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  • Ed Oliver easily got the best of Khalil Tate and Arizona in what was supposed to be a showdown that featured two Heisman contenders.
By Ross Dellenger
September 08, 2018

HOUSTON — Ed Oliver bulled into Arizona’s starting right tackle, pushed him with such force that Cody Creason backpedalled into his own running back who, in turn, nearly backed into quarterback Khalil Tate. Houston’s blockbuster defensive lineman had shoved a combined 500 pounds of football-playing mass into the other preseason Heisman Trophy candidate on this field.

Oliver altered Tate’s course Saturday—in more ways than one.

In a highly-billed, early season showdown between the immoveable object and a once-thought-to-be unstoppable force, Oliver and his Houston Cougars won Saturday, 45–18, with such thunderous authority that Tate’s Heisman hopes are long, long gone, buried deep in the ground in an unsettling start to coach Kevin Sumlin’s tenure in Tuscon. The Wildcats, for many a dark horse pick in the Pac-12 South, are 0–2 for the first time since 1981, and their dual-threat quarterback was out-classed by Houston’s D’Eriq King and his 17 completions for 246 yards and four touchdowns (he had two TD passes dropped, too).

While King operated smoothly in Kendal Briles’s fast-moving, quick-striking offense, Tate struggled for a second straight week in an offensive system, engineered by Sumlin and coordinator Noel Mazzone, that seems to be ignoring his most lethal weapons: his legs (a combined five designed QB runs for Tate in the first half against BYU and Houston). The unit has scored 10 points in their two first halves of football, and all of this with an electric player under center who last season, for Rich Rodriguez, broke the NCAA single-game rushing record for a QB. Tate has thrown 79 passes in two games, completing a touch more than half of them (41) and finding himself, a least on Saturday, having to mount a comeback after a porous defense gave up touchdowns on Houston’s opening three drives.

By the time Tate started his seventh drive of the game late in the second quarter, the Cougars led 31–0, and Oliver was so excited that he jumped offside directly into Arizona center Josh McCauley, who, out of somewhat understandable frustration, delivered a quick open-handed slap to Oliver’s helmet—the only real blow the future NFL first-rounder took on this day. Oliver finished with five tackles while mostly playing in only the first two quarters. Four of the tackles came in the opening half, and the 6-foot-3, 295-pounder played 40 of 43 total snaps and was double teamed on a whopping 26 of them (or 65% of those plays). At least nine NFL scouts witnessed this flick from the press box of a partially filled TDECU Stadium.

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When the Wildcats tried to block Oliver one-on-one, bad things happened for the Wildcats. Three of his four quarterback pressures in the first half were against solo matchups, and he even burst through one double team to stuff a third-and-2 rushing attempt. On two different occasions, Oliver wound up in the backfield after running around an offensive lineman, and we literally mean running around him, untouched and all. These eyes got their first live production of the Ed Oliver Show and against a Power 5 program at that. The stories are true. He’s a quick, tenacious player who, at least by this group, could not be blocked by a single man. And he knows it. “Looked pretty special to me,” a smiling Oliver said afterward. “We’ve been practicing (to) contain Khalil Tate all week.”

Sumlin admitted this week that Arizona’s offensive game plan last week against BYU wasn’t wise and that he planned to adjust the scheme Saturday, hoping to use more of Tate’s lower half. “We are going to unleash Khalil Tate,” he told the ESPN broadcasters in a meeting Friday. Tate threw two interceptions for the game and had minus-five rushing yards at halftime, bested by his counterpart in red and white. King, a junior from Texas, shredded the Arizona defense, whistling well-placed long balls to open wideouts and tight ends. Without two drops, the score at halftime would have been 42–0.

The quarterback engineered enough impressive drives to remind the announced 32,534 here of the days when Sumlin coached the Cougars to 23 wins in 2009 and 2011 or that 13–1 season Tom Herman led in 2015. Is Houston this year’s UCF? A meeting at Texas Tech next week gives the Cougars a chance to win back-to-back games over Power 5 teams before shuffling through a conference slate in which their toughest test is South Florida.

Can Houston do the unthinkable and sneak into football’s Final Four? Maybe more likely: Can Oliver be the first defensive-only player to win the Heisman? Of the two guys featured on Sports Illustrated’s four college football magazine covers—Oliver and Tate—he’s the only one with a chance left to claim college football’s most prestigious individual prize.

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