Photo by Arizona Athletics
Cal Football

Arizona Preview: Cats, Tate Seek Return to Form

October 5, 2018
746

This isn't quite the Arizona team we expected.
 The Wildcats (2-3, 1-1 Pac-12) were supposed to be a legitimate threat in the South, with an offense featuring the running of quarterback Khalil Tate. 

But the Wildcats, who host Cal Saturday night, have struggled against above average opposition and Tate does not resemble the dynamic player he was a year ago. In little more than two-thirds of a season he rushed for 1,411 yards, averaging 9.2 yards per try. Cal found out first hand when Tate torched them for 137 rushing yards, including a 74-yarder in UofA's 45-44 double overtime victory.

New coach Kevin Sumlin, who was fired after six seasons and a 51-26 record (a mark that might earn him a statue in Berkeley) at Texas A&M, was supposed to be able to take Tate to new heights. Look what he did with Johnny Manzel at A&M. 

But Tate's rushing numbers are way down, and he has yet to exhibit the electricity he showed in 2017. He did hurt  his ankle in the loss to Houston in week two, and that lingering injury has visibly affected his mobility. There is even a slim chance he won't play Saturday.
 But even when Tate was healthy Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone were using him more as a passer. In the opening loss to BYU (the same BYU team Cal beat a week later) a presumably healthy Tate carried the ball just eight times.  

Cal head coach Justin Wilcox, giving the Wildcats staff the benefit of the doubt, says the switch in emphasis speaks to Tate's improvement as a thrower. 

"He is a dynamic athlete, he is really developing as a passer," Wilcox said. "You see the growth from week one until now, and their offense you can tell, it's their first year in the system and obviously the more they are playing it's evolving. 

"They give you a lot of issues with their offense. Whether it's formations and RPOs, the quarterback is obviously a threat to run it and he's throwing the ball. He's developing as a quarterback, we know what kind of talent he is. I think everybody does."

Tate wasn't too shabby as a passer last year when he completed 111 of 179 attempts  for 1,591 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Although in one strange stat, Tate has attempted 20 or more passes in six game. The Wildcats are 0-6 in those games. 

But it was his running that separated from the pack last year and that has been missing. He has just 116 yards on a mere 36 carries.

The Wildcat defense, which is in something a rebuilding mode, has become adept at forcing turnovers, which does not bode well for the Bears who lost the ball five times in the loss to Oregon. Their numbers are so-so, tenth in the conference in total defense, giving up 418.8 yards per game. But they have some outstanding individual talents who can turn a game by themselves.

The Wildcats victories are over the unimpressive pair of Southern Utah and Oregon State, but last week they staged a spirted comeback and almost caught USC.  The Cal defense, which has had its share of fourth-quarter troubles, should beware.

A closer look at Arizona:

Offense

The Wildcats lead the conference in rushing, averaging 217.4 yards per game. That isn't big surprise. The shock is how little Tate is contributing to the run total. The Wildcats' leader is sophomore tailback J.J. Taylor, all  5-foot-6, 160 pounds of him. He has 527 yards on 89 carries. 

He was Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for his 284 yard effort in the rout of Oregon State."He’s a dynamic guy,” Sumlin said after the OSU game.  “I thought he was more of a stop-start, change-of-direction guy because of his size. He showed an explosive side today.”

There has been talk in Tucson that maybe Tate, who reportedly has been limited in practice,  should sit this one out and get healthy. Sumlin in his weekly press conference danced around the question. 

"During the week, we’re in consultation with our trainers and medical staff," Sumlin said. "We’re never going to put anybody in harm’s way. If he’s healthy enough to play...we’ll make the decision that give us the best chance to win the game. ...There’s not just one thing that goes into that decision...we have those discussions starting on Sunday and going all the way up to gametime.”

Tate said that despite being in pain he was "healthy enough to play,"  in every game until now. And Sumlin had said that Tate even at less than 100 per cent is probably better than anybody else the Wildcats could put out there.

Ironically the backup is Rhett Rodriguez, son of Rich Rodriguez who was fired as head coach in January.
The wide receivers are either on the smallish size or big and tall. Leading receiver Shun Brown (23 catches, 304 yards) stands 5-10. Number three Tony Ellison (14 catches, 270 yards) is 5-11. But number two Shawn Poindexter (18 catches, 391 yards) measures 6-5. They will test Cal's defensive backs.

