Khalil Tate has put up Heisman-like numbers, and if ASU football hopes to beat Arizona and win the Territorial Cup, the defense must contain Tate.
Before every game, the local media has their opportunity to speak to ASU defenders and coaches, trying to get an idea how the Devils’ plan to stop their upcoming opponent. This week that question was worded a bit differently.
“How do you stop Khalil Tate?”
The answer to that question has alluded just about every team that has encountered the Wildcat quarterback.
“No. 1, (Tate’s) very athletic. But also schematically, don’t kid yourself, what they do stresses you. It stresses you,” ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. “After the Colorado game I still remember, I think someone told me he averaged 40-something yards a carry. I thought, ‘What the hell?’ He’s talented.”
Tate isn’t quite averaging 40-yards a carry for the season, but his 10.6-yards per carry still leads the nation — and with more rushing yards (1,325) then passing yards (1,157), he might be the best example of a dual-threat quarterback in the country.
Since replacing injured quarterback Brandon Dawkins in the Wildcats fifth game, Tate looked like he couldn’t be stopped — posting over 100 yards rushing in every game.
That was until U of A faced off against Oregon last week. The Ducks stymied Tate, holding him to just 32 yards on the ground and possibly providing a blueprint for the Sun Devils in the process.
“Oregon really played great and had Tate boxed in to where he couldn’t get outside and that’s what we focused on,” senior linebacker Alani Latu said.
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Latu emphasized keeping Tate in the pocket because any sliver of daylight and the quarterback could find the endzone in a blink of the eye.
If the Devils can stop Tate, it will be up to their offense to put points on an Arizona defense that allows an average of 33.4 points per game, two more than ASU.
And if ASU is going do its damage, the air might be the facet of choice. U of A ranks 124th in the country in passing defense with an average of 247.3 yards allowed per game — and Sun Devil quarterback Manny Wilkins tops that with an average of 250.5 yards.
Wilkins has been spectacular this year, throwing just four interceptions all season and staying poised in the pocket as he flings the ball to just about every one of his receivers.
Despite the apparent advantage in stats for ASU, offensive coordinator Billy Napier knows the Wildcat defense has a knack for forcing turnovers.
“They present problems to you. They’re aggressive, they take chances and certainly they’ve done a great job getting takeaways this season, particularly interceptions with 17 on the year,” Napier said. “They get takeaways and partner that with their offense, and I think that’s one of the reasons they’ve had success.”
But no matter how many yards U of A has rushed for, or how many big plays ASU has allowed, or even who’s favored, as Napier put it, “It’s going to be irrelevant.”
The Territorial Cup trophy has switched owners every year since 2012 and as ASU learned last season, coming in as the favorite doesn’t always translate to the scoreboard.
“Our guys are dialed in, focused, we’ve got a mature team,” Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham said. “They know how important this game is. We’re just focused on getting the Cup back.”
And regardless if the result of this game will decide the coaching fate of Graham, it will decide who will finish second and the Pac-12 South and what fan base will hold bragging rights for the next year.