Here is a comparison of some of the key positions and team units that will be on full display in the Vizio Fiesta Bowl on Wednesday afternoon in Glendale, Arizona. That contest will bring to a climax the 2014 seasons for both the #10 Arizona Wildcats and #20 Boise State Broncos.
Comparing the head coaches: Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez (146–97–2) is 26–13 in the three years since he has taken over the Wildcats. Those records over the past three years are 8-5, 8-5 and 10-3 and mark the first time the Wildcats have posted three straight winning seasons since 1992-95. His Wildcats beat Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl last year and Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl in 2012. Now he’s intent on making it three bowl game wins in a row with a victory over the Broncos.
Rodriguez has done wonders for the Wildcat program using his extensive coaching abilities. He was the offensive coordinator at Clemson (1999-2000) and coach at West Virginia (2001-07), where he went 32-5 in during his last three seasons before leaving for Michigan (2008-2010). Rodriguez is considered one of the pioneers of the no huddle spread offense.
Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin (18–7) is relatively new on the block by comparison. He was an assistant at Boise State for ten seasons, the last five as the Broncos offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He left for Texas in 2011, as the co-offensive coordinator at the University of Texas for two seasons. He served as the head coach at Arkansas State University for the 2013 season before returning this season as Boise State’s newest head coach.
Harsin was the offensive coordinator for former head coach Chris Petersen in Boise State’s two Fiesta Bowl victories. It was his play calling that led to that celebrated upset victory over Oklahoma in 2007 and the win over TCU in 2010.
Coaching edge: Arizona
Comparing the quarterbacks: The Arizona offense is powered by redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon, 6-2, 205 lbs. He has completed 285 of 491 pass attempts for 3,458 yards with 27 TDs and 7 INTs. He needs just 283 more yards to break the FBS freshman record. He's known for big pass plays and is averaging 29.2 yards a toss. But that 58 percent completion rating could put the Wildcats at a disadvantage. In his last game, Oregon held Solomon to just 6 of 12 pass completions for 34 yards. Statistically, Boise State has a better pass defense than the Ducks. More important is a question about Solomon’s health. He was forced out the Pac-12 championship game three weeks ago with an injury to his right foot. Although not a great scrambler it will be interesting to see if that will affect his mobility in the pocket.
Ranked nearby is Boise State quarterback Grant Hedrick, 6-0, 198 lbs. He has completed 270 of 381 pass attempts for 3,387 yards, 22 TDs and 13 INTs. But those stats are slightly deceiving. After a rough start and a stumble at Air Force, he has taken the Broncos on an 8-0 romp, completing 151 of 211 pass attempts for 2,092 yards, 17 TDs and 4 INTs. Hedrick has also rushed 147 times this season for 563 yards and 8 touchdowns, good enough to be the second leading rusher on the team. This week he goes against the 120th ranked pass defense in the FBS.
Quarterback edge: Boise State
Comparing the Offensive Line: The Wildcats O-line is anchored by an experienced group of four full-time starters from last season. Tackles Mickey Baucus, 6-8, 293 lbs, and Fabbians Ebbele, 6-8, 315 lbs, have been the Wildcats defensive backbone for four-straight years. The other two mainstays have been guard Cayman Bundage, 6-2, 281 lbs, and center Steven Gurrola, 6-2, 286 lbs. But the Broncos won’t see Gurrola in the lineup until the second half due to a suspension. That could be trouble for the Wildcats who are already 104th in the nation in allowing sacks but great at opening holes for their 45th ranked rushing offense.
Boise State offensive line coach Scott Huff has put together a solid O-line anchored around junior center Marcus Henry, 6-3, 286 lbs. Henry is one of two returning juniors on a young offensive line that lacks a senior for leadership. The other junior is left tackle Rees Odhiambo, 6-4, 310 lbs. There has been a hiccup or two along the way, but that offensive line is starting to flex its muscle and is now part of the 30th best rushing offense in the country. Due to their blocking the Broncos also rank 13th nationally in long rushing plays.
