low-hanging fruit here, but this game – which had a seven-point margin early in the fourth quarter – featured too many questionable decisions that demand further scrutiny. Let’s start with the configuration of the offensive line. We won’t pretend to know as much about line play as Kevin Sumlin and his staff, but it was curious that Paiton Fears was moved to left guard with Robert Congel out of the lineup. The Fears-Edgar Burrola combo at right tackle had been working. Moving Fears created two changes, whereas inserting veteran Bryson Cain there – and keeping the RT platoon intact – would have created only one. Washington’s linebacker and safety blitzes caused the line considerable trouble, as did its stunts with three or four rushers. Decision No. 2 came late in the first half. Arizona could have used its timeouts to force Washington to punt and had enough time to try a long field or Hail Mary. Yes, the Wildcats had muffed a punt earlier, and they were fortunate to be leading. But they also had momentum and the crowd on their side. Finally, after Nathan Tilford’s tackle-breaking, 25-yard TD run with 4:25 left, Sumlin eschewed a two-point conversion that could have reduced Arizona’s deficit to two scores. That seemed like a concession. But then the Wildcats attempted an onside kick. There was no downside to going for two at that point.

4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL

Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … Tilford again ran with great power but also displayed nifty feet and improved vision. … J.J. Taylor looked terrific and remains impossible for linebackers to cover out of the backfield, as Washington’s Kyler Manu undoubtedly would attest. … The coaches have their own grading system, but it’s a good bet center Josh McCauley will be the highest-graded offensive linemen. He did a nice job of getting to the second level. … WR Jamarye Joiner has immense potential but remains unpolished. He’s new to the position. If he puts in the work, he’ll get there. … DT Trevon Mason continues to flash and make plays. If he keeps improving, he could be an all-league performer next year. … Arizona didn’t use its three-LB defensive formation as much as in previous games, going with four linemen more often than not. … Anthony Pandy played in a new dime package, but that came at the expense of Fields, who arguably has been the Wildcats’ best pass rusher. … Roland-Wallace let frustration get the best of him after surrendering a 49-yard pass to Puka Nacua. Two plays later, Roland-Wallace retaliated after a late shove from Adams, who made a veteran move by flopping to draw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. Roland-Wallace, a true freshman, will learn.

5. SECOND HALF, LAST CHANCE

Arizona has reached the halfway point of Sumlin’s second season. At 4-2, the Wildcats are a game ahead of last year’s pace. They’re also in better shape, record-wise, than many would have predicted after the opener. The loss to Washington provided what Tate accurately described as a “reality check.” Arizona’s best opponent to date revealed its flaws and reiterated the notion that the Wildcats can’t afford to self-destruct against superior – or even equal – foes. The remaining schedule is daunting. USC is the first of back-to-back road trips, with Stanford on tap on Oct. 26. Arizona needs to find a way to split those games. That would give the Wildcats five wins heading into a homecoming matchup against Oregon State, which just lost 52-7 at home to Utah. Arizona should be favored in that game, and a win between now and then would position the Wildcats to secure bowl eligibility. Time is running out for Tate and his fellow seniors. His legacy likely will be defined by what happens over the last half of his last season. As the past two weeks illustrated, it’s impossible to predict what lies ahead.

Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or mlev@tucson.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev 

Reporter

Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.