Khalil Tate arrived at the Coliseum two seasons ago in the middle of his own coming-out party.
Arizona’s dynamic dual-threat quarterback had run for 840 yards and eight touchdowns over his previous four games, stunning the college football world and sending a Heisman Trophy hype train barreling towards Los Angeles, where he was set to face No. 12 USC.
That’s where things came screeching to a halt in 2017. The Trojans shut down Tate as a passer, forcing two interceptions and keeping him to a completion rate under 45%. They contained him as a runner, too, holding him to 6.2 yards per carry, less than half of what he’d averaged over four stunning games in October.
Since Tate’s breakout two years ago, few teams have been able to stifle him with regularity quite like USC (3-3 overall, 2-1 Pac-12). Over three games against USC, he’s completed just 45% of his passes, had four passes intercepted, and been forced into making plays with his feet only, often to little avail.
As Tate returns to the Coliseum for the final time on Saturday, in a must-win matchup of Pac-12 South foes, the Trojans are crossing their fingers that success against the conference’s most dangerous weapon continues.
But as USC coach Clay Helton contended this week, this Tate isn’t the same quarterback who swept into the Coliseum two seasons ago and ran the ball a career-high 26 times.
“He’s progressed so much as a quarterback,” Helton said. “I even showed the team. He’s doing such a nice job now of keeping his eyes up. He’s breaking contain and keeps his eyes up and he’s finding receivers downfield. … He’s showing himself as a passer, where when he was a younger player, it was 1-2, I’m out. Now he’s going through full-field progressions. He’s becoming a pro football player. He really is.”
Still, Tate remains more dangerous when sprinting past defenders on the perimeter, not contained in the pocket. And considering how poorly USC has defended scrambling quarterbacks and perimeter runs, Arizona (4-2, 2-1) probably won’t hesitate to unleash its elusive signal caller in that fashion, no matter what recent history might suggest.
The Trojans have been trounced on the ground over their last three games, with 748 rushing yards allowed in that span. Last week against Notre Dame was just the fifth time in five years that USC allowed more than 300 rushing yards in a game.
As Helton sees it, explosive runs are the main culprit. But while runs of 20 yards or more have accounted for 28% of its total rushing yards allowed over the last three weeks, opponents have only managed four such runs.
Now, with Tate on tap, USC will confront perhaps the most explosive runner in the conference, while also facing a backfield comprised of four backs each averaging more than five yards per carry.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said that USC worked especially on protecting the edge and keeping contain in drills this week, with that matchup in mind.
“It’s hard to simulate [Tate’s] ability,” Pendergast said, “but we’re still working through that.”
Asked Thursday if USC might adopt a less aggressive approach to mitigate the explosive runs that gave its defense fits last week, Helton praised Pendergast’s approach.
“You have to throw them off kilter with aggressiveness,” Helton said, “and that’s who we are. That’s our identity, to bring pressure.”
Some hope remains that one of USC’s injured starting cornerbacks will be able to play Saturday.
Redshirt freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart, who spent the first few days of this week in a walking boot, was a limited participant in practice Thursday. Taylor-Stuart (ankle) will be a “game-time decision” against Arizona, Helton said.
The status of USC’s other two starting corners is less optimistic. Olaijah Griffin, who leads USC in pass break-ups, is “doubtful” because of back issues, leaving freshman Chris Steele to take his place. Nickel corner Greg Johnson (shoulder) was ruled out earlier this week.
Helton confirmed that freshman Max Williams will step into Johnson’s slot role. If Taylor-Stuart is unable to go, Helton reiterated that freshmen Dorian Hewitt and Jayden Williams could rotate in that spot.
Helton also ruled out linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV, who remains in a walking boot. In his place, Kana’i Mauga will start.