UA comeback falls short as Boise State wins Fiesta Bowl

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                </div>  The Arizona Wildcats won the coin toss to start this year’s Vizio Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. But their luck quickly went south from there. Less than […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The Arizona Wildcats won the coin toss to start this year’s Vizio Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.

But their luck quickly went south from there.

Less than 10 minutes on the clock had expired before No. 10-ranked Arizona found itself in a 21-0 hole as No. 20 Boise State scored on its first three possessions and held on the rest of the way for the 38-30 victory, its third Fiesta Bowl win in program history.

The disastrous start had to conjure up memories among the Arizona fans of the prior game when Arizona was trounced by Oregon, 51-13, in the Pac-12 Championship game.  This one had all the earmarks of another embarrassing setback for a program that had climbed to a No. 7 national ranking before the loss to the Ducks.

As for pure fan enjoyment, this was a bowl game to remember for the 66,896 in attendance.  The two teams combined for almost 600 yards of total offense in the first half alone, 397 going to the Broncos.  And the drama of the final minutes and seconds of play kept the fans in their seats right down to the final play.

It took the Cats (10-4) awhile to recover from the punch to the gut they took to open the game.  Boise State (12-2) used a 56-yard run to help it score on the third play from scrimmage, a 57-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-0 at the 9:17 mark, and a tricky Statue-of-Liberty play to enable Jay Ajayi to score on a 16-yard run with just over five minutes still to play in the first quarter.

Fans watching on TV were afraid to make a trip to the fridge for fear of missing another score.

Ajayi used this game to set a new school record of 10 games this season with 100 or more rushing yards.  The junior tailback logged 107 in the first half, but the Arizona defense held him to just 27 in the second half.  He has already announced he will leave early to enter the next NFL draft.

The Wildcats were able to get on the scoreboard in the closing minute-and-a-half of the first quarter when redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon capped a 65-yard drive by punching through the end zone on a 4th-and-one play to make it 21-7.

Arizona’s defense stiffened as the quarter closed and forced Boise State to make its first punt of the game as the second quarter began.  But Solomon was picked on his first play from scrimmage and Ajayi scored his third TD of the game just three minutes into the quarter to make it 28-7.

The Cats went 83 yards in 13 plays to make it 28-14, with running back Nick Wilson pounding across the goal line on 4th-and-inches.  Arizona was beginning to look like its old self, converting five first downs on the drive.

Bronco QB Grant Hedrick literally picked apart the Arizona defense in the first half, completing 17 of 18 pass attempts.  The one he missed, however, turned into an interception by freshman cornerback Cam Denson, who returned the ball to the Boise State 30-yard line.  Arizona had to settle for a Casey Skowron field goal, which was followed by a Boise State field goal to make the score at intermission 31-17.

The Wildcats opened the second half without the services of Wilson, who appeared to have sustained a concussion on a hard hit during the second quarter.  Redshirt senior Terris Jones-Grigsby, who had been the starting back earlier in the season, took over for Wilson, who piled up 86 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries before leaving.  Jones-Grigsby carried 14 times for 41 yards.

But the key to the Arizona rally in the second half was a defense that made adjustments in the secondary to clamp down on its coverage of the Bronco receivers, giving Hedrick less to work with. A Bronco offense that had scored on four straight possessions in the first half was held to just 74 yards of offense and one touchdown in the second half – and that TD was by the defense, which intercepted Solomon at the Arizona 19-yard line with 1.57 left in the third quarter.

Arizona responded with a score of its own, with just 41 seconds left in the quarter, when sophomore wide receiver Samaje Grant used a 51-yard pass play to close the gap to 38-27.

A fumble recovery at the Arizona 23 by senior safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant, who also forced the fumble, resulted in another field goal at the six-minute mark, and that turned out to be the final scoring of the night.  Bondurant led all Arizona tacklers on the night with 11, two for loss, and one sack.  Scooby Wright III was right behind with 10 tackles, two for loss.

However, Arizona gave its fans some heart-pumping hope in the waning minutes of the game.  A Wildcat drive stalled at their own 35-yard line when Arizona failed to convert a 4th-and-10, giving Boise State the ball and three minutes left to play.  Using conservative play-calling, the Broncos failed to get a first down, but with the punt were able to put the Cats back at their own 20 with less than two minutes to go.

Cayleb Jones brought the Wildcat fans to their feet with a 43-yard catch that took them to their own eight-yard line with time for a couple more plays.  But the Bronco defense locked down the Arizona receivers and harassed Solomon as time ran out on the comeback effort.

Solomon enjoyed a productive night, finishing with 28 completions in 49 attempts for 335 yards, and added 32 more rushing. But his two interceptions negated some of that contribution, and he was sacked eight times, the most of any UofA quarterback in any game since the 2007 season. Boise State’s Hedrick was 24-of-34 for 309 yards and was picked once.

Skowron set a school record for kickers with 123 points this season, while Solomon moved into second place on the all-time list with 3,793 passing yards and tied the passing TD record with 28 – and this was his freshman season.

In the final analysis of last night’s game, Arizona had seven more first downs in the game, with their 29 being the second-most in school bowl history.  The Cats also held a slight edge in time of possession, had more third-down and fourth-down conversions, and scored on four out of five red zone opportunities.

But Boise State got their offense going first, piled up the points, and then held on to deny the Wildcats their attempt to string together a third straight bowl victory.  The loss was also the first to a non-conference opponent for Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez in his three years at the helm.

Yes, a 10-win season.  And, yes, a Pac-12 South title.

But a couple of major disappointments to end the 2014 season have left Wildcat Nation with an empty feeling.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)