#20 Boise State v. #10 Arizona
University of Phoenix Stadium — Glendale, AZ
December 31, 2014 — 4:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
The Fiesta Bowl, which rose from its original creation as a guaranteed bowl berth for the WAC to become a fixture of the BCS era, has become the go-to spot for the David-versus-Goliath story of the seasons, having hosted the BCS Buster on several prior occasions (including last year’s back-door Big East sendoff for UCF.) It’s only fitting that it would be the first spot to host this year’s edition of the Access Bowl. But which team is the David and which is the Goliath in this year’s Fiesta Bowl? One team is a mid-major that is playing in its third Fiesta Bowl in nine seasons. The other is a power-conference school that hasn’t played in this home-state bowl game since 1993. Recent iterations of this game have featured barrels of points, trick plays galore, and plenty of excitement. Something from this game is sure to be a post-holiday water cooler talking point, and you don’t want to be the person in the dark faking your way through the conversation.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
Boise State recovered from a season-opening loss to Ole Miss and an early conference defeat to Air Force to claim the Mountain West title and the Access Bowl bid with an 11-2 record. The Broncos have become a mid-major powerhouse over the past decade, blossoming from their I-AA roots to dominate first the WAC and then the Mountain West. Under new head coach Bryan Harsin, Boise is back in Glendale for the third time in a decade.
The offense took off this year, averaging more than 500 yards per game and ranking ninth nationally in scoring. The Broncos put up nearly 40 points per game, albeit against the 73rd-ranked schedule according to Sagarin. It was a balanced attack, as Boise State ranked in the top 30 in both passing and rushing yardage. Tailback Jay Ajayi was the catalyst for the offense, compiling over 2200 total yards of offense and 29 touchdowns. He was the man who kept defenses honest as well as the safety valve for quarterback Grant Hedrick. The senior QB completed over 70 percent of his attempts for nearly nine yards per attempt, throwing for 22 touchdowns and almost 3400 yards.
The defense was nowhere the level of Boise State’s former Fiesta Bowl teams. The Broncos ranked 39th in yardage allowed per game, holding teams to 367 yards per game. But they also gave up almost 27 points per game, which put them in the middle of the pack at 65th nationally. During their eight-game winning streak to end the season, Boise gave up 46 points to Nevada and 49 to New Mexico. But the Broncos were also tied for 10th nationally with 29 takeaways, and they gave up fewer than 20 points in each of their last three wins before the postseason.
After their upset of Oregon at Autzen Stadium on the first Thursday of October, Arizona was 5-0 and an outside threat to join the College Football Playoff field. The Wildcats lost two of their next three to USC and UCLA, but won their last four of the regular season to win the Pac-12 South and earn a rematch with Oregon. The loss in Santa Clara did little to diminish the job Rich Rodriguez has done in building the program in Tucson.
The offense took flight thanks to redshirt freshman Anu Solomon. The quarterback from Las Vegas completed 58 percent of his passes for nearly 3500 yards, tossing 27 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. The Wildcats averaged 277 yards through the air per game, ranking 29th in the country in passing offense. Solomon also added 259 yards to a ground game which was a top-50 attack, gaining over 180 yards per game. The heart of the rushing offense was Nick Wilson, who racked up just under 1300 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns for the season. Arizona was also among the nation’s best at protecting the football, coughing up just 16 turnovers in 13 games.
The Wildcats sputtered defensively, though, giving up four touchdowns a game to rank in the bottom half of the country in scoring defense. Even worse, Arizona ranked outside the top 100 in the FBS in total yardage conceded, allowing opponents to gain 450 yards a game. They snagged some timely turnovers, a dozen apiece of interceptions and fumble recoveries, which bolstered the impact of some of their bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. Even with talent like Scooby Wright they also allowed 30 or more points on four separate occasions, putting even more pressure on a young offense to keep up in shootouts.
What is Likely to Happen
It’s a script that is frankly starting to become familiar. On New Year’s Day 2007, the Broncos needed overtime to beat Oklahoma. Three years later they finished off TCU in regulation by a touchdown. This time around, the Broncos will make good on their second chance to play Power Five competition by convincingly taking care of business against Arizona. Jay Ajayi will have a breakout game on the national stage, and Grant Hedrick will take advantage of the defense keying in on the running game to throw a few over the top of the secondary. Arizona will get their licks, but Solomon will make a few costly mistakes that cost the Wildcats in their home state’s New Year’s Six bowl game. You might even see a trick play or two from Harsin’s crew, though they won’t need tricks to succeed this time around.
Boise State 35, Arizona 21