Arizona football 2018: The Curious Case of Khalil Tate

The Wildcats fell to 2-3 after loss to USC

On a night when an average USC team struggled to do anything right, Arizona still found ways to lose.

A slow start, lack of energy, a blocked 38-yard field goal, an interminable late-game goal-line possession, a missed extra point and, finally, a failed on-side kick.

USC committed 18 penalties for 169 yards. Arizona won the turnover battle 3-1.

And still lost.

It was a totally drunken finish at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night, as the Cats rallied from a 24-0 deficit early in the third quarter to a near theft of a Pac-12 South game in front of scant thousands who remained from a ridiculously low crowd of 43,573.

But in a game that did neither team proud, USC walked away the winner, 24-20.

Arizona dropped to 2-3 overall, 1-1 in the conference ... and I walked away wondering what the heck is going on with Khalil Tate?

I expected the Wildcats to be better than 2-3 at the end of September, but I've seen crazier things. What's going on with Tate -- whatever that is -- is just bizarre.

Last year: He's the next Lamar Jackson.

This year: He's Jon Wassink.

Look him up if you must.

Across the college football universe, through the first month of the season, there cannot be a more surprising stat anywhere than this: 36 rushes for 69 yards.

Last season's Mr. October, the kid who won an unprecedented four consecutive Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors, the human highlight film who set an FBS record for quarterbacks with 327 rushing yards in a game, the guy who led the nation with five runs of at least 70 yards (!), the offseason Heisman candidate ... yeah, that guy has 36 rushes for 69 yards.

Now, maybe it's because of the change of coaching staffs and a change in scheme. Maybe it's because defenses have "Stop Khalil!!" as No. 1 on their to-do list. Maybe it's because he suffered some sort of ankle injury early in Week 2 at Houston. Maybe it's because he's heard doubters throughout his football career and he's intent on proving to the world that he's a passer, dammit.

I think it's a mix of all those things. You can be the judge as to what percent, although those are tricky figures for outsiders to determine.

The thing is, Arizona's offense isn't good enough on its own, isn't good enough without Tate-as-athlete at quarterback.

Most opponents will have better personnel. USC's defense had better personnel. Arizona ran for only 98 yards at 2.6 per carry, and the Trojans were happy to take their chances playing man coverage on the outside, not fearful of the UA wideouts. Arizona did take advantage a couple of times in the second half with long pass plays ... but too little, too late.

The Wildcats' equalizer against superior talent has to be tempo and the quarterback run game, not just by design but when Tate is in scramble mode. The ad-lib quarterback is a fantastic equalizer and an ultimate weapon with a guy like Tate.

I asked UA coach Kevin Sumlin after the game if he sees more opportunities for Tate to run when he scrambles.

"Sure," Sumlin said. "I see the same thing you see. There's plenty of opportunities for him to run."

I followed: "Do you talk to him during the week about taking those opportunities?"

"Yes."

I followed again: "Are you frustrated he's not taking those opportunities?"

"Am I frustrated? No. It's easy to second-guess, it's easy to do a lot of things when you're sitting there watching. He ran more tonight than he has all year. I get it. (But) he ran more tonight than he has all year ...

"In an RPO system, a read-option system, some of those are called runs. We had some movement throws, some get-him-on-the-perimeter to throw. We threw a couple of touchdowns off of it."

The great unknown is Tate's ankle. Tate looks fine at times. He looks gimpy at other times. He seems to move OK in a straight line, but you can count on one hand this season the times he put a cleat into the turf and made a quick, decisive cut.

"I'm healthy enough to play," he said after the game.

The other thing, it's not as if Arizona has a great option off the bench.

Tate's a good passer, don't get me wrong. Great arm. But a conventional Arizona offense scares nobody. Nobody.

Tate on the move, with the ball in his hand, seeking slivers of space, scares everybody.

On Saturday night, he completed 16 of 33 passes for 232 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. That interception came in the second quarter when he scrambled to his left and made a bad decision to loft the ball into coverage. Asked about the play after the game, Tate basically didn't want to answer and said he didn't remember.

As Sumlin mentioned, Tate did run a season-high 13 times for a season-high 38 yards. That sounds strange. Season-high 38 yards.

"Obviously, you see the same thing I see," Sumlin said.

"He's not 100 percent. But I think he's battling through it. He gets warmed up. Sometimes you see him go really fast and other times ... it's what an ankle is. It's unfortunate, but that's where we are right now."

There was a six-game stretch last season in which Tate ran for 1,207 yards and led the Wildcats to a 5-1 record. He has now been held to fewer than 60 rushing yards in eight consecutive games.

Arizona's record in those games is 2-6, with one of the wins coming against lower-division Southern Utah and the other win coming against Oregon State, likely the worst team in the Pac-12 this season.

The Wildcats are going nowhere unless Tate takes them somewhere on the ground.

Of course, next game -- at home against Cal on Saturday -- he's liable to do something great.

It will be October, after all.

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