SAN DIEGO — The pregame tone for today's 10th Holiday Bowl was set three weeks ago when the participating coaches, Hayden Fry of Iowa and Paul Roach of Wyoming, were in town for a publicity appearance.
Fry talked about how Roach deserved coach of the year honors--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 one step short of paradise.
All nice stuff, and the compliments haven't stopped, not even in the face of one of the coldest late Decembers in 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 some games, this is one bowl in which the pregame talk rarely has been as exciting as the game on the field.
Close finishes and high scores have been the story of the previous nine Holiday Bowls. Four have been decided by one point, and four have been won in the last 23 seconds.
With two teams ranked in the top six in the country in passing offense, the expectation is that today's game will not be an exception.
"We've scored a lot of points all year," said James Loving, Wyoming's big-play receiver. "I don't see why that should change."
Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. A record crowd of about 62,000 is expected to attend. The game also will be televised on ESPN.
The appearance is Iowa's second consecutive in the Holiday Bowl and its seventh straight bowl. The Hawkeyes are 3-3 in bowl games under Fry; they defeated San Diego State, 39-38, in last year's Holiday Bowl on Rob Houghtlin's 41-yard field goal with four seconds to play.
The Hawkeyes finished tied with Indiana for second place in the Big 10 Conference at 6-2 and are one of the country's hottest teams, having won their past five games after a 4-3 start.
"We knew at that point, if we didn't start winning, we'd be the first Iowa team in a long time to not go to a bowl," senior tailback Kevin Harmon said. "None of us wanted that. We wanted to keep the streak going."
Wyoming, in contrast, 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, having been the first WAC team to finish 8-0 in the conference since Brigham Young did so in its 1984 national championship season.
Roach, 60, has been the focus of the Cowboys' most successful season in two decades. He is certainly the country's oldest rookie coach. 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 a job at Washington State.
At the request of the university board of governors, Roach added the duties of football coach.
After a 1-2 start, the Cowboys have nine straight victories. They enter the game with the country's fourth-ranked offense (471.3 yards per game) and fifth-ranked passing offense (308.6 yards per game).
The offense is led by senior quarterback Craig Burnett, who has thrown for a school-record 2,799 yards and 20 touchdowns despite several nagging injuries that have caused him to miss two starts.
Burnett is a transfer from Santa Rosa College in Northern California, as are Loving (37 catches for 709 yards) and tight end Bill Hoffman (school-record 68 catches). Anthony Sargent, a senior from Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades, is another favorite receiver 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 a school-record 1,266 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Defensively, the Cowboys are led by tackle Jeff Knapton (19 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries) and linebacker Galand 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 team's No. 3 quarterback but made his first start in the third game against Iowa State. He 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 per game.