After a day-long trip to play in a displaced bowl game, Todd Graham felt right at home.
The University of Hawaii football team’s journey to Frisco, Texas, for today’s New Mexico Bowl brought the Rainbow Warriors’ first-year head coach about a 45-minute drive from his hometown of Mesquite. As far as dealing with the rigors of the longest road trip of his inaugural season, well, that’s where the coach took a tip from the student-athletes.
“It takes a day to get oriented, but our guys are used to that,” Graham said, “Matter of fact our players are teaching me how to do it. I’ve learned a lot about how to efficiently do that and readjust and keep your energy level and all that kind of stuff.”
While the more experienced members of the Hawaii roster are versed in arduous travel, the circumstances of their current trip are — much like 2020 in general — anything but routine.
It appeared the Warriors’ season would end with a win over UNLV on Dec. 12 at Aloha Stadium to close an undulating regular season at 4-4. A day later, the announcement arrived that they had been invited to play in the New Mexico Bowl, which had been relocated to Texas due to COVID-19 restrictions in the Albuquerque, N.M., area, to face Houston (3-4).
They resumed practice last Wednesday, made the trip to Texas on Monday, toured AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, after Tuesday’s practice and close the season (this time, for sure) by taking on the Cougars today at Toyota Stadium.
“Ninety-nine percent of this year we didn’t think bowl games would exist,” said Houston coach Dana Holgorsen, whose next comment during Wednesday’s virtual pregame press conference would highlight the unusual nature of the matchup.
“So we’re thrilled to be a part of the New Mexico Bowl, playing Hawaii, in Frisco. … I don’t know if I was ever going to say that in my life let alone 2020.
“Clearly everyone understands it’s not your typical bowl game.”
Perhaps the most normal part of the experience will be the three hours or so that the Warriors and Cougars spend on the field when the nationally televised game kicks off at 10:30 a.m. Hawaii time.
Hawaii won the lone meeting between the programs in a wild three-overtime duel that ended in an even wilder brawl in the 2003 Hawaii Bowl. The matchup will also renew an on-field series between the coaches.
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Graham and Holgorsen faced off in 2011 as head coaches at Pittsburgh and West Virginia, respectively, and again in the 2015 Cactus Bowl when Graham was at Arizona State. Holgorsen’s teams won both meetings.
“Getting ready for this game, especially for me offensively going against his defense brought back a lot of memories of being able to game plan and compete against him in the past,” Holgorsen said. “He’s got those guys playing hard. … He’s got them schemed up pretty good where they’re in position to make plays.”
Likewise, Graham has experience preparing for Holgorsen’s air-raid offense. Houston quarterback Clayton Tune ranks fourth in the American Athletic Conference with 261.7 passing yards per game and is 19th in the FBS in total offense at 302 yards per game.
“I think the air-raid passing game is probably by far in my 30-something years coaching the toughest thing to defend,” Graham said. “But he’s modified it and it’s much more physical now. They can run the football, are very physical, have very difficult play-action and RPO … he’s one of the best in the business offensively no doubt.”
The Cougars will be without one of their top weapons with receiver Marquez Stevenson (20 catches, 307 yards, four touchdowns) opting out of the game, the Houston Chronicle reported. Holgorsen said the Cougars will be without 15-16 players “for a variety of reasons.”
The Hawaii offense led by quarterback Chevan Cordeiro (243 passing yards per game, 11 touchdowns, six interceptions) will be without running back Miles Reed, who entered the transfer portal last week. His absence pushes freshman Dae Dae Hunter (34 carries, 139 yards, 2 TDs) up the depth chart with senior Calvin Turner (282 rushing yards, 458 receiving, nine total TDs) also highlighting the attack.
“Even though (Hunter’s) a freshman he’s brought it every day,” UH offensive coordinator G.J. Kinne said. “We have a lot of trust in him and another guy I expect to have a big game.”