USC survived Khalil Tate’s Heisman moment in win vs. Arizona

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images /

USC knew they had to beat Khalil Tate in order get a win over Arizona. But Saturday night at the Coliseum, neither party was intent on losing.

Since taking over as Arizona’s starting quarterback in early October, Khalil Tate has become one of the most exciting —and utterly dominant— players in college football.

While it was a surprising rise to prominence for the college football world, it wasn’t a surprise for USC. They had recruited him as an athlete for a reason. They knew how much of a playmaker he was.

So much so, the Trojans spent a full week preparing an extensive game plan for him which ultimately proved to be successful.

Clancy Pendergast’s orders kept the budding Heisman candidate to 1.58 yards per carry in the first half, a fraction of his FBS-best 13.42 average.

Tate, who hadn’t been sacked in a month of starting experience, hit the turf three times. He completed only five of his 12 passes and sported a 67.6 quarterback rating, far below his absurd 205.53 rating since becoming a starter.

All told, USC went into halftime up 21-6. And when Ronald Jones made it 28-6 early in the third quarter, the Pac-12 South’s kinda-sorta championship game was quickly turning into a boat race with Tate nowhere to be found.

But just as he had arrived late for the Wildcats in 2017, the Serra quarterback burst onto the scene in a drawn-out second half full of penalties, official reviews and —finally— Khalil Tate highlights.

“I just wanted to keep going forward and try to win the game,” he said.

He nearly did just that, sparking an Arizona comeback with runs of 32, 21 and 54 yards. After Pendergast’s defense looked infallible, Tate exposed them at every turn, seemingly out of nowhere. Rich Rodriguez and his coaches used the Trojans’ aggressive pursuit and defensive structure, which had been so good in the game’s first 40 minutes, against them.

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“We didn’t make a lot of adjustments,” Tate said. “We saw some tendencies in the defense that we tried to capitalize on.”

“They started doing some misdirection with some reverses, some throwbacks and fake reverses with the quarterback sweep,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “It was everything but the kitchen sink.”

After averaging just 2.94 yards per play on their first eight drives, Arizona averaged 12.10 yards on their next 21 plays to erase a 22-point USC lead.

For the Trojans, it was a flashback to their demolition at the hands of Notre Dame two weeks prior. All of the progress of the last six-plus quarters —holding ASU to just 17 points and Tate out of the end zone— had been undone on just four drives.

Four disastrous drives in which they missed tackles, over-pursued, huffed, puffed and blew their whole lead down, thanks in part to the offense leaving points on the field and stalling at the most inopportune times.

Even tied at 35-35, the season was slipping away in the year’s biggest game. Tate was on the verge of crowning himself King in the South and calls for purging USC’s coaching staff were practically trending on Twitter.

But just as quickly as Tate arrived, the Trojans responded.

USC grabbed a 42-35 lead with 5:37 left on another Jones touchdown run, and then took advantage of Tate’s biggest mistake of night — an errant throw downfield that landed perfectly in the hands of a wide-open Ajene Harris.

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The Trojans would then rinse, get a third Jones score, then wash and repeat with a second-straight interception on Tate’s final throw of the night.

They took what would’ve been a surefire Heisman moment, and turned it into a high-wire act with a good ending for the defense.

“Defensively, we held up at the end when we needed it the most,” Helton said. “We got a huge turnover there and then the offense really put the game away with the final two drives.”

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It was essentially the Rose Bowl all over again, with the defense responding despite all momentum going against them. And it would leave Tate in tears afterwards, exhausted after doing all he could to try and will Arizona to an improbable come-from-behind victory, only to fall short, 49-35.

“Whenever I lose, I’m emotional,” Tate said. “I don’t like losing.”

USC’s coaching staff and players were among the first to console him, knowing both how close he had come to being a Trojan and how close he had come to ruining their season.

“I told him afterward, he honored his family and his city,” Helton said. “We’ve watched him grow up and he’s going to be a true talent in this league. He played beyond honorably tonight.”

Saturday night marked two-straight USC home wins over local quarterback products who felt slighted in their recruitment. Both Utah’s Troy Williams and Arizona’s Tate put their heart on the line at the Coliseum, only to walk away on the losing end.

Just as Williams got USC last year in Salt Lake, Tate will have to wait to best the Trojans next fall in Tucson. That’s a scary thought, considering his 198 sack-adjusted rushing yards weren’t enough in 2017, and he’s only going to get better.

“He’s got the ability to make big plays, which he did in the second half,” Ajene Harris said.

Fortunately for USC, they did too. When it mattered most, at least.