WHEN: Wednesday, December 31, 2:00 PM MST
WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, AZ (63,400)
CONFERENCES: Mountain West Conference (Champion) vs Pac-12 Conference (Pac-12-South Champion)
2014 SEASON: Boise State, 11-2; Arizona, 10-3
COACHES: Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin (18-7); Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez (146-97-2)
WEB STREAMING: Watch ESPN
The No. 20 Boise State Broncos and the No. 10 Arizona Wildcats will make history in the 44th Annual VIZIO Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, Wednesday. That is when the New Year's Six bowl game ushers in the first year of the College Football Playoff. It will be their first ever meeting. That game will kick off at 2 P.M. MST.
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez, the PAC-12 Coach of the Year, is ready to close out his 10-3 season with another bowl win as the Pac-12 South Champions. That is a huge accomplishment for a team that was expected to finish fourth this year in the Pac-12 South, behind USC, UCLA and Arizona State. This is Arizona's first 10-win season since 1998, and Rodriquez's best year in the three years he's been the head coach of the Wildcats. The Fiesta Bowl is his third bowl game in as many years. Last season his Wildcats defeated Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl and the year before took down Nevada in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl. Now he's intent on making it three bowl game wins in a row with a victory over the Broncos.
Ah yes, the blue-collar Broncos. After finishing the 2013 season with an 8-5 record and the loss of their super-star head coach, no one was predicting an appearance by the Broncos this season in one of the six bowls rotating in the new College Football Playoff (CFP). But that is just what has happened under former Boise State offensive coordinator and new head coach Bryan Harsin. He has returned the Broncos back to its usual 10-plus win seasons and back to the ranks among the top 25 programs in the country. But it hasn't been easy. After starting from scratch and losing the season opener to Ole Miss, Harsin's Broncos dropped to a 3-2 start before he and his new coaching staff could get the team energized and revitalized. And that's when the Broncos went on an eight-game winning streak and along the way picked up the Mountain West Championship to propel themselves into the lone G5 bowl slot.
What to expect when Arizona has the ball: Behind Rodriguez's up-tempo spread offense is redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon, 6-2, 205 lbs. He has completed 285 of 491 pass attempts for 3,458 yards with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His big pass plays are averaging 29.2 yards a pass. One of his favorite targets will be wide receiver Austin Hill, 6-3, 202 lbs, who is on the 2014 Walter Camp Player of the Year Watch List. But Solomon likes to spread it around. WR Cayleb Jones, 6-3, 215 lbs, and WR Samajie Grant, 5-9, 177 lbs, will be two other mainstays on the receiving end of his passes. All together, the Wildcats corps of receivers makes up the 29th best passing offense in the country.
But they also run ball very well. About 46 percent of their plays are rushing plays. RB Nick Wilson, 5-10, 199 lbs, is the top rusher. He has rushed 217 times for 1,289 yards and 15 touchdowns this season and averages 5.9 yards per carry. Second on the team is RB Terris Jones-Grigsby, 5-7, 195 lbs. He averages 4.93 yards a carry.
The Wildcat offense will be going up against the 36th best rush defense in the country. Not stellar, but better now that defensive coordinator Marcel Yates has modified his 4-2-5 defense to a 3-4 line up.That lineup is anchored by DL Kamalei Correa, 6-3, 247 lbs, who leads the Mountain West Conference in sacks (10.0) and is second in tackles-for-loss; and DE Beau Martin, 6-2, 258 lbs, who ranks second on the team with 11 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. A corps of rotating linebackers led by Tanner Vallejo, 6-1, 228 lbs, will be backing those guys up. Vallejo leads the team with 86 tackles, 15 for loss, and has three fumble recoveries.
Arizona's quick-strike offense won't be afraid to air out the passes. Boise State is more vulnerable here and rank 61st in the nation in pass defense. The Broncos have been plagued by injuries and have lost key playmakers at both safety and cornerback. The secondary still has All-American safety Darian Thompson, 6-2, 208 lbs, who leads the team with seven interceptions, DB Cory Bell, 5-11, 203 lbs, and CB Donte Deayon, 5-9, 152 lbs, who might be the smallest but one of the most competitive cornerbacks in the country. Deayon is second on the team in interceptions with 5.
What to expect when Boise State has the ball: The Broncos rank 13th nationally in total offense and generate an average of 39.8 points and 496.1 total yards of offense per game. That is thanks to an offense that has been a motivating force for the Broncos, and one designed by new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. The key to the Broncos success has been the development of QB Grant Hedrick, 6-0, 198 lbs. Hedrick has completed 270 of 381 pass attempts for 3,387 yards, 22 TDs and 13 INTs. More telling is how that development has improved over the course of the season. In his last eight games he has completed 151 of 211 pass attempts for 2,092 yards, 17 TDs and 4 INTs.
The Broncos are expected to mount a fierce passing attack against the Wildcats, who have a dismal pass defense. It is ranked 120th nationally. Hedrick will be sure to target 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 has 39 catches for 678 yards and is averaging 17.4 yards a catch.Hedrick has carried the Broncos to the 27th best passing offense in the nation.
Boise State will also be mounting a ground game. They do running plays about half the time because they have a star running back who can get it done. He is the third rail in the Broncos offense: RB Jay Ajayi, 6-0, 216 lbs. The "Jay Train" has had 325 carries for 1,689 yards and 25 TDs this season, and is averaging 129.92 yards per game. He is ranked the 9th best running back in the nation and is on the 2014 Walter Camp Player of the Year Watch List. He'll get plenty of chances to do his stuff on Wednesday.
Those chances for the Jay Train won't come easily. The Wildcats use a 3-3-5 defense anchored by DLReggie Gilbert, 6-4, 262 lbs, and DL Dan Pettinato, 6-4, 277 lbs. Backing them up is the #3 best linebacker in the nation: Arizona's consensus All-American linebacker Scooby Wright III, 6-1, 248 lbs. Wright has won just about every defensive award in the county: the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Bednarik Award, the Lombardi Award, and is a finalist for the Walter Camp Player of the Year award. He has 153 total tackles (89 solo, 64 assisted).
Special Teams: The Arizona kicking game is handled by junior K Casey Skowron, 5-10, 160 lbs. He has been good on all 54 PATs, and has made 17 of 25 field goals, accounting for 111 total points this season. He has also averaged 61.74 yards on kickoffs and 48 percent have been touchbacks.
Junior Drew Riggleman, 6-2, 213 lbs, is the punter and averages 46.4 yards per punt. Twenty of those have been inside the 20-yardline.
DaVonte' Neal, 5-10, 173 lbs, is the Wildcats primary punt returner. The sophomore has averages 11.9 per return including one for an 81-yard touchdown. Freshman Tyrell Johnson, is the kickoff return specialist 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 booted 15 of 20 field goals throught the uprights. He has accounted for 107 of the Broncos points this season. Goodale is also the kickoff specialist. His kickoffs have averaged 63.52 yards a kick, and 65.63 percent have been touchbacks.
Punter Sean Wale has averaged 40.98 yards per punt this season.
The Broncos punt returns have be carried out by WR Shane Williams-Rhodes and CB Donte Deayon. Williams-Rhodes has had 18 returns and is averaging 8.5 yards a reception.
The Bottom Line: The Wildcats are only a hundred miles from home so get home field advantage. But they also are coming off a loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship which may or may not have worn off. Boise State is riding a wave of momentum but are the 3-point underdogs coming into their third Fiesta Bowl. And that is just where the Broncos like to be, carrying that chip on their shoulders and something to prove.