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 35-30 victory at Colorado on Saturday:
1. TRUSTING TATE
.@ArizonaFBall kept its poise early on in a BIG road win against Colorado. @KhalilDTN's touchdown pass to Brian Casteel to put the 'Cats ahead is the @OpusBank #12Best moment of the game. pic.twitter.com/ysfmSJRcuP— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) October 6, 2019
Upon further review, the aspect that stood out most was just how much the Arizona offense changed in the second half. Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone put the game on quarterback Khalil Tate’s shoulders, and he came through in an unprecedented way. How so? Well, entering Saturday, the Wildcats had a sub-.500 record – 2-3 – when Tate threw for 300 or more yards. They were 1-8 when he attempted 30 or more passes. But with Colorado shutting down Arizona’s run game, the plan had to shift. Tate attempted 27 passes in the second half, completing 23 of them. He finished 31 of 41 for a career-best 404 yards. The strategic change was the clearest sign yet that Mazzone and Tate have built a level of trust. Although Tate has said the two always have been on good terms, Mazzone acknowledged growing pains during their first season together. The coaching staff didn’t seem to trust Tate in the 2018 finale, when the offense prematurely went into a shell, altering the game’s vibe – and ultimately leading to defeat. This time was different – even after Tate threw an ill-advised interception late in the second quarter. Mazzone and Tate could be seen talking on the sideline between every series. Their communication has improved. This wasn’t quite Boulder 2017 all over again for Tate, but it was a breakthrough in a different sort of way.
2. THE ADJUSTMENT
What exactly did the offense look like in the second half? A lot like it did the previous week when freshman Grant Gunnell subbed for a banged-up Tate, only with a swifter tempo. Tate’s play-action and RPO fakes have a greater effect than Gunnell’s, because the senior is a bigger threat to run. But in general, the plan seemed to be about the same – get the ball out of Tate’s hand quickly and stress the edges of Colorado’s defense. Among Tate’s 23 second-half completions, we counted seven bubble screens, two checkdowns, one swing route, one RPO pop pass and one pass into the flat. Tate also hit Jamarye Joiner downfield after faking a bubble screen. Unlike last season – when he relied too heavily on freelancing and deep shots – Tate scanned the field, remained patient in the pocket and found his outlet receivers. Was that a product of his hamstring being less than fully healthy? Maybe. But it’s unquestionably a sign of progress. By the way, among Tate’s four incomplete passes after halftime, two were throwaways and one was a drop. The only truly “errant” pass he made went off the hand of Tayvian Cunningham.
3. THE FINAL STAND
Since this was Arizona-Colorado, the game had to come down to one critical play. That happened late in the fourth quarter, when the Buffaloes faced fourth-and-4 at the UA 46-yard line. Here’s what we saw on that play: Colorado lined up in a four-receiver set, with three receivers (including a tight end) to the left and one to the right. Quarterback Steven Montez set up in the shotgun, with tailback Jaren Mangham to his right. Arizona appeared to be in man-to-man coverage, with linebacker Colin Schooler serving as a rover or spy. It initially appeared that the Wildcats would send four rushers, but linebacker Tony Fields II blitzed from the offense’s right side. Defensive end Justin Belknap occupied two blockers, including right guard Casey Roddick. Fields dipped his right shoulder to get past Roddick. Montez could feel the pressure coming and drifted slightly to his left. Fields hit him in the midsection just after he released the ball. The pass sailed past the outstretched arm of defensive tackle Finton Connolly and too high for intended receiver Dimitri Stanley, who appeared to be Montez’s second option; the first, Daniel Arias, couldn’t wriggle free from Christian Roland-Wallace underneath. Stanley was crossing the field from left to right. Safety Tristan Cooper was on his hip and might have broken up the pass had Stanley gotten two hands on it. Montez limped off the field. The UA defense celebrated.
4. THIS TIME IT’S PERSONNEL
Each week we provide some notes on individual players, so here goes … Nathan Tilford ran with great power on his first touchdown, plowing through 320-pound defensive tackle Austin Williams to cross the goal line. … Left guard Bryson Cain threw key blocks on both of Tilford’s TD runs. Cain has been rotating with Robert Congel and got extended playing time with Congel nursing an injury. … Joiner is oozing with potential. But the redshirt freshman is still learning the finer points of being a receiver and returner. Once he figures it out, he could be an all-conference performer. … Connolly had a bigger impact than his stats (four tackles, one TFL) suggest. He frequently penetrated the backfield, attracted double-teams and drew a flag for an illegal block. … Fields had a terrific game, but one play of his went unnoticed. Arizona wouldn’t have been in position to make a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter if Fields hadn’t hustled to track down Alex Fontenot at the 2-yard line. The Wildcats forced CU to kick a field goal in a game they won by five points. … Cooper, known for his big hits, always seemed to be in the right position in this game. He finished with nine tackles and has bounced back well after being left out of the game plan vs. Texas Tech.
5. OPPORTUNITY AHEAD
Arizona sits alone in first place in the Pac-12 South, and the Wildcats have no need to apologize for narrow victories over an underwhelming UCLA squad and a banged-up Colorado club. After being picked to finish fifth in the South, Arizona has exceeded expectations – which went from medium to low after the season-opening loss at Hawaii. What’s most impressive about the Wildcats’ four-game win streak is that they’re winning games in all kinds of different ways. They’re also showing toughness and character that wasn’t evident on a consistent basis last season. They’ll need all that and more to defeat Washington, which is coming off an ugly loss at Stanford but is among the best-coached, most physical teams in the Pac-12. Although the Huskies aren’t ranked anymore, knocking them off next Saturday would signify that Arizona truly has arrived. Washington was a seven-point favorite as of this writing. The Huskies have a potential first-round pick in rocket-armed quarterback Jacob Eason. They won’t look past the Cats after stumbling against the Cardinal. If it’s #Pac12AfterDark action you crave, Arizona Stadium will be the place to be Saturday night.