Offensive line edge: Boise State
Comparing the Running Backs: True freshman running back Nick Wilson, 5-10, 199 lbs, has rushed 217 times for 1,289 yards and 15 touchdowns and is averaging 5.9 yards per carry. When he gets loose, Wilson is deadly to opposing defenses. He has topped 100 yards in four of his last five games and is the 4th ranked RB in the Pac-12. This week he will be going up against the 36th best rush defense in the country. RB Terris Jones-Grigsby, 5-7, 195 lbs, is another playmaker in the backfield. While he has had limited action in recent games he is the second leading rusher on the team and is a threat that can shred good defenses. He averages 4.93 yards a carry.
Boise State running back Jay Ajayi, 6-0, 216 lbs, has had 325 carries for 1,689 yards and 25 TDs this season. He is averaging a whopping 129.92 yards per game and is ranked the 9th best running back in the nation. He is on the 2014 Walter Camp Player of the Year Watch List. In the Mountain West title game, the Fresno State defense held him to just 70 yards on 22 carries. But stopping Ajayi came with a cost: while the Bulldogs were busy keeping an eye on Ajayi, Hedrick was calling his own number and ripped off big running plays that averaged 9 yards a carry.
Running back edge: tossup
Comparing the Receivers: Arizona WR Austin Hill, 6-3, 202 lbs, is also on the 2014 Walter Camp Player of the Year Watch List. He is just one of a talented slate of receivers. WR Cayleb Jones, 6-3, 215 lbs, has 65 receptions for 902 yards and nine TDs. He actually surpasses Hill’s numbers who has 45 passes for 605 yards and four TDs, as does sophomore WR Samajie Grant, 5-9, 177 lbs, who has 41 grabs for 649 yards and five TD’s. Ten Arizona receivers have caught touchdown passes this season and are responsible for being the 29th best passing offense in the country.
Boise State’s loss of WR Matt Miller has hardly slowed the Broncos passing attack, thanks to wide receivers Thomas Sperbeck 6-0, 173 lbs, Shane Williams-Rhodes, 5-6, 158 lbs, Chaz Anderson, 5-10, 182 lbs, and TE Jake Roh, 6-3, 228 lbs. Sperbeck is the deep man and has 39 catches for 678 yards and is averaging 17.4 yards a catch. Boise State has the 27th best passing offense in the nation.
Receiving edge: Arizona
Comparison of both offenses: The Wildcats rank 26th nationally in total offense. All together, they average 34.8 points, 183.8 rushing yards, 277.7 passing yards for 461.5 yards of total offense per game. They convert 38.68 percent of their third downs and score 80 percent of the time inside the Red Zone.
The Broncos rank 13th nationally in total offense, generating an average of 39.8 points, 217.85 rushing yards, 287.2 passing yards for 496.1 total yards of offense per game. They convert about 45 percent of their third downs and score 89 percent of the time inside the Red Zone.
Offensive edge: tossup
Comparing the Defensive Line: Arizona’s D-line is nothing to write home about giving up over 170 yards on the ground per game. They are responsible for just 9 of the team’s 37 sacks this season. But that comes from using the 3-3-5 defensive scheme. That puts all the pressure on the linebackers to clean up the line of scrimmage and help make the big plays up front. It’s hard for a defensive lineman to shine in that environment, but DLReggie Gilbert, 6-4, 262 lbs, and DL Dan Pettinato, 6-4, 277 lbs, are two who have carried their load.
