The reputations of two major programs will be at stake in the Fiesta Bowl Wednesday night when BR-29 Boise State takes on BR-21 Arizona.
On one sideline, Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez quickly turned a middle-of-the-road Pac 12 program into a double-digit winner for the first time since 1998. After finishing his first two seasons at 8-5, including victories in the New Mexico and AdvoCare V100 Bowl, Rich-Rod’s offense came out of the gates swinging this season as they jumped out to a 5-0 record. That span included a huge road win at then BR-7 Oregon.
Defenses have struggled with Arizona all season. They’ve got a balanced attack that is 29th in the nation at 277 passing yards per game, and 45th overall at 183 rushing yards per game.
Freshman quarterback Anu Solomon has been a pleasant surprise for the Wildcats, throwing for nearly 3,500 yards, 27 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions. He was especially impressive in a 36-point comeback win over California in September, completing 47-of-73 passes for 520 yards and five scores. He capped the evening with a 47-yard Hail Mary to Austin Hill in what turned out to be one of the most entertaining games of the season.
Solomon wasn’t the only freshman in the Wildcat’s backfield who gave opponents fits. Running back Nick Wilson has churned out 1,289 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first season at school. He’s gone over the century mark seven times, including 218 in a crucial late November win over Utah, and made the transition from two-time consensus All-American Ka’Deem Carey much more bearable for Arizona.
On the other side of the field, Boise State has rebounded nicely this year after posting an 8-5 record a season ago. Longtime head coach Chris Petersen left for greener power-conference pastures in the offseason, but the squad has looked solid under first-year skipper Bryan Harsin.
They got out to a bit of a sluggish start in an opening day loss to Ole Miss, but since then the Broncos have scored 30 or more points ten times, twice hitting the 60-point mark.
The Bronco offense has put up pretty similar numbers to their Fiesta Bowl opponents, ranking 26th in the country at 278 passing yards per game and 30th in the nation at 217 rushing yards per game.
Boise State QB Grant Hendrick has thrown for 3,387 yards and 22 TDs, but he’s been interception-prone all season. The senior quarterback has been picked 13 times, including a rough, two four-interception days — one in the season-0pener, and one in a surprising 28-14 September 27 loss to Air Force. These were their only two losses this year.
The Bronco ground-game is spearheaded by Jay Ajayi. The junior running back will almost certainly eclipse 1,700 yards Wednesday night to go along with 25 touchdowns. Ajayi has been absolutely lethal. He’s gone over 100 yards in nine of 13 games this season. With just 78 yards in the Fiesta Bowl, Ajayi can finish the season with the fourth most rushing yards of any back in the country.
Boise State fans and proponents were one of the loudest voices in favor of a College Football Playoff system. Since they made the jump from D1-AA/FCS to D1-A/FBS they’re a remarkable 188-53. Since they joined the WAC in 1999, they’ve never won fewer than eight games in a season, and only failed to reach double digit wins three times. This isn’t nearly their first Fiesta Bowl either. They finished undefeated 2006 and 2009 seasons with Fiesta Bowl titles, but as great as that was, they wanted more. The Broncos wanted a shot at the title.
While Boise State fell short of the inaugural four-team playoff, a Fiesta Bowl win in coach Harsin’s first year would go a long way toward building momentum for the 2015 season.
Arizona hasn’t won, or even played in, a BCS Bowl since 1993 (not sure what we’re supposed to call them now, but I’m talking about the Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls).
While the Broncos rank ahead of the Wildcats in both opponent-adjusted offense and defense, they played a much weaker schedule this year (the perpetual complaint about Boise State). Arizona played four teams ranked in the BR Top 25, six in the BR Top 50, and all 13 of their opponents were ranked in the BR Top 100 at the time they played. On the other side, Boise State played just one game against BR Top 25 opposition (the loss to Ole Miss), two games against BR Top 50 opposition, and four games against teams ranked outside the BR Top 100, including the loss at Air Force.
Both teams feature powerful offenses. The Broncos are 10th in our opponent-adjusted offensive ranks, the Wildcats 27th. Plus, neither team is particularly good on D — the Broncos rank 66th, the Wildcats 75th. These stats make it seem as though this Fiesta Bowl will have everything you could ever want in a bowl game: offense, points, scoring, and touchdowns.
And of course, perhaps the biggest reason to watch on Wednesday night is there’s just something special about the Broncos when they reach the Fiesta Bowl…