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Know your opponent: Previewing the Arizona Wildcats offense

Cal gets a late-night date with Khalil Tate

USC v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

As we near the Saturday night match-up in Arizona this weekend, it isn’t hard to wonder if Cal’s second time facing Khalil Tate will be much different than the first. Last weekend provided a timely reminder that even though Cal isn’t playing the 2017 gauntlet that was Shea Patterson, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Luke Falk, the 2018 version sure isn’t a cake walk. Justin Herbert illustrated exactly what an elite quarterback can do even against a vastly improved defense and the California Golden Bears will need to be ready for an even stronger rushing attack when preparing for the Arizona Wildcats.

Arizona 2018 Season in Review

Some of the bigger news this offseason was when Arizona let go of Rich Rodriguez after rumblings he ran a hostile workplace and replaced him with longtime Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. A game that once perhaps looked decently winnable morphed into a tough road match-up that most, including Vegas, viewed Cal as the big underdog. Then the 2018 season started to unfold.

Arizona lost their season opener to BYU and went on to get blown out by Houston, then rebounded against two lower tier opponents, and finished off with a very uneven performance against USC.

It isn’t hard to see what Kevin Sumlin and his offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone are trying to implement at Arizona. The Wildcats are an offense first team and have the ability to drop 40, drop 50 or even drop 60 on an opponent when they are right. As a recent example against a Pac-12 opponent, the Wildcats ran for 442 yards against Oregon State just two weeks ago. Let’s repeat that one more time for the people in the back, 442 rushing yards.

The biggest issue for Arizona is that they haven’t been right in about 60% of their games thus far and now there are big questions about star quarterback Khalil Tate’s health. Just this week, Sumlin mentioned potentially benching Tate to let him heal his hurt ankle and that Noel Mazzone’s playbook has been limited without Tate’s ability to run downfield. After rushing for over 1,400 yards last season, Tate has a minuscule 69 yards rushing and two scores through nearly half of the 2018 schedule.

All of this drama makes for a very exciting lead up to what should be a vastly entertaining game on Saturday night. Khalil Tate will almost certainly start the game and the Bears defense will need to come better prepared to defend against a mobile quarterback than they did just a week ago against Oregon.

Player to Watch: Khalil Tate the Passing Quarterback

What do you get when Khalil Tate hurts his ankle in the second game of the season? A very good look at his ability as a passer. Tate hasn’t been an efficient quarterback with a completion percentage that hovers around 50% but he still has the ability to make exceptional throws as evidenced by the USC game last week.

That is an incredible throw. Rolling right, defenders crashing down and a defensive back who is in pretty good position all things considered. Tate puts a near perfect amount of loft on the ball to lead his receiver into the back of the end zone and places the pass just over the defensive back’s left shoulder. He may be hampered and that very well could be to Cal’s advantage, but the Bears absolutely cannot underestimate his ability as a passer.

ESPN has some very fun split statistics that break down almost every situation that Tate has passed in this year. As you might expect, Tate excels on third down with a shorter down and distance of three to seven yards while struggling in passing situations of eight yards or more. What is particularly interesting is where in the field he is least efficient passing the ball. Between the 40-yard markers and on the opponent 39–20-yard line, Tate has completed roughly 40% of his passes while committing two of his three interceptions on the season. Conversely, when Tate is backed up in his own territory, particularly between the 1-yard line and the 19-yard line, he is at his most efficient.

What does this all mean? Tate excels in the short yardage passing situations that are dictated by less than ideal field position, but when the offense has more room to work with, he becomes less accurate and more prone to turning the ball over. I’d expect the Cal defense to know this well for Saturday and run a lot of disguises when the field starts to open up a bit more for the Wildcat quarterback.

What to Expect Come Saturday

The Arizona offense is a lot more balanced in regards to their run/pass ratio than you might expect for an up-tempo team. Most games, their goal is to be at an even ball distribution, yet several games have dictated a change in the Sumlin/Mazzone scheme. Case in point, Arizona ran the ball a ridiculous 50 times against Oregon State while throwing 45 times in their loss to Houston. If Cal breaks out to a multiple score lead early in the game, expect Arizona to go to the aerial attack early. That alone plays into Cal’s strength and with Tate struggling with his accuracy more so this year than last, could be a big advantage for the Bears.

Additionally, Cal will have to win the battle in the trenches Saturday in order to stop what looks to be a strong rushing attack for Arizona. J.J. Taylor is averaging 5.5 yards per carry so far this season and 7.4 yards per carry through two Pac-12 games. The Cal defensive line was very strong against Oregon just a week ago and if the defense can prevent the big play from happening, the Bears have a good chance to win this football game. However, we all know that anything can happen down in the desert with Pac-12 After Dark.