Tight ends Jamie Nunley and  Bryce Wolma, who were expected to be a big part of the pass offense, have caught just two passes apiece.  Not to worry, Sumlin assures.  "They've been involved," he said. "They've had some opportunities and we missed them a couple of times. I think our receivers are doing a nice job, I think our tight ends are doing a nice job and they were heavily invovlved against Oregon State in the running game. Those things are there, they (the tight ends) have been open, but we've thrown the ball down the field a little bit more than we have in the past. 

"But they are going to continue to be involved in the passing game. They've done a nice job, even in protection."

The offensive line is experienced but suffered a major blow when senior left tackle Layth Friekh was injured and had to leave the game last week.  Sumlin said that "Micheal Eletise came in and did a pretty good job based on how much he’s played."
But there is a definite drop off in talent and if Freikh can't go, it will hurt the Wildcats. 

Defense

The Wildcats have a major impact player in linebacker Colin Schooler, whose 57 tackles are second and 10.5 for losses lead the conference. The last time the Bears saw him he was batting down Ross Bowers pass on the two-point conversion try that sealed the Wildcats double overtime win a year ago. 

"He's as good a football player as there is in this league," Sumlin said of the 2017 Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.

He doesn't have to convince Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. "I thought he was very talented last year as a first year player, but he's better," Baldwin said this week. "He just doesn't have any weakness. He has a special motor, too. I know that's expected, I get it, everyone should play hard. But there are certain guys that take it to a whole other level.

"And he's just around the football, he's athletic. he can cover, he can tackle, he can rush the passer he can drop into coverage. He's just got all the tools. It's a tough challenge for us."

Although the Wildcats primarily use a 3-4 defensive scheme, similar to the Bears, they do change things up. "They do a good job," WIlcox said. "They have both odd and even fronts they mix and match their coverages, do a good job of that. Kind of make you hunt what they are doing. They choose their times to pressure you. They've got some guys making plays out there for them."

Arizona had no sacks in the first two now has seven. One of the keys to the improvement  according to Sumlin, was not only  the return to duty of JC transfer PJ Johnson, who missed the better part of three games with an injury, but also the shifting of him from the interior line to defensive end. At 6-5, 330 pounds, the transfer from CCSF is quite an obstacle on the outside.

"He's a big enough athletic guy that he can rush the passer, but he's still 330 pounds and he can hold the point of attack," Sumlin said. "He's done a nice job out there. Getting bigger personnel  on the field wat the thought process . ... I think he had adjusted to that. I think he likes it out there, too. A lot less double teams."

Wilcox is impressed. "It helps set edges on the defense," he said. "I'm sure they've got their reasons for doing it. ...A big body on the edge is tough. They have multiple guys they move around on defense. He's a load out there. It burns up the zone cutbacks and some of the doubleteams you can get at that position. It will be a really good challenge for us on offense."

Johnson's return has helped hybrid linebacker/lineman  Kylan Wilborn, who no longer is regularly double teamed. He  has eight tackles and three sacks in the last three games. 

Linebacker Tony Fields, who led the team with 104 tackles  a year ago, can be found all over the field.
 The secondary is anchored by experienced senior Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, the free safety. He has played in 43 games with 29 starts.
 Sophomore Lorenzo Burns ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in passes defended, averaging 1.40 per game.  Burns had five interceptions a year ago, which tied for second in the nation among freshmen. 

Special Teams

The Bears will see a familair face in punter Dylan Klumph, who did the same job for Cal last year, but moved to Arizona as a grad transfer. He is averaging 41.8 yards per kick. 

Sumlin said the 'Cats might make change placekickers.  Lucas Havrisik is 4-for-9 on field goals and has missed two extra point tries could be replaced by Josh Pollack.

Brown is dangerous on punt returns, his average of 8.2 yards per runback is third best in the league.

Overall

Both teams see this as a fulcrum game for the season. The winner will be on its way to a winning record and a chance to play past November. The loser will be scrambling to salvage the season. 

The Bears are a slight favorite, surprising considering the game is in Tucson and have beaten BYU, the only common opponent. But if Tate is anywhere near healthy Cal will need its best effort. 

Notes

  • Arizona has won the last four meetings and leads the all-time series 17-14-2.
  • Of the 33 games 23 have been decided by one possession (8 points) or fewer, including each of the last five.
  • In 1 of the matchups the margin of victory has been three points or fewer.
  • The Wildcats were held to 98 net rushing yards by USC, the first time they have been below 100 since 2015. 
  • The Cats have 17 offensive plays of at least 30 yards, tied for 10th-most nationally.
  • Arizona has given up just seven sacks this year.
  • The Wildcats started last year 2-2, then went 4-0 in October, including the win over the Bears. 
×
Verify your student status
See Subscription Benefits
Trial only available to users who have never subscribed or participated in a previous trial.