The Boise State Broncos will get a chance to add to their Fiesta Bowl legacy this year when they take on the in-state Arizona Wildcats in Glendale on New Year’s Eve.
Boise State of course has built up the program’s reputation through the Fiesta Bowl, particularly the 2007 edition where the Broncos shocked Oklahoma with three memorable plays in the Hook and Ladder, Halfback pass, and then the Statue of Liberty.
“I would say if you asked this team, ninety-five percent of the guys would say this game, and watching our guys play in it, that’s why they came here,” Boise head coach Bryan Harsin said Tuesday. “So I know what this game can do for us. I know how powerful it is, and for those guys, those seniors in particular to have seen that game and wanting to be a part of it, here we are, and I’m very proud of that.”
Harsin was the long-time offensive coordinator in Boise, but this is the first bowl game he’ll actually have coached in in three years.
“I was actually just talking about that with my wife,” he said. “The last bowl game I was in was the Holiday Bowl at Texas when we played Cal. The next year I was at Texas, we were going to play Oregon State, and I took the Arkansas State job. And then at Arkansas State we played Ball State I believe, and I was gone for that. Been a part of two teams that have made it. Just haven’t been in it.”
The part of Arizona’s game that Boise is most concerned about is the sheer speed of the Rich Rodriguez offense.
“The speed they have on the edges is what can hurt you a little bit,” Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said on Sunday. “To cover number one, and then the second thing is they’re going to spread you out because there’s a lot of space. And so when you have space, you have to have guys that can make open-field tackles.”
Boise State hasn’t faced a lot of explosive offenses in the Mountain West this season, so they are drawing on the experience they had in their season opener against Ole Miss.
“To me, that’s a game I look at because you’re talking about better athletes probably at those two schools in Arizona and Ole Miss,” Yates continued. “That was a game to see how we looked against those guys and how we fared against their speed.”
“We played three quarters well, and the fourth quarter we didn’t play well,” added the defensive coordinator. “So I went back to look how they wore us down, and how I could have called it differently to help us out. But we played three quarters of good football, and the fourth quarter I thought we fell apart. I don’t know if we thought we were as good as we were, and we thought we could win the game how we were playing.”
Yates has his defense locked in trying to understand Arizona’s tendencies, hoping his unit can slow down the Wildcats’ potent offense.
“You just gotta be locked in to all the fundamental basics,” added safety Corey Bell. “Just making sure you know what each read is telling you and it kind of makes it fun.”
Arizona knows all about finishing games this year. Seven of its 13 games have been decided by seven points or less. And three of those games finished with a Hail Mary, a missed field goal to win it, and a game-winning field as time expired.
“I didn’t think I could have a heart attack at this age,” Arizona safety Jourdon Grandon said earlier this year.
The last time the Wildcats saw the field, they were getting blown out by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. But that game is definitely not indicative of what this team has been in 2014.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon did not play the second half of that game due to a foot sprain he re-aggravated. But with several weeks in between games, Solomon is expected to be the healthiest he has been since October.
Arizona will only have success if true freshman running back Nick Wilson can get it rolling. The Wildcats are 9-0 when they have a 100-yard rusher this year. The Arizona offensive line will be without starting center Steven Gurrola for the first half though after he was ejected for punching an Oregon player in the gut during the Pac-12 Championship Game. Carter Wood will get the start, and Gurrola should be seen right after halftime.
When Boise State has the ball, the big matchup will be junior running back Jay Ajayi going against sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright III. Ajayi, who has already declared he will forego his senior season to enter the NFL Draft, put up a school-record 2,225 all-purpose yards this season (1,689 rushing, 536 receiving). Wright won several National Defensive Player of the Year Awards, including the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, as well as a unanimous All-American selection.
“First thing is, I wish I would have been there three years ago when (Scooby) was on Boise State’s campus,” coach Harsin said. “He’s a fantastic player. Our team has a tremendous amount of respect for him. He plays extremely hard. He’s got a great feel. That’s one of the things you can’t coach. He’s big, physical, all of those things, and you can get guys like that. But to get guys that have a feel the way that he does (is hard). What he’s done this year and the recognition he’s gotten, he’s earned. He’s deserved it. And he’s a guy that’s very disruptive.”
Another player to watch on Arizona’s defense on Wednesday will be Tra’Mayne Bondurant. He’s another guy that just seems to have a feel for the ball, and the ability to make big plays when the Wildcats need it. As a senior playing in his last game at Arizona, I would expect him to make some sort of huge impact late in the game.
The Fiesta Bowl will be broadcast on ESPN. Kickoff is set for 4 PM Eastern time.
*Section Photo credit to Otto Kitsinger, Associated Press; Featured Photo (above) credit to Casey Sapio, USA Today Sports