Boise State is a little better---some of the time. After starting the season and getting burned a few times, defensive coordinator Marcel Yates kept adding the polish. By midseason he scrapped his 4-2-5 system in favor of the 3-4 defense and that helped put a stop to the high scoring shootouts that were plaguing the Broncos. It helped to have the versatile talent to do that. Two of those are DL Kamalei Correa, 6-3, 247 lbs, who leads the Mountain West in sacks (10.0) and is second in tackles-for-loss; and DE Beau Martin, 6-2, 258 lbs, the only senior on the Broncos defensive line and who ranks second on the team with 11 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
Defensive line edge: Boise State
Comparing the Linebackers and Secondary: Arizona’s consensus All-American linebacker Scooby Wright III, 6-1, 248 lbs, won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. He is also is a finalist for the Walter Camp Player of the Year award, and has earned the Bednarik Award (best defensive player) and Lombardi Award (best lineman or linebacker). He starts at middle linebacker but becomes a defensive end in pass situations and is the anchor for the Wildcat defense. He ranked the 3rd best linebacker in the nation in tackles with 153 (89 solo, 64 assisted). And he’s hardly alone out there. In the backfield is safety Jared Tevis, 5-11, 202 lbs, who ranks second on the team and third in the Pac-12 with 119 total tackles. He also has nine tackles for loss, four sacks, a couple of interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles. (Jared is the brother of former Boise State linebacker Aaron Tevis, who was one of Harsin’s linebackers in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl victory over TCU).
The Broncos linebacker rotation consists of sophomore Tanner Vallejo, 6-1, 228 lbs, (strong-side), senior Blake Renaud and redshirt freshman Joe Martarano at middle linebacker, and Tyler Gray and Ben Weaver at weak-side linebacker. Vallejo leads the team with 86 tackles (15 for loss), and three fumble recoveries. In the Mountain West championship game against Fresno State, Weaver led the team with 16 tackles. Vallejo, who had 13 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown, won the defensive MVP award. Further back in the secondary is Boise State’s newest All-American: safety Darian Thompson, 6-2, 208 lbs. He leads the team with seven interceptions.
Linebacker-Secondary edge: Arizona
Comparing total defenses: The Wildcats rank 105th nationally in total defense. On average they allow 27.5 points per game, and give up 170.38 rushing yards and 279.1 passing yards, for a total of 449.5 yards per game.
The Broncos are ranked #40 nationally in total defense and allow 26.5 points per game. They give up an average of 141.46 yards to the run and 225 yards to the pass, for a total of 366.5 yards per game.
Total defense edge: Boise State
Comparing the Special teams: The Arizona kicking game is rather good with junior Casey Skowron handling the duties for place-kicking and kickoffs. He connected cleanly on all 54 PAT tries, and has made 17 of 25 field goals, and tallied 111 total points to set a school single-season record for points by a kicker. On kickoffs he has averaged 61.74 yards a kick and 48 percent have been touchbacks.
Junior Drew Riggleman handles the Wildcats punting duties and received second-team all-league honors in the Pac-12. His 69 punts have averaged 46.4 yards per punt. Twenty have been inside the 20-yardline.
DaVonte’ Neal is the primary punt returner for Arizona. The sophomore has averaged 11.9 yards on 11 returns, including one for an 81-yard touchdown. Freshman Tyrell Johnson is the kickoff returner and averages 23.4 yards per return.
Boise State’s kicker is Dan Goodale, 5-10, 185 lbs. He has been good on 62 of 65 PATs and has been successful on 15 of 20 field goal attempts for a total of 107 total points this season. Goodale also handles kickoffs. His 96 kickoffs have averaged 63.52 yards a kick, and 65.63 percent have been touchbacks.
Punter Sean Wale has punted 58 times this season for the Broncos and has averaged 40.Pu98 yards per punt.
Punt returns the Broncos have fallen on the shoulders of two players. WR Shane Williams-Rhodes, 5-6, 158 lbs, has had 18 returns and is averaging 8.5 yards a reception. Junior CB Donte Deayon, 5-9, 152 lbs, is starting to make his mark in the receiving backfield. He has only had 5 returns, but those returns have averaged 16.2 yards pop and one includes a touchdown. He also is second on the team in interceptions with 5, one for a TD.
Special Teams edge: Arizona