SAN DIEGO — The tone for today's 10th Holiday Bowl was set three weeks ago when the coaches, Hayden Fry of Iowa and Paul Roach of Wyoming, were in town for a publicity appearance.
Fry talked about how Roach deserved to be coach of the year and said he would even vote for him. Roach spoke admiringly of the powerful program Fry has built in his nine seasons at Iowa.
And both expounded on the virtues of San Diego, particularly its climate and residents, as if the city were just a step short of paradise.
All nice stuff, and the compliments haven't stopped, despite one of the coldest late Decembers in San Diego history.
Even the sometimes feisty Fry has yet to work himself into a public snit. The little bit of nastiness that had to be done--the suspension of three defensive players for undisclosed disciplinary reasons--was handled before the team left Iowa City.
For pregame hype, Miami and Penn State this wasn't. But then again, that has rarely been what the Holiday Bowl game is about. Unlike the more common converse, this is one bowl at which the pregame talk has rarely measured up to the game on the field.
Close finishes and high scores have been the rule here. Four games have been determined by one point, and four have been won in the last 23 seconds.
With two teams ranked among the top six in the country in passing offense, the expectation is that today's game will fit right in.
Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. A crowd of about 62,000 is expected. The game will be televised on ESPN.
The appearance is Iowa's second consecutive in the Holiday Bowl and its seventh straight bowl game. The Hawkeyes are 3-3 in bowl games under Fry and defeated San Diego State in last year's Holiday Bowl, 39-38.
The Hawkeyes finished strong, winning their last five games after a 4-3 start, and tied with Indiana for second place in the Big Ten at 6-2. Wyoming is making its first bowl appearance since a 41-7 loss to Oklahoma in the 1976 Fiesta Bowl. The Cowboys (10-2) are the Western Athletic Conference representative to the Holiday Bowl and the first to finish 8-0 in the conference since Brigham Young did so in its 1984 national championship season.
Roach has been the focus of the Cowboys' most successful season in two decades. At 60, he is certainly the oldest rookie coach in the country. A former assistant at Wyoming and with the Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders, Roach was the athletic director at Wyoming when Dennis Erickson abruptly quit in January after one season to accept the job at Washington State.
At the request of the university's board of governors, Roach added the duties of football coach.
After a 1-2 start, the Cowboys won nine straight. Their offense ranked fourth in the country at 471.3 yards a game, and their passing offense ranked fifth at 308.6.
They are led by senior quarterback Craig Burnett, who has thrown for 2,799 yards and 20 touchdowns despite several nagging injuries that caused him to miss two starts.
Burnett is a transfer from Santa Rosa College in Marin County, as are James Loving, Wyoming's big-play receiver who has 37 catches for 709 yards, and tight end Bill Hoffman, who has caught 68 passes. Anthony Sargent, a senior from Palisades High School, is another favorite target with 60 catches for 823 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"We were always a good passing team with Erickson," Burnett said. "But Roach has added a running game. It's given us balance, and that's been the difference."
Gerald Abraham, who gained only 222 yards last season as a junior, has carried 224 times for 1,266 yards and 12 touchdowns.
On defense, the Cowboys are led by tackle Jeff Knapton and linebacker Galand Thaxton. Knapton had 19 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries, Thaxton 19 sacks, 3 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries.
Wyoming will be trying to stop an Iowa offense that has matured with the rapid progress of Chuck Hartlieb.
Hartlieb started the season as the No. 3 quarterback but started the third game against Iowa State, then took over for good three games later against Wisconsin.
The Hawkeyes are 8-1 with Hartlieb as the starter and ranked sixth in the country in passing offense at 296.6 yards a game.
Hartlieb's 164.1 efficiency rating is third in the country, and he is the first Iowa player to throw for more than 300 yards five times in a season, topped by a 471-yard, 7-touchdown pass performance in a 52-24 victory at Northwestern.
Senior receiver Quinn Early leads the Hawkeyes with 61 catches for 978 yards and 10 touchdowns. Even so, the team's real strength may be at tight end, where Marv Cook, Mike Flagg and Craig Clark have combined for 74 catches for 1,269 yards and 5 touchdowns. Cook, with 43 catches for 760 yards, leads the team with a 17.7-yard average.
The emergence of Hartlieb has helped take the pressure off a running game that has been slowed by injuries to backs Kevin Harmon and Rick Bayless.
Harmon leads the team with 139 carries for 668 yards and 6 touchdowns, but he has been slowed by a nagging ankle sprain. He is scheduled to start, but he has played in only one full game since injuring his ankle in the fifth game against Michigan State.
Bayless, an All-Big Ten selection who rushed for 110 yards in 19 carries in last year's Holiday Bowl, has had an injury-plagued senior season. He separated his shoulder in the regular-season finale against Minnesota and is not expected to play today.
The Hawkeyes also will be missing three players on defense who were suspended: free safety Dwight Sistrunk, end Joe Mott and reserve lineman Paul Glonek.
Iowa has moved Sean Ridley to starting left end from reserve right end and Jay Hess to starting free safety.