The most exciting player in college football over the past month started off the 2017 season on the bench. But when Arizona’s starting quarterback Brandon Dawkins went down against Colorado on Oct. 7, Khalil Tate stepped in and has since run away with the job and turned the Wildcats into unexpected contenders. Tate became the first player to ever amass four straight Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week awards, a stunning feat made more impressive by the fact that he’s in the same conference as Heisman contender Bryce Love.
Tate has quickly evolved from second-string signal-caller to one of only two players (along with Love) in the college ranks who can be considered an automatic first down. And a play solely ending in a first down has often the best case for opposing teams trying to stop him thus far.
Last Saturday in Tucson, Washington State was the latest defense to serve as background scenery for the Wildcats quarterback’s highlight reel. In a 58–37 win over the Cougars, Tate completed 10 of his 17 throws for 275 yards and two touchdowns to go along with another 146 yards and a score on 13 carries against one of the Pac-12’s best defenses. Tate averaged a whopping 14.0 yards per play, and Arizona’s entire offense accounted for 585 yards and only 13 first downs.
Tate has been accruing mind-bending numbers ever since his promotion, and he has consistently looked effortless doing it. Over those four games in October, Tate went 41 of 58 (70.7%) for 743 yards and six touchdowns through the air. On the ground, his 59 attempts translated into 840 yards and eight trips to pay dirt. His per-play numbers are so good they’re hard to process—his 12.8 yards per pass attempt and 14.2 yards per carry calculate to 13.5 yards per play.
Arizona started 2–2 pre-Tate, but the dual-threat’s sudden emergence has led to four straight wins and a legitimate chance at representing the Pac-12 South in the conference title game.
National awareness of Tate’s exploits has grown with each win, but the buzz surrounding the toast of Tucson pales in comparison to a similar storyline last season in the Pac-12: A quarterback leading his team to meteoric rise and possibly saving his coach’s job after being inserted into the starting role a few games into the year.
Yes, it certainly helped that Sam Darnold tallied his huge numbers in 2016 for a blue-blood program like USC. Tate’s jaw-dropping performances, however, have to date been relegated to the late-night broadcast of the almost-impossible-to-watch Pac-12 Networks, which are unavailable to DirecTV subscribers. So while West Coast viewers and #Pac12AfterDark’s cult followers have been treated to sheer greatness in the form of a 6' 2", 216-pound big-play machine, a large swath of the country has been unable to witness or even catch a glimpse of his dominance.
While Arizona’s kickoff this Saturday is slated for 10:45 p.m. ET, there will be more eyes on Tate than ever before. The two reasons why? He’s making his 2017 debut on ESPN, and the Wildcats are going up against Darnold and USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Tate finally has a shot to launch his hype train into overdrive on the Pac-12’s biggest stage. If the quarterback can steer Arizona to an upset, he would get a deserved place near the top of all Heisman leaderboards and his team would be in prime position for a Pac-12 South title and a Dec. 1 trip to the conference championship game in Santa Clara with a New Year’s Six bowl berth on the line.
For Tate, a matchup against the Trojans is also a homecoming. Born in Inglewood, Calif., he was the quarterback for Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, a recruiting pipeline for USC. Tate was originally recruited as an athlete by then-coach Steve Sarkisian, but the tone changed after Clay Helton took over as the coach and Tate topped 2,000 yards passing and rushing as a senior to go along with 43 total touchdowns. Tate still opted for Arizona, and now gets an opportunity to show the Trojans what they missed out on.
With so much at stake, there’s no excuse not to stay up late for Tate this time around.