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Arizona Wildcats’ Fiesta Bowl comeback attempt falls just short in loss to Boise State

GLENDALE, Ariz. — What can you say? The Boise State Broncos just enjoy playing in the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The Mountain West champs got three first-half touchdowns from tailback Jay Ajayi and a big 16-yard interception return for a touchdown from cornerback Donte Deayon in a 38-30 victory over the 11th-ranked Arizona Wildcats at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The win was the Broncos’ third in as many trips to the desert.

Boise State (12-2) jumped out to a 31-17 lead and saw its offense come to a screeching halt in the second half, but Arizona couldn’t complete the comeback. Quarterback Anu Solomon, just three plays after completing a 43-yard strike down the right sideline to Cayleb Jones that set UA up at the BSU 8-yard line, was sacked by Kamaeli Correa and time ran out on the Wildcats.

“We got it excuted at the end, not take a sack, try to score a touchdown,” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We got in good position down there. Got some guys that made plays, but we’ve got to finish better than that.

“But we competed until the end.”

The Broncos got off to a quick start on both sides of the ball. On their fourth play from scrimmage, Ajayi took a handoff from quarterback Grant Hedrick and raced through the middle of the Arizona defense for a 56-yard touchdown.

After an Arizona punt, Boise State would strike again with Hedrick hitting Chaz Anderson on a 57-yard touchdown strike. Before some had settled into their seats, the Broncos had a 14-0 lead.

Boise State built on that advantage on a play that looked eerily familiar to a famous play BSU ran in their first-ever Fiesta Bowl appearance back in 2007. Hedrick faked a flair pass to the right and held the ball behind his back, where Ajayi took it and rumbled for a 16-yard touchdown and a 21-point lead.

Arizona would finally settle down on their third possession, with quarterback Anu Solomon capping a 65-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.

But again, Boise countered. On 2nd-and-21 from the Arizona 33-yard line, Hedrick found Thomas Sperbeck on a 31-yard completion. Three plays later, Ajayi did the honors from the 1, and the Broncos were again up by three touchdowns.

UA freshman running back Nick Wilson scored on a 1-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter to cut the Broncos’ lead to 14. After the teams traded punts and Hedrick threw his first incompletion — a deflected ball which was picked off by Arizona’s Cam Denson, Casey Skowron booted a 42-yard field goal to cut the lead to 28-17.

Boise State would take over with just :30 left, but three straight completions from Hedrick covered 57 yards and the Broncos got a 36-yard field goal from Dan Goodale to make it 31-17 at the half.

The second half marked a stark difference from Arizona’s defense. Playing without senior safety Jared Tevis, who suffered a shoulder injury on Boise State’s Statue of Liberty touchdown, the Wildcats (10-4) held the Broncos to 74 yards in the second half after they racked up 397 in the first.

But it was Boise’s defense that had the biggest play of the game. Late in the third quarter Arizona faced a 3rd-and-4 from their own 12-yard line. Solomon rolled right and was intercepted by Deayon, who returned it 16 yards for a touchdown to put the Broncos up 38-20.

Arizona answered quickly. Just 1:17 later, Solomon again rolled right and hit Samajie Grant on a beautiful 51-yard touchdown strike that pulled UA within 11 at 38-27.

In the fourth quarter, Skowron kicked a 32-yard field goal with 6:11 left to close the scoring.

After defeating Arizona State in the annual Territorial Cup game that gave them the Pac-12 South championship for the first time, Arizona lost consecutive contests to put a pall over an otherwise tremendous season under Rodriguez.

“Well, after about a week or two I’ll probably remember it more fondly than I remember (the season) right now,” Rodriguez said. “I think the same way with our guys. If you’re a competitor, if this don’t bother you, you shouldn’t be in our program.”

Boise State receiver Thomas Sperbeck, who caught 12 passes for 199 yards — the second-most in Fiesta Bowl history — was named the Offensive Player of the Game. Linebacker Tanner Vallejo, who had 14 tackles and 1.5 quarterback sacks, won the defensive honor.


• With the victory, Boise State joins Penn State (6-0) as the only teams with three or more Fiesta Bowl appearances without a loss.

• Not only did the Wildcats play without Tevis. Their leading rusher, freshman Nick Wilson, left the game in the second quarter with an injury and didn’t return. Senior Terris Jones-Grigsby replaced Wilson and ran for 39 yards on 14 carries.

• Hedrick started the game 14-of-14 and finished the game 24-of-34 for 309 yards. It was Hedrick’s fifth 300-yard passing game this season.

• Arizona falls to 8-9-1 all-time in bowl games and 1-1-1 in the Fiesta Bowl.

• Boise State is now 10-5 all-time in bowl appearances. They are 5-1 in their last six appearances overall.