USC quarterback Sam Darnold began the season as an All-American candidate and the favorite to both win the Heisman Trophy and be drafted No. 1 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. With Darnold under center, the Trojans were also the odds-on favorite to win the Pac-12, and therefore, considered the most likely team in the conference to make it to the College Football Playoff.
All the early-season hoopla surrounding Darnold had its roots in his outstanding performance as a redshirt freshman. He didn’t begin the season atop the depth chart, but Darnold replaced Max Browne four games into the season and the offense took off. USC made it to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2008, and Darnold rode the hype train that followed into the national consciousness, as well as to the top of the draft boards.
The 2017 season hasn’t gone as planned, however. Darnold has accounted for 10 interceptions and the Trojans are 7-2 overall and 5-1 in conference play, having suffered losses to Washington State and Notre Dame. Though USC leads the Pac-12 South, its playoff hopes are on life support. USC hosts a surging Arizona team this week, and the Wildcats feature their own exciting quarterback – one building buzz not unlike what we saw with Darnold a year ago.
By now, even if you haven’t stayed up late enough or don’t have Pac-12 Network, you’ve seen the highlights of Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, running away from defenders untouched to the end zone. If not:
Tate has led the Wildcats to four consecutive victories, while earning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors in each. During that span, Tate has completed 70.7 percent of his passes for 743 yards and six touchdowns and two interceptions. That would be good in its own right, but Tate also has exploded for an incredible 840 rushing yards on just 59 carries – an eye-popping 14.2 yards per carry – during the winning streak. Tate has scored eight times on the ground, all of which have come on runs of 28 yards or longer, including seven TDs of 47 yards or longer and two of more than 70 yards –hence the highlight reels rolling throughout the month of October.
Like Darnold last year, Tate didn’t begin the season as the starter. Like USC, the Wildcats suffered two losses before making a switch. And, like the Trojans, Arizona is suddenly one of the best teams in the conference, and a legitimate contender in the Pac-12 South. But unlike Darnold, Tate didn’t beat out the starter on the practice field. Instead, he replaced an injured Brandon Dawkins in the first quarter against Colorado on Oct. 7 and put together an historic performance that forced head coach Rich Rodriguez to reevaluate which player would lead the offense.
Dawkins, who ran for 944 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and has 358 yards and six TDs on the ground this year, started the first five games of the season. He took the first nine snaps against the Buffaloes and led Arizona into the red zone during the game’s opening drive. Unfortunately, Dawkins exited after suffering a late hit on the Colorado sideline. Tate entered the game, handed off on his first snap and completed a pass on his second, which was fumbled and recovered by the Buffs. As Dawkins attempted to recover, Tate took the field for the next drive, and loudly announced his presence with a 58-yard touchdown run. He stayed in the game, and finished with 327 rushing yards – an FBS record for a quarterback – and was 12-for-13 passing for 154 yards and a touchdown.
The 6-foot-2, 214-pound sophomore has taken every snap since, and though Dawkins is healthy enough to play, it’s hard to argue with the results. During the months of August and September, the Dawkins-led Wildcats averaged 478.8 yards of offense, an impressive 296.0 rushing yards per game and 6.13 yards per carry. Those numbers are inflated slightly by the 506 rushing yards Arizona racked up against FCS opponent Northern Arizona in the season opener, as well as the 326 yards the team gained on the ground against winless UTEP in Week 3. Nevertheless, Dawkins was an effective running the Wildcats’’ offense.
But Tate is special. In October, the Wildcats have averaged 567.0 yards of total offense, which ranks third nationally. Arizona leads the nation with an average of 9.37 yards per play during that span – more than half a yard better than the No. 2 team (Georgia). The Wildcats have done most of their damage on the ground, averaging 381.3 rushing yards per contest, including an FBS-best 8.33 yards per carry. Arizona has seen a significant jump in its offensive statistics while also playing tougher competition.
It’s too early to tell how NFL scouts will see Tate when he becomes draft eligible next year. Though he has good passing numbers and a strong arm, Tate has drawn criticism in the past for poor footwork in the pocket and rough mechanics, and he also struggled with conditioning as a freshman. Nevertheless, given his impact in October, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Tate is one of the early favorites to win the 2018 Heisman Trophy. He could even impact the 2017 race. In fact, Tate was named a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award, which is similar to the Heisman in that is given to the best all-around player in college football.
Most importantly, however, Tate gives the Wildcats the best chance to win. Ranked No. 23 in the most recent AP poll, Arizona is now 6-2 overall and 4-1 in conference play, meaning first place – and the inside track to the Pac-12 Conference Championship Game – will be on the line when the Wildcats face the Trojans Saturday night in the Coliseum.
– Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.