Entering this season, first year head coach Kevin Sumlin was well aware of the questions surrounding his team and how they’d fare this year.
One of the questions Sumlin never thought he’d face were those of returning quarterback Khalil Tate, a Heisman trophy contender to begin the season. But Tate has underwhelmed for most of the season, turning what could’ve been a banner season into one without any direction.
Tate was the entrenched started after taking the nation by storm last year, throwing for 1,591 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for 1,411 yards and 12 scores. But due to an ankle injury, he hasn’t been himself this season, missing most of the previous two games.
Tate eventually left the starting job to third-string quarterback Rhett Rodriguez, the son of former coach Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez has done a good job in fill in duty, throwing for 457 yards and three scores in the past two games.
"I thought Rhett did some things that were really good and there were some things that he would take back," Sumlin said. "He's very, very critical of himself, but in the end he gave us a chance to win the game. That's the takeaway."
All that changes this week, and so does the Wildcats offense, as Tate is expected to play against Oregon. How healthy he is remains in question, and therefore, the big-play ability of Arizona’s offense remains in question as well.
If capable of running, Tate becomes one half of a formidable duo with running back JJ Taylor filling in the other half.
Taylor is the Pac-12’s fourth leading rusher at 102.1 yards per game — but that number jumps up to 124.8 yards per game in conference play.
Not the biggest player at 5-foot-6, Taylor packs a punch with his 184-pound frame. He’s got great balance when running the ball, often staying low to the ground and bouncing off tackles, making him difficult to bring down.
“Their running backs will make you miss, they're explosive, they'll create big chunk plays as well, explosive plays — they're running behind an offensive line that is long, athletic,” Cristobal said of Arizona. “So they present some challenges, one that our defense, obviously we're very eager to get back to play but knowing we have to prepare to do so to play well.”
Shawn Poindexter is the breakout star of the wide receivers, leading the team with 552 yards and four touchdowns on 30 catches.
“I think he's proven consistently that he can make plays, 50-50 balls he's going to make the majority of them,” Sumlin said of Poindexter.
Defensively, the Wildcats have struggled, giving up 29.0 points per game, third-worst in the Pac-12. They give up 440.6 total yards per game, 195.9 of which come via the run — both second worst in the conference.
“Defensively, you watch them over the course of the last three weeks the number of negative plays they have produced, the amount of pressure they're created for the quarterback, they've knocked some balls loose as well, created some turnovers,” Cristobal said of Arizona’s defense.
If there is a bright spot, it comes from sophomore linebacker Colin Schooler, the younger brother of Oregon wide receiver Brenden.
Schooler leads the Pac-12 in tackles for loss with 14.5 while averaging 10.1 tackles per game. He also does a nice job in coverage, tying for the team-lead with two interceptions and breaking up three passes on the season. Schooler is somebody who has the potential to change the game all on his own.
To have any success, the defense will have to force a turnover or two (they have 12 on the year), giving the offense a few extra possessions to keep this game close. In the end, it’ll come down to Tate to see if he can recreate some of last year’s magic and help Arizona pull of the big upset.