FRISCO, Texas >> Calvin Turner knew he’d just been given a gift.
Hawaii’s 21-point halftime lead had suddenly shrunk to seven as Houston captured the momentum late in the third quarter of Thursday’s New Mexico Bowl. As he moved up to field a kickoff short of the goal line, Turner’s memory flashed back to the week of film study in preparation for Hawaii’s third appearance in a mainland bowl.
“They just scored a touchdown so I was thinking that we needed a big play,” Turner said. “Their kicker has a leg and he’s been kicking touchback after touchback. There was one time on film where he kicked the ball in the middle of the field on a miss-kick to Cincinnati and had a big return. Coach said, ‘if it’s in the middle of the field, it’s going to be a big return.’
“So when I saw the ball coming in the middle, I kind of knew in my head that this was going to go to the crib.”
After securing the catch, Turner turned his vision into reality, picking his way through the first wave of coverage, breaking to the sideline, then cutting across the field for a game-record 92-yard touchdown return that helped propel the Warriors to a 28-14 Christmas Eve victory at Toyota Stadium.
Turner was named the game’s outstanding offensive player after finishing with 252 total yards — 60 yards rushing, 88 receiving and 104 on kick returns — in Hawaii’s second straight postseason win and the second in a mainland bowl game in the program’s history.
Hawaii quarterback Chevan Cordeiro threw three touchdown passes, including a 75-yarder to Turner, and the Warriors — a 101⁄2-point underdog entering the game — held off a Cougar rally in the second half to cap Todd Graham’s first season as head coach at 5-4.
“We really talk a lot about bringing the energy and the intensity and I thought our energy level and our passion to win was at a very, very high level. Probably played the best game we’ve played all year just top to bottom,” said Graham, who also celebrated the 100th win of his coaching career.
“I can’t give our players enough credit. They really played well, they executed well and we were the most disciplined, physical team on the field and that was the difference in the game.”
The game was moved to Frisco from its usual location in Albuquerque because of COVID-19 restrictions in New Mexico.
Houston quarterback Clayton Tune was without three starting receivers and finished 20-for-38 for 216 yards and two touchdowns for the Cougars. But the Hawaii defense came down with three interceptions and finished with five sacks.
Hawaii shed its tendency for slow starts this season by jumping out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter as the Warriors pressured Tune into two early interceptions that the Hawaii offense converted into scores.
Hawaii defensive lineman DJuan Mathews batted Tune’s second throw of the day, and linebacker Penei Pavihi snagged the loose ball to set up the UH offense at the Cougars’ 8. Two plays later, Cordeiro found freshman running back Dae Dae Hunter flaring out of the backfield for a 3-yard touchdown pass.
“Our whole deal was to push their quarterback off his spot and to pressure and to mix it up and try to confuse him,” Graham said.
“We talked about batting the ball, we brought pressure on that third down, we knew what they were going to run, we knew they were going to throw the slant route, it gets batted and Penei makes a big interception.”
Pressure from cornerback Cortez Davis led to an interception by Michael Washington later in the opening period. On the next play, Cordeiro fired a dart over the middle to Turner, who broke loose from a defender then burst away from the rest of the Cougars secondary for a 75-yard touchdown.
The quick strike matched the Warriors’ longest play of the season, also a Cordeiro-to-Turner connection against San Diego State. Turner finished the season with a team-high 11 touchdowns and said last week he would wait until after the bowl game to decide whether to return to the Warriors next season.
“That man, he’s a beast,” Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau said. “He does it every week. Day in, day out he proves that he’s the best at what he does.”
Muasau was named the game’s outstanding defensive player after finishing with nine tackles, raising his season total to 104, including a sack, and an interception. Linebacker/safety Khoury Bethley finished with 14 tackles (including nine solo and three for losses) and tipped a pass leading to Muasau’s interception. Linebacker Jeremiah Pritchard also had nine stops with two sacks.
Hawaii raced to a 21-0 lead in the first half with Cordeiro’s third TD pass going to Jonah Laulu, a defensive tackle who lined up at tight end, for a 4-yard score in the second quarter.
An energized Houston offense rallied with two touchdowns in the third quarter, with Tune throwing a 7-yard scoring pass to Nathaniel Dell and a 26-yarder to Christian Trahan.
After Trahan’s score, Turner returned the kickoff 92 yards to cap the scoring.
“We just came off of a big play and that was almost like a dagger,” Trahan said. “We tried to fight back, but that was definitely a big play in the game.”
Said Houston coach Dana Holgorsen: “I was sick to my stomach. We played spurts of good football, but that’s not going to get it done. I’m glad 2020’s over.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
For more Hawaii football, visit the Warrior Beat blog.