It’s hard to say when a season might turn for the better or worse, but Saturday night’s 41-36 win by the University of Hawaii over Tennessee Martin was key for rookie Rainbow Warriors head coach Nick Rolovich.
Playing before an Aloha Stadium crowd of 19,994 — small, particularly for a home opener — the Warriors improved to 1-2, having struggled previously against California and Michigan. Those losses were by a combined 114-34, not exactly eye-opening performances to build a fan base.
The loss dropped the UT Martin Skyhawks to 0-2. They opened the season with a respectable 28-7 defeat at Cincinnati, but were more than up for the task against the Mountain West Conference Warriors.
Leading by four to start the fourth quarter, Hawaii extended its advantage on a 36-yard touchdown pass from UH quarterback Ikaika Woolsey to all-alone tight end Metuisela ‘Unga, who lumbered into the end zone untouched to give UH a 35-24 lead with 11:42 left in the game.
It didn’t take long for the Skyhawks to respond. After UH kicked the ball out of bounds, the defense gave up a 65-yard touchdown pass from UT Martin quarterback Troy Cook to wide receiver Ben Axline, who dropped an apparent scoring toss in the third quarter. The try for 2 failed and Hawaii held a 35-30 lead with 11:32 left in the game.
After the Skyhawks forced a UH punt, Londell Lee returned the kick 79 yards, tiptoeing up the sidelines for what could have been a backbreaking score. The try for 2 failed, giving UT Martin a 36-35 lead with 9:02 left in the game. But the Warriors would not be denied.
Hawaii quickly countered with a score of its own on a 63-yard touchdown pass from Woolsey to a wide-open Marcus Kemp. It was their third scoring hook up of the game on as many completions. The try for 2 failed and UH led 41-36 with 6:43 left.
The rest of the quarter was spent with UT Martin doing everything it could to get the game-winning score and the UH defense trying to stop it from happening. With three minutes remaining, UT Martin had a first-and-10 at the UH 39 after converting a huge fourth-and-6 pass play from Cook to Caylon Weathers. But back-to-back sacks by the UH defense forced an eventual fourth-and-29 from the 42 that was picked off by UH’s Jalen Rogers to seal the deal.
Hawaii finished with 378 total yards to UT Martin’s 418. Woolsey had four touchdown passes and three interceptions, completing nine of 18 for 205 yards. Cook countered with a 12-for-26 performance that included three scoring strikes and two picks. Kemp had three catches for 103 yards and Diocemy St. Juste finished with 92 yards on 16 carries and Steve Lakalaka managed 71 yards and a big touchdown on 11 attempts. UT Martin’s Jaimiee Bowe led all rushers with 113 yards and one score on 12 runs.
Hawaii’s opening drive of the second half ended on a pick thrown by Woolsey, who came back in the game after exiting for most of the second quarter. The interception by Tennessee Martin safety Kahlid Hagens, the second of the game for Woolsey, gave the Skyhawks the ball at the UH 47.
Six plays later, facing a fourth-and-2 at the UH 26, Bowe took it in for the score untouched and Mitch Mersman added the PAT to make it 24-14 Skyhawks with 10:14 left in the period.
After UT Martin held the Rainbow Warriors on downs, Hawaii got a huge break on a punt return where a Skyhawks player inadvertently touched the football, leading to a UH recovery by Ammon Barker at the UT Martin 25. Two plays later, St. Juste scooted in from 24 yards out. Rigo Sanchez hit the PAT to make it 24-21 UT Martin with 7:43 remaining in the quarter.
The Warriors forced a quick punt by the Skyhawks, setting up shop at the UT Martin 49. Two running plays to St. Juste set up a 33-yard touchdown strike from Woolsey to Kemp to retake the lead, 28-24 with 3:24 remaining.
A Woolsey pick later in the quarter gave Tennessee Martin a first-and-10 at the Hawaii 43 with 2:06 left in the quarter. Cook completed two quick passes to give UT Martin another first-and-10 at the UH 12. Facing a third-and-6, Cook hit an open Axline, but he mishandled the pass and it was picked off in the end zone by UH’s Jahlani Tavai, the first interception of his career, as time ended in the quarter.
Much like the opening quarter, the second was equally close, as it didn’t take long for the Skyhawks to score. Starting at its own 15, UT Martin moved quickly down the field, thanks in part to a 46-yard run by wideout Ladevin Fair. Facing a third-and-1 from the Hawaii 21, the Skyhawks went for it all, but the pass fell incomplete, setting up a fourth-and-1 that Bowe converted easily. That led to a 16-yard touchdown pass from Cook to a wide-open CJ McElrath. Mersman added the PAT to extend the Skyhawks’ advantage to 17-7 with 9:45 left in the half.
Later in the quarter, Hawaii forced a Bowe fumble. It was recovered by UH’s Tavai at the UT Martin 19. Two plays later, Lakalaka took it in from 15 yards out. Sanchez knocked through the PAT to cut the Skyhawks’ lead to 17-14 with 6:57 left. On that scoring drive, backup UH quarterback Dru Brown replaced Woolsey, who may have injured his leg earlier in the quarter.
UT Martin responded with another good drive that began with Cook escaping an apparent sack and carrying it 17 yards to the UH 45 for a first down. Six plays later, the Skyhawks had a first-and-10 at the UH 24 after converting two third downs. But the drive stalled at the Rainbow Warriors 32, forcing a 49-yard field-goal attempt by Mersman that hooked wide left with 2:14 left. The half ended with UT Martin on top by three.
Both offenses dominated in the first quarter, with UT Martin owning a 10-7 advantage at the end of the opening quarter.
Tennessee Martin won the toss and promptly ran the ball down the UH defense’s throat, moving from its own 26 all the way to the UH 7, setting up a first-and-goal. But after successfully running the ball on every snap, UT Martin opted to throw on first down and the pass was incomplete.
Two unsuccessful running plays later, the Skyhawks were forced to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Mersman to give them a 3-0 advantage with 9:33 left. On the opening drive, the Skyhawks rushed for 59 yards on eight carries, including 44 on five runs by Bowe.
Hawaii responded by moving the ball well enough on its first drive of the game. The Rainbow Warriors started on their own 19 and needed to convert several third downs along the way, including a 37-yard completion from Woolsey to Barker, setting up a first-and-goal from the 7. On the next play, Woolsey completed a 7-yarder to favorite target Kemp and Sanchez added the PAT to make it 7-3 UH with 3:59 left. The drive went 11 plays for 81 yards as both defenses struggled a bit early.
Hawaii forced a three-and-out on the ensuing series, but Woolsey overshot his target on the following first down and the pass was picked off by Sheldon Dawson and returned to the UH 46. A nice play-action pass on first down went for 29 yards from Cook to Fair, setting up a 12-yard scoring pass from Cook to Kyle Kerrick. Mersman added the PAT to make it 10-7 UT Martin with 1:01 remaining.
For more Hawaii football, visit the Warrior Beat blog.