Boise St.-Arizona Preview

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Boise State boasts one of the nation's most potent offenses led by star running back Jay Ajayi. Arizona counters with linebacker Scooby Wright - widely considered the best defensive player in the nation - and a very capable offense of its own. Throw in two teams eager to prove themselves on the national stage and the ingredients are all there for a very exciting Fiesta Bowl. A ninth straight win and another postseason victory against a Power 5 opponent will be the focus for No. 21 Boise State when it faces 12th-ranked Arizona on New Year's Eve in Glendale. Boise State (11-2) is no stranger to recent major bowl games despite residing outside a Power 5 conference, having played in the Fiesta in 2007 and 2010. Criticism is often directed at the Broncos for their softer schedule when compared to teams from major conferences, but they're 4-1 in the past five bowl games with three wins against Power 5 schools. "Arizona is right there at the top within their conference, as a program," Broncos coach Bryan Harsin said. "I think Boise State is there, as well. So that's what makes it fun as far as this matchup goes. I think both teams have played quality opponents and both teams, as far as programs go, have had a lot of success this season in particular. It makes for a great matchup." This is new territory for Pac-12 South champion Arizona (10-3), which is enjoying its best season since finishing 12-1 in 1998 and will be making its third trip to the Fiesta, but its first since 1994. The Wildcats should have a decided advantage in fan support with their Tucson campus less than a two-hour drive away. "I'm really happy for our players, staff and especially our fans," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "We have a lot of fans and alumni in Phoenix and hopefully everyone else in Tucson can get up there. It should be nice for the players' families too because it is a nice time of the year here in Arizona." Boise State returns to this bowl in its first season under Harsin, a former quarterback and assistant coach at the school. The Broncos recorded at least 11 wins in five consecutive years before an uncharacteristic 8-5 mark in 2013 in Chris Petersen's final season before leaving for Washington. Harsin guided Boise State to its first outright league championship since joining the Mountain West in 2011 with a 28-14 victory over Fresno State on Dec. 6. That was the Broncos' eighth straight win since a 3-2 start that included losses to then-No. 18 Mississippi and Air Force. Since committing seven turnovers against Air Force, Harsin's team has an average margin of victory of 19.3 points during its eight-game streak. The Broncos averaged 47.8 points during that span and finished the regular season ranked ninth nationally in scoring offense (39.8) and 14th in total offense (496.1 yards per game). Ajayi has been instrumental in that high-powered offense, and this game gives him a golden opportunity to prove himself on a national stage after he ranked second in the country with 2,225 all-purpose yards. He is fourth in the FBS with 1,689 rushing yards and is also a big-time threat out of the backfield, ranking second on the team with 45 receptions for 536 yards. Ajayi enters the bowl season with 29 total touchdowns, tied with Heisman Trophy runner-up Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin for most in the nation. Ajayi could be poised for a very productive game against Arizona's 72nd-ranked run defense, a unit that was torched for 301 rushing yards by Oregon in the one-sided Pac-12 championship game. "Our mentality going into the Fiesta Bowl is just like another championship game because we don't want to just go to the Fiesta Bowl and just be OK with being on the stage and just getting blinded by the big lights," Ajayi said. "We want to go out and be able to attack on the field and we want to be able to win. That's our motivation." One of Ajayi's biggest obstacles will be Wright, who has the ability to singlehandedly ruin an opposing offense's game plan with his speed and knack for getting into the backfield. Wright ranks second in the country with 153 total tackles, first with 27 tackles for loss and third with 14 sacks. The sophomore is vying to become the first player since 1999 to finish the season ranked in the top five in all three of those categories. A unanimous All-American, Wright won the Bednarik Award, given to the nation's defensive player of the year, the Lombardi Award as the nation's best lineman, and the Nagurski Award as the top defensive player in college football. However, Wright and the Arizona defense were no match for Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, as the Ducks racked up 617 yards in a 51-13 rout Dec. 5. That outcome was quite a turnaround from the teams' previous meeting, a 31-24 victory for the Wildcats on Oct. 2 that gave them national legitimacy. "A lot of us have a salty taste in our mouth and we want to go out there and play Arizona football," Wright said. Anu Solomon struggled mightily in the title game, going 6 of 12 for 34 yards before he was benched. That put a damper on a fantastic season for Solomon, who led all freshmen with 3,458 passing yards and threw 27 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. Solomon is also a threat on the ground, rushing for 259 yards as the triggerman in Arizona's spread offense. The Wildcats scored at least 26 points in 11 games, ranking 26th nationally with 37.0 per game. Boise State is making it 13th straight bowl appearance, tied for seventh-longest in the nation. Arizona has reached a bowl for the sixth time in seven seasons following a drought from 1999-07.