The nation's top linebacker squares off against one of the nation's top running backs in the desert southwest.


No. 20 Boise State (11-2) vs. No 10 Arizona (10-3)

Wednesday, Dec. 31. 4:00 PM ET (ESPN)

How They Got Here

After a season-opening loss to Ole Miss, the Broncos won 11 of their next 12 and, thanks to a late-season loss by Marshall and a new playoff format that guarantees a “Group of Five” team a spot in one of the top bowl games, Boise State made it back to the Fiesta Bowl as the Mountain West champions and highest rated team not from one of the power conferences. Arizona, meanwhile, backed into the Pac-12 title game thanks to Stanford’s upset of UCLA. The Wildcats were routed, 51-13, by the Ducks in that one but still earned an at-large invite to the Fiesta Bowl.

When Boise State Has the Ball

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Getty Images

When the Broncos offense is on the field, we could see one of the more intriguing one-on-one individual matchups of the bowl season. Boise State running back Jay Ajayi ranks fifth nationally in rushing (1,689 yards) but will be tested by the Wildcats’ star linebacker Scooby Wright III, the winner of the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards. Wright led the nation in tackles for loss and forced a Pac-12 record six fumbles this season.

That matchup could be key as Arizona has struggled against the pass, allowing 279.1 passing yards per game (120th nationally) while opposing quarterbacks are completing 65.1 percent of their passes. If Ajayi can pick up his yards and force the Wildcats to respect the run game, Broncos quarterback Grant Hedrick, already the nation’s most accurate quarterback this year (70.9 completion percentage), should be able to find success over the top. The question mark is can he avoid the mistakes (13 interceptions, including eight in the Broncos’ two losses) that have marred his otherwise stellar season? Arizona had 37 sacks on the season (17th nationally), with Wright accounting for 14 of those. Expect the Wildcats to bring pressure as much as theY can to try to force Hedrick into a mistake or two.

When Arizona Has the Ball

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Getty Images

Despite Rich Rodriguez’s reputation for high-octane passing attacks, the Wildcats’ ability to run the ball may be their most important asset in this one. Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon has struggled of late, completing just 48.6 percent of his passes and throwing just seven touchdowns in his last six games (compared with 20 in the first seven). Make no mistake—the Wildcats will still want to throw the ball but they’ll need a solid effort from running back Nick Wilson (679 yards and eight touchdowns in his last five games) to open up the field and let Solomon gain some confidence with some easy throws.

Boise State ranks 40th nationally in total defense and 37th against the run. But this is the best offense that the Broncos have faced all year. Look for Rodriguez to try to up the tempo and keep Boise State on its heels.


Arizona is playing its first Fiesta Bowl since 1993 and first in-state bowl game since 1997. So expect Arizona to have a sizeable home-field advantage thanks to a huge turnout from Wildcat faithful making the short drive to University of Phoenix Stadium. Boise State, however, is no stranger to playing in the big stage and we’ll no doubt be treated to multiple replays from the Broncos’ 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma.

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