FRISCO, Texas— After the Rainbow Warriors’ 38-21 victory in the season finale over UNLV, Hawai’i coach Todd Graham spoke in his football press conference as if the 2020 regular season was through.
Graham, whose team finished the regular season with a 4-4 record in his first year as Hawai’i’s head coach, wasn’t sure his team’s record was enough during the COVID-19 shortened season.
The Rainbow Warriors won a bid to play in The New Mexico Bowl against the University of Houston on December 24 at 10:30 a.m. at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
“Going into the last two games of the season, I knew we had to win out to have a chance at qualifying for a bowl game,” Graham said. “It just wasn’t really on my mind.”
Taking it all in
Graham didn’t anticipate the opportunity to be in a bowl game, but now he hopes his team takes advantage of the opportunity.
“We talked to our kids about the experience, and the opportunity these kids might have a chance to play in a bowl game is a great blessing,” Graham said. “When you look at the (Mountain West) records, there are only three teams in the conference that won more games than us.”
Now the emphasis for Graham and his team will be on getting his team prepared for the game.
“I think it is huge for our program through this whole process, and now the challenge will be how fast we can get this team ready and ramp them up,” Graham said. “Speed-development training and practice have been less valued because of our kid’s safety. Now, we have the opportunity to go and compete to be a bowl champion.”
Marching to their own tune
The University of Houston has a long-standing tradition of passing the ball in a run-and-shoot style offense.
This high-tempo tradition the Cougars have established has produced former NFL Draft pick and Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware and David Klinger.
The Cougars later had current Cleveland Browns’ backup quarterback Case Keenum, and current Cougars’ quarterback Clayton Tune is the quarterback that looks to add to the tradition.
Tune, who currently ranks 19th in the FBS generating total offense and averaging 302 per game, ranks fourth in the American Conference and 24th in the BCS in passing yards per game.
Return to sender
Hawai’i struggled against one of the best kickoff returners in college football when they allowed Boise State’s Avery Williams to get loose.
Williams’ combined 193 yards on both kickoff and punt returns with one 99-yard touchdown jaunt, which was the main reason the Rainbow Warriors were unable to come from behind in their 40-32 loss to the Broncos on November 21.
Hawai’i will face another formidable kick returner in this game, and their struggles on special teams have been well documented.
Cougars’ junior Marcus Jones has made an impact in the punt return game, and leads the American Conference and ranks first in the FBS in punt return averages (21.1).
That average would rank as the second-best mark in UH single-season history if the season ended today.
According to the pre-game stat sheet, Jones picked up his first career punt return touchdown versus USF (72 yards). Jones also ranks No. 1 in the FBS in punt return yards (317).
The Cordeiro factor
For Hawai’i to have a chance to win the bowl game, they will have to rely on the versatility of their sophomore signal caller Chevan Cordeiro.
Cordeiro has showcased his versatility and athleticism all season and will have a chance to display more on a national stage.
In his first season as the Rainbow Warriors’ quarterback, a redshirt sophomore, Cordeiro has thrown for 1,997 yards with 11
touchdowns and six interceptions. He also has team highs in rushing yards (450) and rushing touchdowns (7).
With Hawai’i running back Miles Reed making his declaration to enter the transfer portal following the 2020 season, the emphasis will most likely be on Calvin Turner becoming more of a feature back for the Rainbow Warriors’ offense.
With Graham already looking towards the 2021 season, Turner will probably receive a significant amount of more touches in this game since he will likely be back for the Rainbow Warriors’ offense next season.
Turner is just as much of a receiving threat as he is a threat on the ground.
On the ground, he has 271 yards in 48 attempts and four touchdown runs.
In the air, Turner ran for 458 yards on 29 receptions and five touchdowns, and is averaging 15.78 yards per touch.
Graham is looking forward to 2021, as he stated many times during his presser.
“I know I am excited for them to compete to be a bowl champion,” Graham said. “If we win this, it will be great momentum for us going into 2021.”
Graham, who is focusing on recruiting for his team in 2021, is also making it their priority.
“I am excited about traveling to a place where we will be actively recruiting,” Graham said. “Playing there doesn’t do anything but help.”
Jason Blasco, reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.