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CU Buffs defense has hands full with Arizona offense

Wildcats have won games with two different quarterbacks

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado defensive coordinator Tyson Summers and the Buffs will have a tall task in slowing down Arizona.

Two quarterbacks have started, and won, games for the Arizona football team this year. The Wildcats also have three running backs with 182-plus rushing yards, seven receivers with at least 100 yards and an offensive line playing with confidence.

While senior quarterback Khalil Tate is the star of Arizona’s offense, it’s the whole unit that has Colorado on alert this week.

“They definitely have a lot of playmakers and they try to get the playmakers the ball in space,” CU outside linebacker Carson Wells said on Tuesday.

Colorado (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) will host Arizona (3-1, 1-0) on Saturday at Folsom Field (2:30 p.m., TV: Pac-12 Networks) and to get the win, it will need to figure out how to slow down what can be a very explosive offense.

Playing up-tempo and often utilizing option concepts, the Wildcats aren’t an easy offense to stop.

“They get you spread out, get a lot of one on ones, a lot of running after the catch,” CU head coach Mel Tucker said. “They also do a good job running the football in terms of they keep you honest. They’re not afraid to take shots down the field. The quarterbacks are mobile, can make plays with their feet. And so you know, we’ll have to be at our best certainly.”

CU spent a large chunk of its offseason preparing for the Air Force offense ahead of a Sept. 14 game, which Air Force won, 30-23, in overtime. The Arizona offense is much different, but requires some of the same discipline from the CU defense.

“In terms of option responsibility it’s very similar,” Tucker said. “We have to play assignment football, make sure that guys do their jobs, be disciplined, but they give you a lot of different looks. They do a great job from a scheme standpoint, putting pressure on a lot of guys. Everyone’s at the point of attack versus this offense. And they can be very explosive.”

Tate has been a nightmare for CU the past two years. In 2017, he came off the bench and became a national star by rushing for 327 yards (setting a Division I single-game record for a quarterback) and four touchdowns and throwing for 154 yards and a touchdown.

Last year, he ran for just 15 yards against the Buffs, but threw for 350 yards and five touchdowns. He has completed 29-of-35 passes (82.9 percent) in the last two seasons against CU.

“I’ve seen some of the video from some of the prior matchups,” said Tucker, who is in his first year at CU and hasn’t had the chance to coach against Tate. “He’s a unique player. He’s definitely one of those guys you call a game-wrecker. He can wreck the game.”

If he plays, that is. Tate missed Arizona’s 20-17 win against UCLA last week with hamstring and ankle injuries and it’s unclear if he’ll play this week.

True freshman Grant Gunnell started in Tate’s place last week and he’s hardly looked like a freshman. Playing in two games so far, Gunnell has completed of 38-of-55 passes (69.1 percent) for 503 yards and four touchdowns.

Standout running back JJ Taylor missed the UCLA game, as well, and his status is also uncertain. Yet, his 5.9 yards per carry this season is fourth among Wildcat running backs. Gary Brightwell (7.8), Darrius Smith (7.9) and Nathan Tilford (7.4) have all displayed big-play potential, and that trio has combined for 515 yards and six touchdowns.

“They’ve got a talented group of running backs,” CU defensive coordinator Tyson Summers said. “They keep coming in, they keep pounding and they run hard. You don’t see one guy tackle those guys very easily, at all.”

Defensively, this will be a significant test for CU, which has allowed at least 30 points in every game. Coming off a bye week, however, the Buffs are hoping they have fixed some holes in their defense.

“I think we’ve definitely gotten a lot better, especially the alignment,” senior safety Mikial Onu said. “You know, I think we got a lot better at just lining up and knowing what you’re doing.

“Everyone has to be focused all week in practice and I think it’ll pay dividends for us on the field.”

Arizona will test CU’s discipline on defense, and Tucker said if the Buffs execute and communicate well on the field, they’ll be fine.

“Everything we do is sound and solid, so if we execute, which we should be able to do, we should be in position to make plays,” he said.