Ultimately David proved to be Goliath. Boise State returned to Glendale after claiming the Group of Five’s Access Bowl bid and took full advantage of yet another big bowl appearance for the mid-major school. After securing a double-digit lead before halftime, the Broncos held on as Arizona mounted a vigorous comeback, preserving a 38-30 lead for Boise’s third Fiesta Bowl victory in the past decade.
The Broncos needed just four plays to open the scoring, as tailback Jay Ajayi took the ball on a third-down play near midfield and burst through the line to go 56 yards untouched for the touchdown. After forcing a punt on Arizona’s first drive of the game, Boise State got back to work and doubled its lead. This time it was quarterback Grant Hedrick that got in on the action, connecting with Chaz Anderson for a 57-yard scoring pass. After again keeping the Wildcats from gaining any momentum on offense, Boise pushed the lead out to 21-0. The six-play drive was capped by a 16-yard Statue of LIberty play as Ajayi bowled over two defenders for his second touchdown of the game.
Arizona responded on its next drive, finally pushing into Boise State territory and engineering an 11-play, 65-yard drive that was finished off by a one-yard run by freshman quarterback Anu Solomon. It seemed as though momentum might be turning in favor of Rich Rodriguez’s team, as they forced the Broncos to punt on their ensuing drive to start the second quarter. One play later, though, Solomon threw a wobbly ball on a scramble straight to cornerback Cleshawn Page, who returned it to the Arizona 22. Five plays later, Ajayi’s third touchdown run of the half restored a three-touchdown lead.
Chipping away at a Boise State defense that ranked in the top 40 in yards allowed, the Wildcats pulled back within 14 midway through the second quarter. Arizona put together a 13-play, 83-yard drive that used less than four minutes of the game clock. Running back Nick Wilson finally punched it in from a yard out on third and goal. The teams traded field goals before halftime, and it was 31-17 at the intermission.
In the second half, the magic drained away for Boise State’s offense. Five of their eight drives in the third and fourth quarters were of the three-and-out variety. Seven ended in punts, and the longest drive of the half was stalled when Jay Ajayi fumbled after picking up a first down in Arizona territory. Ajayi was undoubtedly the star for the Broncos on New Year’s Eve, needing just nine carriers to go over 100 yards for the game. His 10th carry scored his third touchdown of the game. But he would be held to less than 50 yards in the second half, finishing with 134 rushing yards and no further scores on the day.
Hedrick was also phenomenal in the first half, starting the game with 14 consecutive completions to tie Terrance Broadway’s bowl record and finishing with 309 passing yards and a touchdown. (Of course, his first incompletion to end the streak was a ball behind his receiver that was deflected and intercepted, but other than that blemish Hedrick played a clean game.) But drives repeatedly stalled in the second half for the Broncos as the Wildcats chipped away at the lead.
A field goal midway through the third quarter pulled Arizona back within 11. But a poorly-placed Solomon pass would yield Boise State’s only points of the second half, as cornerback Donte Deayon snagged the wobbly ball out of the air deep in Wildcat territory and darted 16 yards for the score to extend the Mountain West champion’s score to 38-20.
Just over a minute later, though, Solomon atoned for his mistake. He stood in the pocket for several seconds before scrambling to his right, keeping his eyes downfield the whole time. As he neared the line of scrimmage, Solomon lobbed a deep ball to Samajie Grant, who ran right under the ball and outraced the Boise secondary into the endzone to reduce the lead back to 11.
The fourth quarter bogged completely down in defense. Arizona took advantage of Ajayi’s fumble to move 50 yards in three minutes, but all they could get out of the drive was three points from a 32-yard Casey Skowron field goal. The Wildcat defense forced another three-and-out by Hedrick and the Bronco offense, but the subsequent drive for Arizona ended at the Boise State 35 after four straight Solomon incompletions.
Yet Arizona would still get another chance after holding Boise to four yards and a punt. Using their timeouts to preserve time on the Broncos’ last possession, the Wildcats received the ball at their own 20 with 2:53 remaining. The drive nearly ended before it could begin, as an incompletion and a sack set up third and 13 on the Arizona 17. But Solomon found Cayleb Jones for 12 yards, Terris Jones-Grigsby picked up a yard on fourth and one, and the Wildcats had a fresh set of downs. Solomon and Jones hooked up twice more on the drive, the first a 17-yard strike and the latter a 43-yard heave down the sidelines that Jones fought away from the defender before falling backward to the turf eight yards from the potential tying score.
The offense ran up to spike the ball quickly and stop the clock. Solomon missed David Richards on second and goal, leaving two plays left to try to get in the endzone. At least that’s what Rodriguez and his staff thought. The one thing Solomon couldn’t do was take a sack in the field of play… and thus it came to pass that Kamalei Correa notched Boise’s third sack of the drive as Solomon scrambled right. The young quarterback flipped the ball quickly to the official, but there was simply no time left to get off a final play.
And so it came to pass that Boise State won the Fiesta Bowl to score another victory for mid-majors against the Power Five conferences. Two losses eliminated Boise State from any chance at the College Football Playoff, but dominant performances like the Broncos put in on New Year’s Eve against Arizona — showcasing offense in the first half and defense in the second half — will continue to open up access points for the Group of Five. In a year when the fight for the Access Bowl looked like it could go to a neophyte like East Carolina or Marshall, the little guys got just the representative they needed in the inaugural season of the new system to fight for present and future respect.