Hawaii Bowl Preview
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors vs Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
The Hawaii Bowl is the only college game on December 24, so this is your best excuse if you need a trip away from the in-laws on Christmas Eve (Enter Contest). Under the direction of first-year coach Nick Rolovich, Hawaii is back in the postseason for the first time since 2010. A former Hawaii quarterback, Rolovich helped the Rainbow Warriors earn a three-game improvement in the win column this season. Hawaii’s offense won’t bring back memories of the June Jones era just yet, but this group improved its per-game average by nearly 10 points.
The Rainbow Warriors will have their hands full on defense against MTSU’s high-powered attack. Of course, there’s an asterisk by the Blue Raiders’ offense. Quarterback Brent Stockstill suffered a collarbone injury in early November and missed the rest of the 2016 campaign. Stockstill’s status for this game is uncertain. If Stockstill can’t go, freshman John Urzua will start, with the MTSU offense leaning heavily on running back I’Tavius Mathers (2,093 total yards) and receiver Richie James (160.8 total yards per game). In terms of bowl selections, MTSU has the market cornered on the best destinations over the last two seasons. After playing in the Bahamas Bowl in 2015, the Blue Raiders are headed to Honolulu this year.
ABOUT MIDDLE TENNESSEE (8-4, 5-3 Conference USA)
The Blue Raiders capped a highly successful regular season in style. They’ve set school records in points, offensive yards and touchdowns in a 77-56 slugfest with the Owls. It was a fitting end to the season for a Middle Tennessee team that broke season-long marks with 6,188 total offensive yards, 481 total points and 61 offensive touchdowns. It’s the 10th bowl game in school history, and the Blue Raiders come in with a 3-6 bowl record all-time.
The Blue Raiders appeared to be in peril after star quarterback Brent Stockstill was lost for the season to a broken collarbone in early November. You wouldn’t know it by looking at them. Middle Tennessee offense plastered the scoreboard for 115 points in the final two games of the season. While the Blue Raiders did the majority of their damage through the air with Stockstill at the helm, they were ruthless on the ground against Florida Atlantic. They’ve rushed for 495 yards and nine scores. Running backs I’Tavius Mathers, Richie James and Dennis Andrews scored three touchdown each. Mathers was the pulse of the running game during the season. He racked up 1,504 yards and 16 touchdowns on 220 carries.
ABOUT HAWAII (6-7, 4-4 Mountain West)
The Rainbow Warriors weren’t assured a bowl berth following their 46-40 victory over the Minutemen, but earned an exemption because not enough teams wound up bowl-eligible. Hawaii is 3-3 all-time in Hawaii Bowl contests. This will be its first appearance as a member of the Mountain West Conference, which placed seven teams in bowl games this season. This is the first six-win season since 2011 for the Rainbow Warriors, who went 11-39 the previous four seasons.
The Rainbow Warriors will need to lean heavily on sophomore quarterback Dru Brown. He threw for more than 2,200 yards and 15 touchdowns while adding 283 yards and three scores on the ground. Hawaii’s three-headed rushing tandem of Diocemy Saint Juste (836 yards, three TDs), Paul Harris (537 yards, two TDs) and Steven Lakalaka (415 yards, 12 TDs) will hope to help take the pressure off Brown, who bolstered his final numbers with a five-touchdown effort against UMass. The Rainbow Warriors do have a difference-maker on the defensive side in linebacker Jahlani Tavai. He was awarded All-Mountain West honors after posting a team-leading 118 tackles and seven sacks.