LOS ANGELES — When USC running back Ronald Jones II punched in a five-yard touchdown in the third quarter of a Nov. 4 matchup with Arizona, the Wildcats were in a position they had not experienced since quarterback Khalil Tate took over the job Oct. 7 at Colorado.
Starting with that Colorado matchup — a game in which Arizona radio broadcaster Brian Jeffries dubbed Tate "the magic man" — the Wildcats' offense was virtually unstoppable. Arizona trailed in that stretch, and even had to sweat out two of the four wins, beating Colorado by three points and Cal by one in double overtime.
With Tate putting together the most impressive four-game stretch of any college football player this season, Arizona won four games in which it never trailed by more than a score. Regardless the situation, the Wildcats had assurance Tate and the offense would pull the proverbial rabbit out of his hat. Trailing USC 28-6 with the offense stymied for more than two quarters, Tate's performance was fast becoming a vanishing act.
But in defeat, Tate just might have pulled off his most promising trick of these remarkable past five games. Arizona faced similar spots last season, when a big, early deficit snowballed into something much uglier — including its loss to USC, in which the Trojans trounced the Wildcats, 48-14.
This time, behind three Tate touchdowns and his engineering a fourth scoring drive, along with a two-point conversion, Arizona transformed a three-touchdown deficit into a 35-35 tie late in the fourth quarter.
"Once he scores one, it’s going to be a big deal," said linebacker Tony Fields II, who noted that the demeanor on Arizona's sideline never sagged despite the deficit. Such is the confidence the Wildcats' quarterback instills.
And, indeed, when Tate finally got into the end zone, Fields said "our whole feel changed."
Changing the aura around Arizona football has been the defining result of Tate's remarkable stretch. The individual numbers are staggering, sure: 930 passing yards with eight touchdowns; 1,087 rushing yards, which makes him the first Pac-12 quarterback to eclipse 1,000 on the ground for a season, with another nine scores.
The way in which Tate's racked up his statistics is even more impressive. With six rushes of 50-plus yards, he has more such explosive plays than all but six teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Even with USC limiting Arizona to 2.4 yards per carry in the first half, Tate's explosiveness inspired a confidence that once the first play came, a flood gate would open.
And it did.
"He's a competitor," Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "I was proud of the way he competed."
Rodriguez wasn't alone. A product of Serra High School, a prep football powerhouse in Los Angeles-area Gardena, Tate got a look from USC head coach Clay Helton. Serra's provided USC one of its strongest recruiting pipelines, producing such noteworthy names as Marqise Lee, Adoree' Jackson, and now, Rasheem Green and Deontay Burnett.
USC did not recruit Tate to play quarterback, which made his decision to attend Arizona easier. But Helton still recognizes the difference Tate makes behind center.
"We’ve watched him grow up," Helton said. "He’s going to be a true talent in this league. He played beyond honorably tonight. A special kid."
The future tense Helton uses points to the importance of Arizona, and Tate, bouncing back from the loss — not just for the finish of 2017, but beyond. Defensive back Dane Cruikshank noted the bevy of underclassmen in prominent roles on Arizona's roster, and that includes Tate.
The Wildcats having an opportunity to win the Pac-12, as they did this season, came as a surprise. Next year's team features a multitude of starters who will be seasoned veterans as a result of this campaign, including Tate. And they'll embark on 2018 with a much different presence around the program.
"It’s just a different vibe around here," Cruikshank said. "Khalil Tate, as we know, he changed our program. He’s a great player and we’re thankful for him."
The change is evident in Arizona, which finished 2016 at 3-9 with six losses of 21 points or more. The worst was a 69-7 blowout at Washington State, but this year's matchup with the Cougars was most indicative of the turnaround. The Wildcats won, 58-37, earning bowl eligibility in the process.
The Washington State win also positioned Arizona to contend with USC for the South division's berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game. That's gone as a result of the loss, barring USC losing its final two to Colorado and UCLA and the Wildcats winning out. So, next on Tate's magic show: Continuing at the same pace after a loss for Arizona to finish out 2017 strong.
Oregon State kicks off the final, three-game stretch. The Beavers took Colorado and Stanford to the wire since former head coach Gary Andersen's shocking, midseason departure. The Wildcats then hit the road to close out at Oregon and Arizona State.
The prospect of a mirror opposite regular-season compared to last season (9-3 vs. 3-9), is ahead of Arizona. It would mark the program's best finish under Rodriguez since winning the Pac-12 South at 10-2 in 2014, and just the seventh nine-win regular season in program history.
"Minor setback for a major comeback," Tate assessed the situation after the loss. "Keep on grinding."