A Friday night tilt in the desert has important bowl implications
Just a few weeks dramatically altered the outlook for this Friday night affair in the Pac-12 South. On Oct. 12, Colorado was undefeated and ranked in the Top 25 with designs on a second Pac-12 Championship Game in three seasons. That same night, Arizona suffered a blowout loss at Utah, which included quarterback Khalil Tate going to the locker room with a lingering ankle injury finally sidelining him.
Three weeks later, Colorado is trying to stop a three-game losing skid and lock up bowl eligibility, while an Arizona team that once looked done for postseason purposes has renewed life following a blowout upset of Oregon.
Arizona and Colorado meet Friday night in Tucson in what's now an important contest for the bowl aspirations of both teams.
Colorado at Arizona
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 2 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Arizona -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Nightmare fuel
Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre said on Tuesday that putting on the game tape from last year's 45-42 loss to Arizona gave him nightmares. That night marked Khalil Tate's breakout. He set an FBS quarterback record with 327 yards rushing, kicking off an undefeated October for the Wildcats.
First-year Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone implemented changes to the scheme. Combined with Tate's nagging ankle injury, the dual-threat quarterback spent much of this season primarily as a passer. But sitting out Oct. 20 against UCLA seemed to do a world of good for Tate, who returned to the lineup in last week's 44-15 rout of Oregon to show some renewed burst in the run to go with an effective passing touch.
Tate's not running wild with the same explosiveness of 2017, but playing with rejuvenated energy might give MacIntyre more sleepless nights — especially if the Buffs struggle to slow down the other options in Arizona's ground game.
2. Big-play backs
Arizona's Tate may not be ripping off the same highlight-reel runs as a season ago, but Wildcats running back J.J. Taylor has picked up the pace effectively. Taylor surpassed the 200-yard mark for the second time on the campaign last week, going for 212 against Oregon. The 5-foot-6 spark plug rushed for 154 yards one week prior at UCLA as well.
Taylor has an ability to slip through defenses and turn seemingly short gains into scoring plays. It's not unlike the 75-yarder Colorado back Travon McMillian scored last week against Oregon State.
With standout do-everything receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. sidelined the past two weeks and questionable again for Friday, McMillian is Colorado's leading option for explosive plays. Tate stole the headlines last year against Colorado, but Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates needs a much better performance out of his unit against McMillian than it had last season against Buffs back Phillip Lindsay. The predecessor to McMillian scorched UA for 281 yards and three touchdowns.
3. Finishing drives
Both Arizona and Colorado could have come into Friday's contest with more momentum, were it not for stalled and misfiring drives in recent weeks. The Buffs squandered a 31-3 lead in a shocking overtime loss last week to Oregon State, missing a pair of field goals — including the would-be game-winner — on their final six drives. The Buffs also failed to score a touchdown in those six possessions.
Arizona would have a two-game winning streak, with victories in three of their last four, as well as a place in the Pac-12 South divisional race had it not had two trips deep into UCLA territory go scoreless two weeks ago. Reserve Wildcats quarterback Rhett Rodriguez threw an interception on an trip into the red zone, while Taylor had an otherwise scoring run negated on a strip from behind.
Colorado's red-zone offense loses a lot of its punch without Shenault. As a wide receiver, his big, physical frame gives quarterback Steven Montez a target to hit against mismatched defensive backs. As a ball-carrier, he's a tough-to-tackle wrecking ball. Recreating those qualities should he miss Friday's game is a tall order.
Arizona has a dangerous red-zone threat at receiver in Shawn Poindexter. The Wildcats could be without power-back Gary Brightwell for goal-line carries, however.
There may not be two more fitting examples of the tumult in the Pac-12 South this season than Arizona and Colorado, albeit for different reasons. The Wildcats are one of three teams in the division with a first-year head coach, and they've dealt with apparent growing pains.
Colorado rumbled into the conversation for the divisional title — a spot virtually all six of the South's teams have been in at one point or another — but injuries threw the Buffs into uncertainty. Colorado needs a big game out of Nate Landman, the star linebacker and best bet to slow Arizona's rushing attack.
If the Wildcats can establish the run effectively, however, Tate can go to work with the pass. Another shootout akin to last year's looks likely, kicking off Week 10 with some #Pac12AfterDark in the Sonoran Desert.
Prediction: Arizona 40, Colorado 35