There was no storybook ending for Khalil Tate in his first career start at Arizona.
Hopes were high, fingers were crossed, a star was ready to be born … but USC had other plans.
The Wildcats have reason to believe in Tate’s future at quarterback, but coach Rich Rodriguez is playing him right now because he has to, not because he is the No. 1 choice.
Tate, who played well in two relief efforts after having his redshirt pulled in the fifth game, completed 7 of 18 passes for 58 yards, with an interception and a lost fumble, in Saturday’s 48-14 home loss to the Trojans.
With season-opening starter Anu Solomon still sidelined by a knee injury and replacement Brandon Dawkins having suffered a concussion a week earlier at Utah, Tate, a Southern California kid from powerhouse Gardena Serra High School, had all week to think and prepare for being the starter against a host of friends and former teammates.
Talk about a tough spot.
Rodriguez said Tate isn’t the type to get nervous — so the stage itself wasn’t too big — but he did add that the previous two weeks might have been easier emotionally, because when someone comes in off the bench “maybe the enormity of it is as impactful.”
“He seemed OK during the week and at the beginning of the game, but there are times when a 17-year-old freshman looks like a 17-year-old freshman,” Rodriguez said.
Tate rushed for 28 yards around the left side on Arizona’s first snap, delivering a hit at the end rather than step out of bounds. But that drive was quickly undone by a loss of 2 on a Nick Wilson run and a false start penalty.
Tate led his only scoring drive of the game on the second possession, starting at the USC 38. A pass interference penalty helped the Cats march to the 3, where Tate ran it in for his first rushing touchdown of his career.
Rodriguez wants his players to hand the ball to the officials after a score, but Tate flipped it past an official, who had his hands in the air to signify touchdown. And then Tate flashed a “Fight On” hand sign to the USC bench.
That drive was about the last good news for Arizona.
Tate completed one pass for 4 yards in the first half, as USC led 34-7.
“We knew we were going to be facing Khalil Tate,” said Trojans defensive back Chris Hawkins.
“He’s a true freshman, so we wanted to rattle him a bit and get some hits on him. Watching film, we knew he liked to run. I feel like he’s a run-first quarterback.
“We put some blitzes on him to make sure he couldn’t get out of the pocket. I feel like (defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast) put together a great game-plan, and we executed it really well.”
USC sacked Tate twice. He did break free for a 23-yard rush in the second quarter and tried to get low at the end of the play to take on Hawkins. It was Hawkins who got lower, knocking the ball loose. USC recovered.
That was Tate being aggressive, which is part of his game. With experience, he’ll learn to pick his spots, mixing his physical style with knowing when it makes more sense to get down or out of bounds.
“He’s a competitive guy and he competed, but it was a challenge,” Rodriguez said. “And a lot of the challenge was because they have some pretty good dudes over there.”
Tate ended up completing 7 of 18 passes for 58 yards. He led the team with 72 rushing yards on 14 carries, leaving late in the third quarter as senior tight end Matt Morin, a former high school quarterback, took over.
So, what now?
Solomon hasn’t played since the opening game and there is no word about the severity of his knee injury. All that the program has said publicly lately is that Solomon has been “doubtful” to play the past two weeks.
Dawkins, who had been dealing with a rib injury before taking a hit to the head on Oct. 8, should benefit from this week’s bye and be ready to go for an Oct. 29 home game against Stanford.
Dawkins, a redshirt sophomore, is Arizona’s best option right now. Tate might have the biggest upside.
Does Rodriguez play both the rest of the season and set up a monster competition in the offseason?
How this shakes out in the final five games could be vital to the future of the program.
As for what Tate can control, he will have to quickly learn from his mistakes.
“A lot of times, he was seeing the right things,” Rodriguez said of Tate’s performance Saturday. “But, again, everything happens so fast when you’re young like that. It’s a learning experience. He will grow from it.”
Look to 2017 for Arizona football fixes