Greg Hansen: Khalil Tate gets it done on an off-night as Arizona Wildcats survive

October 7, 2018

Trying to navigate Eighth Street 90 minutes before Saturday’s Arizona-Cal game was so tight, so narrow, that it became one-way traffic both ways.

It was sort of like Arizona’s football season. Nothing moved with ease.

Strangely, the closer you got to Arizona Stadium, parking prices became cheaper. At Eighth and Cherry, parking lot signs asked $20. A block later, at Eighth and Vine, it was down to $15. Finally, at Eighth at Highland, with quick access to Arizona Stadium, parking was but $10.

It, too, reflected Arizona’s football season. A year that began with the belief that a Pac-12 South championship was within reach — that quarterback Khalil Tate was in the star-is-born stage — had been discounted week by week.

By the time the Golden Bears and Wildcats kicked off Saturday night, about the only drama was whether Arizona would give Tate a week or two off, allowing his injured left leg to heal.

It had become such a theatrical production that the difference between 2-4 and 3-3 — losing to a mediocre Cal team and basically saying “wait ’til next year” — seemed to be an option.

Except it wasn’t.

Arizona won 24-17, and thank you very much, Cal. The Wildcats were showered by a head-shaking series of gifts as the Bears seemed to turn the ball over on every second half possession.

Cal outgained the Wildcats 476 to 265 and quarterback Brandon McIlwain had all the sparkling, Tate-like numbers: 107 rushing yards and 315 passing yards. But they were meaningless because Tate managed the game better, making fewer errors.

Who said Tate had to be the Pac-12 Player of the Week to win a big game?

The trials and tribulations of Khalil Tate produced a more pleasant chapter — triumph — on Saturday. In reality, Arizona has beaten the Pac-12’s two bottom feeders, Cal and Oregon State, but nobody’s going to care about that when the standings are printed this week.

The most intriguing parts of Saturday’s game were Tate’s actions and interactions. We’ll probably never learn how close he was to being fully benched – or is rested a better term? Here’s how it played out:

9:42 first quarter: After throwing a 31-yard touchdown pass to Tony Ellison, Tate took his customary seat on the 45-yard line, end of the bench, next to backup QB Rhett Rodriguez. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone stopped by for some coach-to-pupil stuff for maybe 20 seconds and was gone. Tate sat by himself.

This isn’t what you see during an NFL telecast. Last Monday, for example, Kansas City coach Andy Reid spent considerable time with quarterback Patrick Mahomes when the KC defense was on the field. Reid and Mahomes studied play-charts and talked in head-phones to coaches in the press box. They were shown photographs of Denver’s defensive alignments.

It was professorial in nature. It was impressive.

That’s not what Arizona does. Mazzone spends 95 percent of game-time alone, pacing the sidelines, studying his game scripts. Head coach Kevin Sumlin did not speak to Tate on the sidelines during the game.

1:49, first quarter: After a field goal gave Arizona a 10-0 lead, Tate took his seat at the 45. A trainer stopped, leaned over and had a brief conversation, probably about Tate’s injured lower left leg. Then graduate assistant coach Kolt Peavey, who wears an Oregon-green shirt on game days — it’s easy for Tate pick out a green shirt as Peavey signals in Mazzone’s plays — sat down for a quick discussion.

After Peavey left, a trainer handed Tate a thin, green sling. He put the sling around his left foot and pulled it toward him, elevating his leg. He held it that way until Cal scored, cutting the lead to 10-7.

14:02, second quarter: As Arizona took possession, Tate walked to the offensive huddle but did not put on his helmet. Freshman quarterback Jamarye Joiner put on his helmet and entered the game for the first time in his college career.

There had been no apparent discussion between Tate, Mazzone or Sumlin. Joiner took over. Arizona punted after three plays.

12:17, second quarter: As Cal took possession, Mazzone paced by himself on the sideline, going over play scripts. He did not talk to Tate. No one did.

But after Cal punted, Tate put his helmet on and walked to the sideline huddle with the offense. He re-entered the game, limping slightly.

He completed the first half, although he wasn’t sharp. Tate was 7-for-15 passing and ran just four times for 17 yards.

11:52, third quarter: Tate overthrew a receiver and Cal intercepted. He returned to the bench. His body language was not good. Mazzone found him and gestured with hands above his head, and spent maybe 10 seconds in conversation. Tate sat alone at the 45.

7:52, third quarter: A Fox Sports 1 cameraman stood behind Tate and shot footage during a timeout. Cal led 14-10, and Tate wasn’t in the mood to mug for the camera. He looked the other way.

12:22, fourth quarter: Cal has first-and-goal at Arizona’s 4-yard line. Tate perked up, walking from his spot on the bench into the defensive huddle during a timeout. He slapped hands with several players. It was a game-changing moment; Arizona’s defense held.

Tate raised his arms over his head, as if in triumph. Arizona led 17-14. More than anything, it became his game not to lose.

Then everything changed.

10:44, fourth quarter: On third-and-9 at its own 4 — the play of the game — Peavey signaled in a play from the sideline. The call was for Tate to burst to his right and catch the Bears by surprise. To that moment, Tate had rushed just five times for 13 yards. The Bears didn’t appear to deem him much of a threat.

Tate shifted into third gear and ran for 17 yards. It was his longest run of the year. The first down essentially won the game, although it was aided by a subsequent Cal fumble and interception.

3:21, fourth quarter: As Cal began what it hoped was a game-winning drive, UA athletic director Dave Heeke stood in the north end zone, his arms crossed, a solemn look on his face. But Cal’s pass was again poorly thrown, intercepted by Scottie Young and returned for a touchdown.

Tate half-ran, half-limped back to the field for the UA’s final, kill-the-clock possession.

As the scoreboard clock hits 0:00, Tate flipped the ball to referee Mark Duddy and embraced Peavey, the coach in the green shirt.

It had been 3 hours and 20 minutes since Tate took the first snap of the game. It had been a good night at the office.

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