SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The Dec. 27 Foster Farms Bowl may be the final game of the 2017 season for Arizona and Purdue, but this game could serve as the first game of the 2018 Heisman Trophy campaign for Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate.
Tate came from nowhere to enter this year’s Heisman discussion with a remarkable six-game run. After amassing just 86 rushing yards and 41 passing yards in minimal playing time through the first four games, he made his first start against Colorado in the fifth game. He rushed for 327 yards and completed 12 of 13 passes for 154 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in 45-42 victory.
He kept it up for the next five games, rushing for 1,207 yards in that six-game stretch, helping the Wildcats win five of those games and earn a brief appearance in the Top 25.
Tate had mediocre performances in Arizona’s final two games, both of which the Wildcats lost, taking Arizona (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12) out of the conference race and removing Tate from the Heisman conversation. However, he still finished with a 61.4 percent completion percentage, 1,353 rushing yards and a per-carry average of 10.2 yards, which leads the nation by a sizable margin.
Tate was not impressed with his season.
“It was pretty average,” he told the Arizona Daily Star. “I haven’t really done a whole lot. I’ve done the bare minimum.”
Nonetheless, his season prompted queries about whether Tate could be the next Robert Griffin III, a versatile quarterback who won the 2011 Heisman Trophy while carrying Baylor to unexpected heights.
“That’s a fair question,” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said at a Foster Farms news conference. “Because he exploded and had such big numbers for four or five weeks in a row, the expectations are going to be high. And that’s all right. I’d rather our guys try to achieve at a high level.”
Tate will be a challenge for Purdue (6-6, 4-5 Big Ten), which won its final two games to become eligible for its first bowl berth in five years.
“When you play a dynamic guy, you’ve got to find a way to contain him,” first-year Purdue coach Jeff Brohm told the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal and Courier. “He’s going to make a few plays. You have to make sure he doesn’t break the long play. You have to rally numerous guys to get to him. We’re going to have to have a much better plan than the first game.”
Brohm, a standout quarterback at Louisville who spent seven uneventful years in the NFL, is credited with revitalizing a Boilermakers program that had not won more than three games in any of the four previous seasons and hasn’t had a winning season since 2011.
A 35-28 season-opening loss to then-No. 16 Louisville, a team with a quarterback like Tate, convinced Brohm that Purdue might be pretty good.
“It really wasn’t until the first game against Louisville, against a Heisman Trophy candidate (Lamar Jackson), a quarterback very similar to Khalil, that we came into halftime with a lead,” Brohm said, according to the Daily Star. “Going into the locker room, our players were fired up and excited. You’d have thought we won the Super Bowl. That was the first time I felt like maybe we do have a chance to play at a higher level.”
The Boilermakers’ quarterback, Elijah Sindelar, began the season as the starter and shared time with David Blough, who eventually replaced Sindelar as the starter at midseason. But when Blough suffered a season-ending ankle injury on Nov. 4, Sindelar regained his starting position and finished with seven touchdown passes and just one interception in his final three starts, including a road win over then-No. 25 Iowa.
Purdue did not have much of a running game until Markell Jones rushed for 217 yards in the final game against Indiana
Sindelar and Jones may find success against an Arizona defense that ranks 116th (of 129 FBS schools) in total defense and 108th in scoring defense, yielding 34.1 points per game.
The Wildcats start four freshmen and one redshirt freshman on a defense that gave up 48 and 42 points in its last two games, to Oregon and Arizona State.
“We have to cause turnovers,” Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates told the Daily Star. “We don’t have the guys where we can just sit there and rush four and expect to be dominant. We’re not there yet. We hope to be there pretty soon.”
The Boilermakers have an improving defense, allowing an average of just 18.1 points over their final eight games. Wisconsin, which has a strong running game, managed just 17 points against them.
But Arizona ranks third in the nation in rushing (324.4 yards per game), and running back J.J. Taylor averages 6.09 yards per carry to complement Tate.
The Wildcats are shooting for their second straight bowl victory, after knocking off New Mexico 45-37 in the 2015 New Mexico Bowl.
Purdue has not won a bowl game since 2011 and is hoping for a better showing than it had in its most recent appearance – a 58-14 loss to Oklahoma State in the Heart of Texas Bowl following the 2012 season.
This Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium figures to be a high-scoring game.
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