The Boise State football team got what it wanted — a new experience in a place with plenty of good memories against a Power Five school.
On Sunday, the Broncos accepted a bowl invitation to play in the Cactus Bowl against the Baylor Bears (8:15 p.m. Dec. 27, ESPN). Three times, Boise State played in and won the Fiesta Bowl, which also operates the Cactus, which is played in a different venue, Chase Field.
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In Baylor, Boise State draws a Big 12 opponent, looking to notch a 15th win over a Power Five conference team in its past 20 tries.
“It’s exactly what we were looking for, with how this season ended up, trying to play against the best opponent possible,” said Boise State junior tight end Jake Roh, a Phoenix-area native. “Baylor’s a great program, so we’re excited for the matchup.”
Traditionally, the Cactus Bowl is a matchup between the Big 12 and Pac-12, but the Pac-12 could not fulfill all of its bowl slots, and the Mountain West has the backup spot.
The Bears (6-6) began the season with six straight wins, moving up to as high as No. 8 in the Associated Press poll, before losing six straight. Still, playing a Big 12 team for the first time since the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma is an intriguing proposition.
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin, who spent 2011 and 2012 coaching in the Big 12 at Texas, said he “really saw Baylor emerge into the program they are now.” The Broncos also have continued to reach into Texas for players, with 12 currently on the roster and three more verbally committed for the 2017 class.
“We’ve had connections in Texas with our coaching staff, so it’s not like you don’t know what Baylor’s accomplished,” Harsin said. “... That’s exciting, for our players, too. Baylor’s done a tremendous job.
“We know that conference as well, because of the recruiting in Texas. You understand the Big 12; you know the type of battles you’re facing to get those types of players to come to Boise State.”
One of those recruits the Broncos pulled out of the Lone Star State is senior linebacker Ben Weaver. The team captain was eager to face the challenge of the Baylor offense, which is currently ranked No. 5 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, averaging 523.3 yards per game. The Bears finished No. 1 or 2 in that category the five seasons prior to this.
It will be the first meeting between the two teams, Boise State’s first appearance in the bowl, and Baylor’s second. The Bears played in the game in 1991, when it was known as the Copper Bowl.
“To go against a brand like Baylor is huge for our program,” Weaver said.
As intriguing as the on-field matchup may be, the off-field connection won’t be ignored in the coming weeks.
Sam Ukwuachu played for Boise State in 2011 and 2012 before being dismissed from the team in 2013. He transferred to Baylor but never played. Ukwuachu was sentenced to six months in jail in August 2015 after being found guilty of sexual assault against a Baylor soccer player five months after being dismissed from Boise State. He was released two months later.
Then-Boise State coach Chris Petersen said he told then-Baylor coach Art Briles about Ukwuachu’s violent tendencies before he transferred. Briles’ mishandling of the incident and others involving football players’ violence toward women led to his firing in May.
Former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe took over as the interim coach May 30 after two seasons out of football. The Cactus Bowl will be his last game as Baylor’s head coach. Before playing TCU on Nov. 5, Baylor assistants posted a tweet defending an accusation that Briles did not report an assault, and wide receiver Chris Platt said the team was wearing all-black uniforms to protest his firing. Some fans sold “#CAB (Coach Art Briles)” shirts before the game. The Bears lost 62-22.
On the field, the team lost senior quarterback Seth Russell for the year Nov. 12, when he suffered an ankle injury against Oklahoma.
“We handled things pretty well through the first part of the season. We got a little bit off focus right before Texas (Oct. 29) and right before TCU,” Grobe said. “... It’s been tough.
“It’s been a challenge. We’ve had a lot of different challenges this year, but a lot of wonderful kids playing for us, kids that play really, really hard that deserve the opportunity to play in a bowl game.”
Just as Baylor hopes to go into the offseason on a better note, so does Boise State. The Broncos lost their regular-season finale for the first time since 2007, when they fell 27-20 at Air Force on Nov. 25. Boise State is 11-5 in bowl games, four of those wins coming against Power Five teams in the Broncos’ past 10 bowls.
“We’re happy to be a part of that pioneership,” Weaver said. “I think we’re happy to have the opportunity to showcase to the world that even though we’re in the Mountain West, we can play with anybody.”
▪ Teams: Boise State (10-2, 6-2 Mountain West) vs. Baylor (6-6, 3-6 Big 12)
▪ Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 27
▪ Where: Chase Field, (48,159 capacity, grass, home of MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks), Phoenix
▪ TV: ESPN
▪ Radio: KBOI 670 AM and KTIK 93.1 FM
▪ Tickets: $40-$115, available at BroncoSports.com/tickets, by phone at 208-426-4737 or the Boise State Athletic Ticket Office.
▪ Sponsor: Motel 6
▪ Programming note: Final game of a quadrupleheader on ESPN — Heart of Dallas (Army-North Texas), Military (Temple-Wake Forest) and Holiday (Minnesota-Washington State)
BAYLOR AT A GLANCE
▪ Series with Boise State: First meeting
▪ Bowl history: 11-11 (defeated North Carolina 49-38 in 2015 Russell Athletic Bowl)
▪ Coach: Jim Grobe, first season (116-121-1 in 20 seasons, previously at Ohio and Wake Forest)
▪ Scoring average: 34.9 ppg (34th)
▪ Defensive scoring average: 30.4 ppg (T-81st)
▪ Offensive leaders: QB Zach Smith, Fr. (88-157 passing for 1,151 yards, 10 TDs, six INTs), RB Terence Williams, So. (160 carries for 945 yards, 11 TDs), WR KD Cannon, Jr. (73 catches for 989 yards, 11 TDs)
▪ Defensive leaders: LB Aiavion Edwards, Sr. (87 tackles), S Orion Stewart, Sr. (71 tackles, five INTs), DE K.J. Smith, Jr. (63 tackles, 9.5 TFL, six sacks), N Patrick Levels, Sr. (12 TFL, four fumble recoveries)