Former WAC rivals renew acquaintances as the Rainbow Warriors and Bulldogs meet in Honolulu
The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs drew one of the most exciting bowl slots anyone could hope for with a trip to Honolulu to face the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at Aloha Stadium. But that doesn’t mean head coach Skip Holtz and his squad are happy to be there. Louisiana Tech started 6-2 and appeared poised to challenge for the Conference USA West title, but fell to 7-5 overall (5-3 C-USA) following back-to-back losses to Southern Miss and Western Kentucky, respectively, in the final two weeks of the regular season. Including a 45-3 loss to Mississippi State, the Bulldogs have now lost three of their last four games overall.
Hawaii also started strong, but unlike Louisiana Tech, the Rainbow Warriors overcame a midseason rough patch and have a little momentum entering the bowl game. After a tough four-game losing streak sullied a 6-1 start, the Rainbow Warriors won their final two games. A dramatic, come-from-behind 35-28 win over UNLV clinched bowl eligibility and a 31-30 (in overtime) road upset of San Diego State helped finish the regular season on a high note and secure a spot in the hometown bowl game.
SoFi Hawaii Bowl: Hawaii (8-5) vs. Louisiana Tech (7-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 22 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: Aloha Stadium (Honolulu)
Spread: Hawaii -1
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
Both Louisiana Tech and Hawaii have talented and capable quarterbacks at the helm. J'Mar Smith completed 57 percent of his passes for 2,875 yards and 14 touchdowns with nine interceptions for the Bulldogs, and the junior put together four 300-yard passing games. Smith also accounted for 138 rushing yards and two touchdowns, though his offensive line allowed 30 sacks during the regular season. Smith has taken nearly all of the snaps for the Bulldogs this season but Louisiana Tech could turn to backup Westin Elliott, who completed four of eight attempts for 39 yards against WKU, or Aaron Allen, who is 3-for-6 for 47 yards with a touchdown and an interception, if needed.
Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald played incredibly well early in the season while leading the Rainbow Warriors to five wins in his first six career starts. Unfortunately, McDonald missed the midseason victory over Wyoming due to injury, and when he returned, struggled to find his rhythm. McDonald never lost hold of the starting job, but he was benched late against UNLV after throwing two interceptions, and true freshman Chevan Cordeiro rallied the team to victory. McDonald rallied himself the following week when he completed 29 of 46 passes for a season-high 452 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions against San Diego State to finish the regular season tied for fifth among all FBS quarterbacks in passing (315.8 ypg). Overall, McDonald has completed 59.3 percent of his passes for 3,790 yards and 35 TDs with eight interceptions, along with 370 rushing yards and four scores on the ground.
2. Top targets
Smith and McDonald each have the benefit of a 1,000-yard receiver, as well as a solid No. 2 target. Louisiana Tech wideout Adrian Hardy finished the regular season second in C-USA with 1,052 receiving yards, and fourth in the conference with 69 catches. The sophomore also hauled in six touchdown passes and averaged 15.25 yards per reception. Hardy surpassed 100 yards five times, including a career-high 181 yards and two touchdowns against LSU, and strung together three straight 100-yard games to finish the regular season. Teammate Teddy Veal caught 62 passes (ninth in the conference) for 609 yards with one TD. Veal did not play against WKU, and has seen his production drop compared to 2017, but he did post a season-high 11 receptions and 103 yards against UTEP earlier this year.
McDonald’s top target, wideout John Ursua, enters bowl season with the FBS lead in touchdown catches (16). Ursua recorded 89 receptions for 1,343 yards during the regular season, both of which ranked second in the Mountain West and among the top six nationally. The junior is one of just nine FBS receivers to average more than 100 yards per game (103.3, eighth) and he has seven 100-yard efforts. But Ursua isn’t the only dangerous wideout at McDonald’s disposal. Junior Cedric Bryd also is in the top 20 nationally with 76 receptions in his first season out of junior college. Byrd has 939 receiving yards and nine touchdowns to his credit.
3. Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson
The Bulldogs have a major edge on the defensive side of the football, coming into this game fifth in Conference USA in total defense (350.9 ypg) and fourth in yards allowed per play (5.17), both of which rank in the top 35 in FBS. Comparatively, Hawaii has allowed 438.7 yards of offense per contest and 6.28 yards per play, both of which rank near the bottom (101st and 109th, respectively). The Rainbow Warriors also will be without their top defender, linebacker Jahlani Tavai, because of an injury, while the Bulldogs will feature a potential first-round NFL draft pick in Ferguson.
Ferguson is currently tied with North Illinois’ Sutton Smith for the national lead with 15.0 sacks. The 6-foot-2, 262-pound senior dubbed “Sack Daddy” has 42.5 career sacks to his credit, needing only two against Hawaii to break the official NCAA record. Ferguson has posted two or more sacks four times this season, including two against both Mississippi State and Southern Miss, 3.5 against UTEP, and a career-best four against North Texas.
Hawaii is 5-2 on its home field this season, and that home-field advantage could come in handy for the bowl game. In fact, the Rainbow Warriors are 5-0 against Louisiana Tech all-time in Honolulu and lead the series 8-2 overall against their former WAC rivals. However, the Bulldogs have been a far more consistent program in recent years and will be playing in their fifth consecutive bowl game. The Rainbow Warriors are bowling for the second time in three seasons under head coach Nick Rolovich after going without a postseason berth from 2011-15.
Both teams can move the football, particularly through the air. However, the Bulldogs have a much better defense, statistically speaking. Louisiana Tech also has the best NFL prospect at its disposal in Jaylon Ferguson, who should be highly motivated given he’s chasing the NCAA record for career sacks. Expect Ferguson and the Bulldogs to disrupt Hawaii’s rhythm offensively, and for Louisiana Tech to emerge with a victory.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 37, Hawaii 35