First-year coach Nick Rolovich wasn’t satisfied with just getting the University of Hawaii football team to the postseason. For it to be a successful inaugural campaign, the Rainbow Warriors needed to win today’s Hawaii Bowl against Middle Tennessee. And that’s exactly what they did before 20,327 gathered at Aloha Stadium on Christmas Eve.
Down by two touchdowns barely five minutes into the game, the Rainbow Warriors rallied for a 52-35 victory over the Blue Raiders to finish the season with an improbable 7-7 record. It was only the third victory against a team with a winning record for UH, as Middle Tennessee closed out 8-5 this season, but it was the biggest one for Rolovich.
Sophomore quarterback Dru Brown threw for 274 yards and four touchdowns, and ran for 23 and another score to key Hawaii’s attack. Throw in 170 yards rushing on 25 carries by Diocemy St. Juste and six catches for 120 yards by John Ursua, and you get the idea why Hawaii won.
Not that it was easy, mind you. The Blue Raiders had 543 yards of their own as sophomore quarterback Brent Stockstill completed 30 of 51 passes for 432 yards and four touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions that resulted in 14 points for UH that proved to be the difference.
It offset a stellar performance by wideout Richie James, who caught eight passes for 162 yards and a score. He also carried the football six times for 39 yards, but it wasn’t enough to get the win.
Down 17 to start the fourth quarter, the Blue Raiders cut it to 45-35 on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Stockstill to Ty Lee. Canon Rooker added the extra point with 10:09 left. If it made UH nervous, the Warriors didn’t show it, as they held that lead until extending to 17 on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Brown to Dylan Collie. Rigo Sanchez hit the PAT to make it 52-35 with 3:31 left.
Up 14 to start the second half, UH forced Middle Tennessee to punt on its first possession after intermission. By contrast, the Hawaii offense moved the football effectively against the Blue Raiders, eventually facing a first-and-goal from the 9.
But from there the drive stalled, setting up a 23-yard field goal by Sanchez that he knocked through with 9:46 left in the quarter to make it 38-21 Hawaii. But Middle Tennessee wouldn’t go quietly.
The Blue Raiders continued to move the ball effectively, eventually managing a first-and-goal of their own from the 9. Two plays later, Stockstill hit a 10-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Andrews to cut UH’s margin to 38-28 with 7:51 left in the period.
At this point in the game, the Blue Raiders had 100 more total offensive yards and held a 20-11 advantage on first downs, but still trailed by 10 thanks in part to three turnovers UH turned into 21 points.
On Hawaii’s next possession, it appeared the Warriors’ drive stalled near midfield until Hawaii ran a fake punt on which Makoa Camanse-Stevens completed a 21-yard pass to Ammon Barker that set up a first down at the Blue Raiders 26.
From there, UH needed six plays before Brown completed a 12-yard touchdown pass to Metuisela Unga, their second hook-up of the game. Sanchez added the PAT to make it 45-28 with 1:15 left.
After falling behind 14-0 early, Hawaii scored 28 unanswered points en route to a 35-21 halftime lead. The 56 combined points in a half tied a Hawaii Bowl record.
Hawaii took its first lead of the game on a 2-yard touchdown run by Brown that completed a drive in the second quarter that began at the end of the first. Sanchez added the PAT to make it 21-14 after Hawaii went 80 yards on eight plays. After giving up 14 points in the first five minutes of the game, Hawaii scored 21 unanswered to move ahead with 11:43 left in the quarter.
The Blue Raiders decided to rejoin the party on their next possession, quickly moving into Hawaii territory thanks to James, who had 30 yards on two plays.
But much like in the first quarter, in which Middle Tennessee turned over the football twice, Stockstill threw a pass right into the waiting arms of Trayvon Henderson, who returned it 68 yards for a touchdown. Sanchez knocked through his fourth PAT to make it 28-14 Hawaii with 7:30 remaining in the period.
It was the first pick-six since 2013 for the Warriors.
It took a while, but the Middle Tennessee offense finally put together a scoring drive late in the quarter. Facing a first-and-10 at the UH 18 with 1:57 left in the half, a pass interference by Henderson gave them a first-and-goal at the 3. Two plays later, Stockstill found Lee in the flat for a 3-yard touchdown. Rooker added the PAT to cut UH’s lead to 28-21 with 1:41 left in the half. That drive was six plays, 82 yards to put the Blue Raiders back in it. But the Warriors responded.
Hawaii got another chance to score just before the half, taking over at its own 45 after a nice return by Paul Harris and a penalty on Middle Tennessee. After a variety of flags on both teams, Hawaii still managed to score on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Brown to Marcus Kemp, who made a nice adjustment on a slightly under-thrown pass. Sanchez made the PAT to give UH a 35-21 lead with 22 seconds left in the half.
Hawaii got off to a slow start before rallying to draw even at 14-14 after a wild first quarter in which the teams combined for 290 yards.
After forcing a three-and-out on Hawaii’s first series, Middle Tennessee wasted little time scoring, marching 74 yards on four plays for the first touchdown of the game. The last play was a 20-yard touchdown run by I’Tavius Mathers. Rooker added the PAT to make it 7-0 with 12:09 left in the quarter.
Stockstill was 3-for-3 on the drive for 64 yards. The defense forced another three-and-out, giving the Blue Raiders the football at their own 30 to start their second drive and again quickly scored on a 51-yard touchdown pass from Stockstill to a wide-open James, who went in untouched for the score. Rooker added the extra point to make it 14-0 with 9:46 left in the quarter.
Hawaii marched down the field on its third possession, but failed to pick up a first down on a fourth-and-1 at the Middle Tennessee 23. No matter, the defense forced a fumble by Stockstill three plays later. Jahlani Tavai scooped it up and returned it to the Blue Raiders 18.
From there, Brown completed a scoring pass to Unga and Sanchez added the PAT to make it 14-7 with 4:09 left in the quarter.
Middle Tennessee began its next series at the UH 35 after Sanchez kicked the football out of bounds. And once again, the UH defense forced a turnover, this time an interception by Jalen Rogers at the Middle Tennessee 45.
From there, the UH offense went to work and completed a 44-yard pass from Brown to Ursua to set up a 1-yard scoring run by Steven Lakalaka, who was stopped on the fourth-down try earlier in the quarter. Sanchez knocked through the PAT to make it 14-14 with 2:39 left in the quarter.
A little shell-shocked, the Blue Raiders offense suddenly couldn’t move the football before converting a big third-down play on a 14-yard completion from Stockstill to Lee, much to the chagrin of the pro-UH crowd.
But once more, the UH defense held, giving UH the ball at its own 20 after a 55-yard punt by Matt Bonadies. UH needed only two plays to work its way back into Middle Tennessee territory as the first quarter ended.