I lingered in the south end zone at Folsom Field late Saturday, waiting for the last man on the field, quarterback Khalil Tate, to complete a TV interview and walk to Arizona’s dressing room.
As Tate stopped to slap hands with a few Arizona fans, I noticed his white jersey was virtually spotless. There was a small green smudge on his right shoulder, but otherwise his No. 14 jersey was clean.
Folsom Field is one of the few natural grass surfaces remaining in college football, and yet Arizona’s sophomore quarterback had played 47 snaps, ran 14 times for 327 yards and looked as if he had just been issued a new jersey from equipment manager Wendell Neal.
A few minutes later, Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre delivered the Pac-12 quote of the year.
“About (Tate’s) fourth time out there, I was like ‘crud, I don’t think we’ll ever get this kid down,’” he said.
On a night of superlatives — a night that Tate might’ve delivered the singular offensive performance in Arizona history — crud was the four-letter word to best describe what he did to the defending Pac-12 South champions.
A longer word — devastating — would also work.
After he removed his still-white jersey, Tate spent about three minutes chatting with a small group of reporters outside Arizona’s locker room. I asked if he could remember a better performance.
“No,” he said, and then hedged. “Maybe … I’m not sure.”
As hard as it is to believe, Tate’s final game for the 2015 Serra High School Cavaliers might’ve gone beyond what he accomplished Saturday — the top-rushing performance by a quarterback in major-college history — and then some.
In a playoff game against Orange County powerhouse Mater Dei, Tate rushed for 356 yards, which included touchdown runs of 95 and 79 yards.
Maybe Tate was confused because there have been so many nights like the one against Mater Dei and Colorado. Earlier in the 2015 season, against Narbonne High, Tate ran for 295 yards and scored six touchdowns despite sitting out much of the second quarter because of leg cramps.
In the first half alone, he scored on runs of 70, 51 and 27 yards, each time struggling to walk back to the bench.
“He resembled a human battering ram,” his coach, Scott Altenberg, told the Los Angeles Times. “It was unbelievable. It was like (legendary New York Knicks center) Willis Reed going out there with a limp.”
As good as Tate was at Serra, he arrived at Arizona with serious questions about his passing touch and his ability to succeed in the Pac-12.
Now what? Is it accurate to say quarterback-rich USC and UCLA blew it by not asking Tate to play quarterback? Does this put Arizona in position to have a winning season? Fill the stadium?
If Tate never plays another down at Arizona, he will be remembered for what in my opinion is the greatest single offensive performance in school history. The intrigue is if can do at Arizona what he did at Serra — have people debating what was better: his unforgettable game against Mater Dei, or the astonishing night against Narbonne, or the game against the Alemany Warriors in which he ran for 201 yards, passed for 308 more and scored six touchdowns?
Altenberg described Tate’s game against Mater Dei this way: “It’s difficult to defend him.
“There were a couple of plays when I was like ‘Oh, no’ and then he went for a touchdown. And then I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’”
That oh-no, oh-OK scenario again played out Saturday at Colorado.
On Monday, Tate became the 13th Arizona quarterback recognized as Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week; Tom Tunnicliffe was so-honored five times from 1980-83.
But none of those players of the week had numbers to match Tate’s night at Colorado, and none of them — and I saw every game — left the fans and coaches with a one-word reaction.
What happens now is even more important than Tate’s performance at Colorado.
In 2002, QB Jason Johnson’s 492-yard, four-touchdown, player-of-the-week game stunned Cal three days after his teammates staged a mutiny against coach John Mackovic.
It didn’t mean much; Mackovic was fired 10 months later.
In 2007 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, quarterback Willie Tuitama passed for 501 yards and five touchdowns, threading the needle on the game-winning touchdown with 2:02 remaining to beat the Huskies 48-41, probably saving coach Mike Stoops’ job. Stoops had been 14-28.
The UA then upset UCLA and Oregon and put it on a trajectory for bowl games in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Now, a decade later, Khalil Tate begins with not just a clean jersey, but a clean slate.