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How Khalil Tate has Arizona suddenly running wild, and how teams can (maybe) stop him (for a while)

College football’s Mr. October has changed the Wildcats’ whole situation and revitalized Rich Rodriguez’s offense.

Washington State v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The first month of Arizona’s season was innocuous, as the Wildcats went 2-2 with narrow losses to Houston and Utah. The run game was humming along pretty well against the Utes, producing 200 yards at 4.8 yards per carry, though it struggled more against a Houston front that includes sensational nose tackle Ed Oliver, rushing for 152 yards at 3.9 yards per carry. Rich Rodriguez remained on hot seat lists.

Then QB Brandon Dawkins went out of the game briefly early in the contest with Colorado, and sophomore backup Kahlil Tate came in while Dawkins was checked by trainers.

On the first play of his first full drive, the former four-star from California did this.

After another 13 carries for 269 more yards and five total TDs in that game, Tate was entrenched.

The Wildcats have exploded as a result.

Over the next three games, Tate took 15 carries for 230 yards against UCLA, 17 for 137 against California, and 13 for 146 against Washington State. In his first four games, he ran 59 times for 840 yards at 14.2 per carry, with eight rushing TDs.

Despite playing half as many full games as most players, he entered Week 10 behind only Stanford’s Bryce Love in 40-yard rushes. His outbursts keep stealing national attention late on Saturdays.

(He doesn’t throw much — just 14 times per 2017 start so far — but does lead the Pac-12 in passer rating and yards per attempt, among players with at least 50 throws.)

Arizona has been scoring about 49 points per game since Tate took over. It finally has a clear identity on offense. Arizona enters Week 10 with a chance to win the South Division, if it can take down a beat-up USC on the road. Tate is getting consideration for major end-of-year awards, due to his gaudy stats and winning streak.

Zona running backs have also flourished, with 648 rushing yards at 5.7 per carry since Tate took over, with nine rushing TDs.

With an explosive player like Tate at the helm, this Arizona offense has become a throwback to Rodriguez’s better West Virginia teams, those led by Pat White back in the day.

The Wildcats have a modern spread-option offense, but it’s still all built around Rich Rod’s zone-read play.

The score above by Tate on his first run against Colorado was the same play that made Rodriguez famous more than a decade ago, a zone-read from a two-by-two (two WRs on each side) spread alignment.

The look Arizona got from Colorado is probably more generous than what White tended to face at West Virginia. The Buffs are trying to play two-read coverage to either side of the formation, to get three-over-two numbers (counting safety help) against quick passes.

They have all the gaps sorted out up front, except that the unblocked DE (in the diagram’s square) has to play both the cutback lane by the RB and the QB keeper on the perimeter. At 6’3 and 275 pounds, Leo Jackson III (No. 52) was never, ever going to be able to deny Tate the edge, particularly when the QB was running toward the wide side of the field, with the nickel LB and other DBs cleared out by the receivers’ vertical routes.

The addition of pass options and routes to Rodriguez’s base runs has really taken his offense to a new level.

Zona’s been mixing in some tricky spread stuff to put defenses in a bind as they try to deal with the same ol’ zone-read plays. Here’s a play the Cats ran against Cal, with the receivers running curl-flat combinations while the OL blocks zone-read:

Tate pulls the ball on zone-read and rolls to the field, where he can read the progression on curl-flat or just tuck and run. The curl route is wide open against DBs who are playing man coverage, in order to try and stop the run, but Tate glides for about as many yards as a throw would’ve gotten anyway.

The basic inside-zone play that all of these run and pass options supplement was already pretty effective, due to Arizona returning a strong and experienced line. Every member started at least four games in 2016, and LT Layth Friekh and RG Jacob Alsadek are seniors and multi-year starters.

Tate’s explosiveness on the perimeter was all this offense needed to run brilliantly.

So ... is there any stopping this?

The big comparison that Tate is drawing is to last year’s Heisman winner, Lamar Jackson. However, Jackson had a dimension that the rookie lacks so far: turning a play north and south in traffic.

You can see that against Cal, when Arizona tried to get Tate rolling downhill with the QB counter play.

There are opportunities on each of these plays for Tate to pick up positive yardage by following his blockers, but he tries to ad lib and find room on the perimeter. It’s unfortunate, since Tate has a lot of wiggle and, at 215 pounds, could be a load behind his pads.

While Tate is an explosive option on the perimeter, defenses can limit his running if they can contain the edge. Cal figured this out and reduced Arizona’s offense to lead zone plays for RBs.

By consistently having the unblocked read defender deny Tate the edge, teams can dictate that Arizona run downhill with its backs.

Arizona’s OL and backs are all rather good, but it’s not as deadly as Tate running wild in space.

Tate’s been a sudden blast and might’ve saved Rodriguez’s job.

Whether that’ll also be enough to win the Pac-12 South this year (or next) will be pretty fun to watch.