Boise State capped off an impressive first season under head coach Bryan Harsin with a 38-30 upset of Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Fiesta Bowl’s been good to Boise State. Under Chris Petersen, the Broncos won two of them, in 2006 and '09, and they won the '14 edition under new head coach Bryan Harsin. Boise State jumped ahead early and held on in the second half to beat Arizona, 38-30, at University of Phoenix Stadium on New Year’s Eve to cement its place as the Group of Five team to beat for the foreseeable future.
The quick lead allowed Boise State to control the tempo and play loose. Though their offense stalled in the second half, the Broncos got some timely plays from the defense, including a pick-six by Donte Deayon late in the third quarter to push the lead to 38-20. Arizona scored 10 unanswered points and was driving in the last two minutes in the red zone, but Boise State stopped Anu Solomon on the last play of the game to seal the win.
Here are three thoughts from the Fiesta Bowl, as the Broncos had another unforgettable performance in Arizona.
1. The Tonight Show with Jay Ajayi
Jay Ajayi put Boise State up 7-0, busting through the line and sprinting 56 yards into the end zone for his 26th rushing touchdown of the season. That tied him for the most touchdowns in a season in Boise State history. Ajayi took sole possession of the record after a 16-yard run to put the Broncos up 21-0 after a Statue of Liberty play, something anyone familiar with the Broncos will remember as being, well, singularly Boise at this point.
At this point it’s hard to call a guy like Ajayi underrated, but he really was. He had 1,132 yards and 20 touchdowns in the team’s final eight games heading into the Fiesta Bowl, and the performance against the Wildcats was the official exclamation point to an already impressive season.
Ajayi finished with 134 yards and three scores, moving him to 1823 yards on the year to go with 535 receiving yards and 32 total touchdowns. The junior has already declared for the NFL draft, and although he doesn't have the buzz of Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman from Indiana or Georgia’s Todd Gurley, he may be just as productive (if not more) at the next level.
The Broncos running back runs with confidence and has the strength to absorb and bounce off tackles. He sees the field extremely well, finding the hole and attacking it relentlessly. Add in his pass-catching ability and NFL teams could be sold on him as a complete feature running back.
2. The Broncos are in good hands with Harsin
The marriage between Harsin and Boise State was perfect from from the get-go. A Boise native, Harsin is a Bronco for life. The former Boise State quarterback coached the Broncos as an assistant from 2001-2010, eventually rising to offensive coordinator. He then moved onto the Texas for two seasons and got his shot as a head coach in 2013.
That familiarity with the program and with what Petersen was did during his time at Boise State made for a smooth and flawless transition. It’s kind of hard to ask for more than 12 wins and a trophy in a prestige bowl over a Pac-12 opponent, especially with a new coach in the brave new College Football Playoff world.
The highest ranked Group of Five team is guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, and Boise State has as good a shot as anyone at staking its claim to that spot year in and year out.
3. Arizona’s future is still bright
The Wildcats had a golden opportunity against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship after winning the conference’s South division following a 42-35 win over Arizona State in Tucson the last week of the regular season. Ranked at No. 7 in the College Football Playoff committee’s rankings heading into the conference title games, there was a slim chance Arizona could get itself in the Top Four with a win.
Instead the worst-case scenario emerged. Oregon went up 23-0 at the half and led 44-7 at the end of the third quarter, eventually winning 51-13.
Even with the loss Arizona earned the opportunity to play in a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl. The Wildcats were ahead of schedule under Rich Rodriguez in Year 3, giving the Ducks’ lone loss of the regular season, and coming out on top of a crowded and strong Pac-12 South.
A lot of that success can be attributed to Rodriguez and Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, who saw something in the former Michigan coach even though his tenure with the Wolverines didn’t go as hoped.
"You look at [Rodriguez’s] track record at West Virginia and he had a lot of success over an extended period of time,” Byrne told SI.com in early October. “When we were making our decision with him I really felt that what he was as a coach was a reflection of what took place at West Virginia rather than what had happened the previous three years.”
With so many returning players and an established identity, Arizona could be a thorn in the Pac-12’s side for as long as Rodriguez is around.