Fiesta Bowl preview: Boise State vs. Arizona
Arizona enters the bowl season following a year of firsts since the start of 21st century.
For starters, the Wildcats hit the 10-win mark for the first time since 1998. By beating rival Arizona State in the final week of the regular season, they reach the double-digit win mark while winning their first Pac-12 South Division title. Arizona even found itself on the outskirts of the first ever College Football Playoff conversation.
Even after a 51-13 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Rich Rodriguez's team had done enough to earn itself a big-time bowl bid.
A trip up Interstate 10 on New Year's Eve leads the No. 10 Wildcats to University of Phoenix Stadium, where on Wednesday (1 p.m. PT, ESPN) they face the No. 20 Boise State Broncos.
The two teams visit Glendale, Ariz., with very different histories as far as bowl games are concerned, but there's a good chance both squads will be well represented in the stands on Dec. 31 considering the Broncos' success in the 2007 and 2009 Fiesta Bowls and Arizona's proximity and large fan base in the Phoenix area.
Outlook: The run game (and stopping it) could key a victory
Arizona leaned heavily on a deep and diverse group of receivers to carry redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon as he learned on the fly and through injury to pass for 3,458 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. The result of seven of those receivers catching for 200 or more yards this year was Rodriguez's team throwing for 277.7 pass yards per game, 28th most in the nation.
The Broncos can do the Wildcats a little better. They rank 26th in the nation with 278.2 pass yards per game behind quarterback Grant Hedrick, who passed for 3,387 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2014.
Both teams can sling it, but while both Arizona and Boise State have relied heavily on the pass game to put up points, it's the run game that will need to be more than serviceable to make a difference.
Take their five combined losses as proof.
Arizona averages 183.8 rushing yards per game this year but only mustered 77 in a loss to USC, 80 in a defeat at the hands of UCLA and 111 in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon. Likewise, Boise State's lack of a run game and specifically the handcuffing of star running back Jay Ajayi bit them in their only two losses. Those losses against Air Force and Ole Miss accounted for two of his four games without triple-digit rushing yards and two of the three games he didn't score touchdowns.
Indeed, the Wildcats and Broncos bring balanced attacks, but a bad rushing effort by either squad could bring a huge danger of losing along with it.
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Three Players to Watch: Arizona
LB Scooby Wright III (153 tackles, 28 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, 6 forced fumbles)
A unanimous All-American selection, the sophomore led Arizona and the nation in a number of categories this season while acting as a versatile force in defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's front seven. Wright played middle linebacker in Arizona's 3-3-5 scheme but at times acted as the team's fourth defensive end, where he added to his tackles for loss and sack totals. He finished in the top five nationally for total tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.
RB Nick Wilson (217 carries, 1,289 yards, 15 touchdowns)
The Wildcats began the season replacing rushing monster Ka'Deem Carey with a committee of running backs. Terris Jones-Grigsby and Nick Wilson were the two main options and not the only ones in the first few games, but soon enough it became apparent who was the No. 1. Wilson averaged 5.9 yards per carry and finished with more than 700 more yards than Jones-Grigsby.
WR Cayleb Jones (65 catches, 902 yards, 9 touchdowns)
Jones, in his first year at Arizona following a transfer from Texas, became the favorite target for Solomon this season. He was a deep threat with the size to catch jump balls and the speed to break away for big gains. After a hot start to the year, however, he found himself in a funk toward the end of the season.
Three Players to Watch: Boise State
Jay Ajayi (325 carries, 1,689, 25 touchdowns)
The Broncos' best weapon averaged 5.2 yards per carry and finished fourth in the nation in rushing yards and second in touchdown carries during the season. In nine of Boise State's 13 games, Ajayi broke a run for 20 yards or more, and in three he ripped off runs of more than 50 yards.
S Darian Thompson (7 interceptions, 61 tackles)
Boise State's second-leading tackler was also a ball hawk for one of college football's best teams at intercepting the football. Thompson picked off more than a third of the Broncos' 20 interceptions on the season, which individually ranked sixth in the nation for the fifth-best team at creating turnovers off opponent passes.
QB Grant Hedrick (22 passing touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 3,387 yards, 71 percent completions)
While Arizona's Solomon might be well known for occasionally running the ball with the zone-read, it's Hedrick who was actually the more productive rushing quarterback this season. He finished with 563 yards and a 3.8 yards per carry this year to Solomon's 259 yards and 2.3 yards per carry average. Hedrick added eight touchdowns on the ground as well.
Stats to Know
- Arizona missed bowl games from 1999-2007, but since that drought ended the Wildcats have been to a bowl game in six of the last seven seasons, going 3-2 in their bowl games since 2007.
- Boise State's bowl streak has reached 13 games, tied for the seventh-longest stretch in the nation. The Broncos have now been in the Fiesta Bowl three times in the past nine seasons.
- This is the first meeting between Arizona and Boise State.