Fiesta Bowl Preview: Arizona vs. Boise State
Boise State (11-2) vs. Arizona (10-3)
Dec. 31, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN)
For the second time since its miraculous overtime win against Oklahoma in 2007, Boise State is back in the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos, who are 2-0 in Fiesta Bowl appearances, earned the Group of Five’s bid to a New Year’s Six bowl with their 11-2 regular season, capped by a Mountain West title.
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin’s debut season got off to a rough start with a 35-13 loss to Ole Miss on Aug. 28, but his squad rallied to win 11 of its next 12 and enters the postseason on an eight-game winning streak. Regular BCS busters under Chris Petersen, the Broncos can thank the new playoff format (which guarantees a Group of Five team a spot in one of the marquee bowl games) and a late-season loss by Marshall for their Fiesta Bowl bid. Boise also did its part by taking down Colorado State and Utah State in conference play and beating Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game.
Arizona snuck into the Pac-12 title game by beating rival Arizona State on Nov. 28 while UCLA fell to Stanford. The Wildcats could have played into the College Football Playoff conversation had they beaten Oregon again -- Arizona stunned the Ducks 31-24 in Eugene on Oct. 2 -- but instead lost in a 51-13 stomping. The Wildcats’ 10-3 record against a challenging Pac-12 slate was still enough to earn them a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Points of interest
1. Ajayi vs. Wright: Boise State tailback Jay Ajayi will fight for yards against Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III in one of the most exciting individual matchups of bowl season. Ajayi ranks fifth nationally in rushing yards (1,689) and fourth in all-purpose yards (171.2 per game), while Wright won the Nagurski and Bednarik awards and finished the highest in Heisman Trophy voting (ninth) of any defensive player. Wright is a persistent threat in the backfield and led the nation with 27 tackles for loss as part of a 153-tackle campaign. He also forced a Pac-12 best six fumbles and recovered one.
This battle could determine Wednesday’s outcome, as the Broncos went 9-0 when Ajayi topped 100 rushing yards, but just 2-2 when he didn't. The same could be said for the matchup between Arizona back Nick Wilson and Boise State’s run defense: The Wildcats freshman back gained a combined 44 yards on 22 carries in losses to UCLA and Oregon (he missed Arizona’s loss to USC with an ankle injury), but averaged 124.5 rushing yards per game in victories.
2. Staying motivated: Rich Rodriguez left no question of his mindset heading into the Fiesta Bowl, saying he’s “still ticked” about Arizona’s 51-13 drubbing from Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. The key question for the Wildcats: What form will that frustration take? It could be the ultimate motivator, driving Arizona to take its anger out on Boise State. Or it could be a detriment, prompting a slow start as the Wildcats get caught moping over a loss from nearly a month ago.
The Broncos should have no trouble being at their mental best. Harsin would love to close out his opening season in style, and a Fiesta Bowl victory would cap a remarkable turnaround for a team that lost two of its first five games.
3. Arizona’s aerial vulnerability: Despite boasting the best defensive player in the country, Arizona still allowed 27.5 points per game, 73rd nationally. Wright can’t do everything, and his teammates, particularly those in the secondary, struggled to contain elite Pac-12 passers. Arizona has allowed 7.3 yards per pass attempt, 82nd in the FBS, while allowing completions on 65.1 percent of passes, a lowly 118th. Washington State picked apart the Wildcats for 489 passing yards on Oct. 25, while Marcus Mariota threw for 313 yards in the Pac-12 title game.
Boise State quarterback Grant Hedrick should have no trouble capitalizing on the separation afforded his receivers: He completed a national-best 70.9 percent of his passes this fall. His accuracy didn’t slip against the Broncos’ toughest competition; he posted a 78.3 rate against Ole Miss and a 75.0 clip against Utah State.
Will Hedrick make a critical error? Though Hedrick’s accuracy was unmatched this season, his erratic decision-making is cause for concern. The senior tossed 13 interceptions, including eight over the Broncos’ two losses. If Wright gets pressure on Hedrick -- his 14 sacks this season are the third-most in the country -- he could force some game-changing mistakes.
Home-field advantage: University of Phoenix Stadium is just a 131-mile drive up Interstate 10 from Arizona’s Tucson campus, so Wildcats fans will likely make the trip in droves for the squad’s first in-state bowl game since the 1997 Insight.com Bowl, and first Fiesta Bowl since the '93 season. The Wildcats are 16-6 in the state of Arizona under Rodriguez.
48.6: That was Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon’s completion percentage over the Wildcats’ final six games. Solomon completed over 50 percent of his passes just twice in that stretch. Luckily for Arizona, Wilson powered the offense during that span (Solomon also contributed 105 rushing yards against Colorado), saving the Wildcats from losses except against UCLA and Oregon.
Boise State averages more yards per play offensively (6.3 to 5.6) and allows fewer yards per play defensively (5.1 to 5.4) than Arizona does. So why are the Wildcats favored? Well, because Boise State played the 80th toughest schedule, per Jeff Sagarin’s ratings, while Arizona played the 28th toughest. Although Solomon struggled moving the ball through the air in the second half of the season, many of those games came against the some of the strongest defenses in the Pac-12. Expect him to bounce back after a month of preparation, while Wright disrupts the Broncos’ running game and pressures Hedrick into some interceptions.
Arizona 31, Boise State 24