Arizona cornerback Jace Whittaker stood in front of a giant gingerbread house in the lobby of the El Conquistador Resort, where the Wildcats held their annual awards banquet Sunday night. He was asked to describe what it meant to earn a berth in the Foster Farms Bowl against Purdue.

“It’s like a Christmas gift,” Whittaker said. “We’re excited to be in it.”

That was the prevailing feeling among the Cats after their bowl destination became official. Was it the one they wanted most? No. Is it better that not playing in a bowl at all? Absolutely.

Whittaker recalled what it was like on “Selection Sunday” last year, when Arizona’s 3-9 season ended in late November. It was as if the Grinch had stolen something from the Wildcats.

“TV wasn’t on that day,” Whittaker said. “I didn’t know what day it was going on. It just wasn’t fun.”

Although the Foster Farms Bowl presents some logistical challenges — it’s on Dec. 27, so the activities leading up to it will overlap with Christmas — it obliterates the alternative.

“We’re blessed to be able to play,” receiver Tony Ellison said. “Last year was a bitter taste. It was nice to have the month off, but no one likes going home after a disappointing season.

“We’re excited we get to play again. That’s a big deal.”

Arizona (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12) is set to play in a bowl game for the fifth time in six years under Rich Rodriguez. When the regular season ended, the Dec. 16 Las Vegas Bowl appeared to be the UA’s likeliest destination. It was also the one most of the players coveted because of its date and location.

But Saturday’s results bumped Washington up to No. 11 in the final College Football Playoff ranking, putting the Huskies into the Fiesta Bowl. With UW and USC participating in “New Year’s Six” bowls, everyone else in the Pac-12 moved up a rung.

The Alamo Bowl selected Stanford. The Holiday Bowl picked Washington State. The Foster Farms Bowl wanted Arizona, leaving Arizona State for the Sun Bowl.

This will be the Wildcats’ first appearance in the Foster Farms Bowl. It’ll be their second game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The first ended with an ugly 51-13 loss to Oregon in the 2014 Pac-12 Championship Game.

“It’s a great venue,” Rodriguez said. “We’re fortunate they picked us. I told the team a couple weeks ago: They’re all good. I haven’t been to any bad bowl games. It’s nice to be wanted.”

Tate ‘fine’ for bowl

Quarterback Khalil Tate, who was injured during the season finale at Arizona State, is expected to be available for the Foster Farms Bowl.

“He’s fine,” Rodriguez said. “He’ll be good to go.”

Tate suffered a sprained left (non-throwing) shoulder in the first half against the Sun Devils on Nov. 25. He missed the first two series of the second half, came back for one but was unable to finish the game.

Tate had led the Wildcats to five victories in seven games before getting hurt against ASU. The Cats led the Sun Devils 24-14 at halftime before being outscored 21-0 in the third quarter and losing 42-30.

Tate took over at quarterback Oct. 7. Despite barely playing the first four games, he ranks 15th in the nation with 1,353 rushing yards.

A handful of other players missed the Territorial Cup or were hurt during it. Rodriguez is optimistic all will be back.

“We had a couple other guys banged up,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know the medical prognosis for some of those guys that were out, but most of them that were out of the game with minor injuries should be back, hopefully.”

Whittaker continues to sport a walking boot on his left foot. He said he hurt the foot against Washington State on Oct. 28. He has not missed any games.

Heeke on RichRod, Herm

While the coaching carousel whirled at an unprecedented pace around college football, Rodriguez and his staff hit the road to recruit. No major changes are imminent at Arizona, where a young team’s best days lie ahead.

Asked Sunday about Rodriguez’s performance and future, UA athletic director Dave Heeke said: “We’ve had a really good season – the chance to get to seven wins, to rebound after last season’s disappointment. Leadership has been very, very positive.”

As for the coaching situation up the I-10, Heeke declined to give an opinion. ASU is expected to officially name 63-year-old Herman Edwards its coach on Monday.

“I’m really focused on our program,” Heeke said. “That’s what I try to do every day. I wake up worried about what we’re doing, not as much about what everybody else is doing. I’m focused on the next steps for us, the right direction forward, how we can continually make our program better across the board.”

Extra points

  • Heeke on the loss to ASU: “It left a little bad taste in my mouth. It’s a pretty big game. I don’t want to be on that side of it very often.”
  • Ellison is from Granite Bay, which is about two hours northeast of Santa Clara. He grew up a 49ers fan and is looking forward to playing in their home stadium. Why the 49ers instead of the Raiders? “My family hates the Raiders, so I hate the Raiders,” Ellison said. “That’s how it is, man.”
  • Arizona secured a verbal commitment from Glendale Community College offensive lineman Steven Bailey on Saturday night. Bailey, who played at Peoria Centennial, is listed at 6-3, 300 pounds. 247Sports reported that Bailey will sign this month and join the Wildcats as an early enrollee. He is the third offensive lineman in Arizona’s 2018 class.
  • Rodriguez said the UA had nine official visitors last week. He’s still hoping to land “a few more” commitments. The Wildcats currently have 20 commits.
  • Arizona practiced in full pads before the awards banquet. The Wildcats are set to resume practice Wednesday, which is the last day of classes. Finals are Dec. 8-14. The Pac-12 will announce its all-league awards Tuesday.