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2014 Fiesta Bowl Preview

Arizona (10-3, 6-2 Pac-12) vs. Boise State (11-2, 7-1 Mountain West)

Date: Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Time: 4:00 p.m. (EST)
Location: Glendale, AZ
Stadium: University of Phoenix Stadium (78,600)
Television: ESPN
Series Record: First meeting

Boise State will be making its third appearance in the Fiesta Bowl in the last nine years—this time under first-year coach Bryan Harsin. Harsin was a quarterback for the Broncos from 1995 to 1999 and also spent 2001 to 2010 at his alma mater in various capacities as an assistant coach.

BSU was victorious in its two previous trips to the desert, as it captured a heart-stopping 43-42 win over Oklahoma to conclude the 2006 season before beating TCU, 17-10, to close out the 2009 campaign.

The Broncos, who are this year’s Mountain West Conference Champs, started 3-2 under their new leadership, but proceeded to reel off eight straight wins. With its 11-2 mark, Boise State became the highest ranked team from the Group of Five and recipient of the automatic bid to a selection committee bowl. BSU’s losses were a 35-13 loss to Ole Miss in the Georgia Dome in the season opener and a 28-14 setback at Air Force on September 27.

They will face Rich Rodriguez and his Arizona Wildcats—runner-up in the Pac-12—and this will mark the first-ever meeting between the programs.

Since arriving in the desert prior to the 2012 season, Rodriguez and company have gotten things rolling. Playing in what some consider to be the toughest division in football outside of the SEC West, the Wildcats’ lone blemishes prior to the Pac-12 title game (51-13 loss to Oregon—a team it beat 31-24 in Eugene earlier in the season) were to UCLA and USC by a combined 12 points.
Both teams bring balanced offenses to the table.

The Broncos’ attack produces nearly 40 points and 500 yards per contest under the guidance of quarterback Grant Hedrick. Hedrick has completed just more than 70 percent of his passes in throwing for nearly 3,400 yards and 22 touchdowns. He has thrown 13 picks.
Shane Williams-Rhodes, who has a team-high 68 catches, and Thomas Sperbeck (39 catches for 678 yards and 3 TD) are top targets for Hedrick.

However, it is All-American running back Jay Ajayi that really makes the unit go. Ajayi accounted for more than 2,200 yards of offense, as he ran for 1,689 yards while also catching 45 passes for 536 yards. He reached the end zone 29 times this season.

Boise State will be forced to find a way to block or at least avoid Wildcat linebacker Scooby Wright III. Wright, who won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy recognizing him as the nation’s top defensive player, recorded an amazing 153 stops—89 of which were solo. Additionally, he led the team in tackles for loss (28) and sacks (14).

As a team though, Zona allowed 27.5 points and 449.5 yards per game so the Wildcat defense does have its areas that can be exploited. The pass defense was particularly suspect, as UA relinquished 279.1 yards per game through the air—which ranked 117th nationally.

Offensively, Rich Rod’s Wildcats have been a machine. Inexperienced quarterback Anu Solomon has more than stepped up. Solomon completed 58 percent of his nearly 500 attempts while throwing for 3,458 yards and 27 touchdowns (versus only seven picks).

Solomon’s top threat in the passing game has been Texas transfer Cayleb Jones. Jones, a downfield threat, has 65 receptions for 902 yards and nine scores.

The Wildcats’ ground game has come through and taken some pressure off Solomon. Nick Wilson, one of the most productive backs in the Pac-12, tallied 1,289 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Arizona will be attacking a Boise State defense that hasn’t been as solid in years past, but still good enough for 39th nationally.

Tanner Vallejo leads the Broncos with 86 tackles—including 15 behind the line.

Sophomore Kamalei Correa recorded 17 tackles for loss—including a team-high ten sacks—for a team that registered 39 sacks on the season.

Safety Darian Thompson has seven interceptions and has helped BSU rank 32nd nationally in turnover margin.

Expect plenty of points in this one. As a program, the Broncos have a history of playing well when they’ve earned their way on to the big stage. Arizona is playing in its third straight bowl and coming off the disappointment of the Pac-12 title game is looking to conclude its best season in years with a win over upset-minded Boise State.

BSU will compete for awhile, but Arizona will prevail.

Sugar Bowl Prediction: Arizona 37 Boise State 31


By Thomas Rosenbaum
DFN Sports Staff Writer

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