The pre-Christmas portion of college football's 2016-17 bowl slate concludes on Dec. 24, as MTSU makes the long trek to Honolulu to take on Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl. The Rainbow Warriors are back in the postseason for the first time since 2010 and have to defend their home turf in Aloha Stadium against the Blue Raiders. MTSU is making its second consecutive bowl trip and has earned a postseason bid in three out of the last four years.
Under new coach Nick Rolovich, Hawaii showed marked improvement after a 3-10 record in 2015. The Rainbow Warriors finished 6-7 – the program’s first season of more than four wins since 2011 – and were on the cusp of a winning record with two losses by seven points or less. Rolovich’s team had a brutal schedule to start 2016, as Hawaii played California in Australia in the first game of the year, then battled Michigan in Ann Arbor the following Saturday. After a home date against UT Martin, the Rainbow Warriors went back to mainland to play Arizona on Sept. 17. Despite the tough schedule, Hawaii scrapped and fought to get to six wins and ended the year on a two-game winning streak.
MTSU has become one of Conference USA’s most consistent programs under coach Rick Stockstill, recording five consecutive seasons of at least a .500 record. The Blue Raiders finished 8-4 in 2016 but two of those losses came without quarterback Brent Stockstill. The sophomore suffered a collarbone injury in the 45-25 loss against UTSA and his status for the Hawaii Bowl is one of the biggest storylines surrounding this game. MTSU also lost at Vanderbilt (47-24) and lost by one point in overtime against eventual C-USA champ WKU (44-43).
This is the second meeting between Hawaii and MTSU. The Rainbow Warriors defeated the Blue Raiders 35-14 in Honolulu in 1999. Hawaii is 3-4 in seven previous appearances in the Hawaii Bowl. However, the Rainbow Warriors are 0-3 in their last three bowl trips. MTSU has also lost its last three bowl games and has just one postseason victory in six postseason contests.
MTSU vs. Hawaii (Hawaii Bowl)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: No Line
Three Things to Watch
1. Brent Stockstill or John Urzua?
As mentioned above, the status of MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill is the biggest storyline surrounding this game. Can Stockstill return to the starting lineup just over a month removed from a collarbone injury against UTSA? On Friday, all signs suggested Stockstill was set to return to the lineup and cleared to play. Prior to the injury, Stockstill was on pace for another prolific season. The sophomore threw for 2,801 yards and 27 scores in nine contests and also added 232 yards on the ground. Stockstill is practicing but no announcement from MTSU is expected prior to kickoff. If Stockstill doesn’t start or is ruled out, the Blue Raiders will turn to John Urzua. The redshirt freshman gained valuable experience over the last four weeks in the regular season and threw for 816 yards and eight scores in 2016. Urzua was injured in the finale against FAU, prompting receivers Dennis Andrews and Richie James and running back I’Tavius Mathers to attempt passes.
Stockstill is clearly the better quarterback and one of the best in the Group of 5 ranks when healthy. If Stockstill starts, he faces an enticing matchup against a Hawaii secondary ranked 117th nationally in pass efficiency defense. No spread is listed for this game due to the uncertainty surrounding Stockstill’s status. Assuming he plays, Stockstill would swing this matchup in favor of MTSU.
2. Hawaii’s Ground Attack
Rolovich comes from the Run-and-Shoot offensive style under former coach June Jones, but the Rainbow Warriors were more of a balanced attack in 2016. The offense ranked fourth in the Mountain West with 222.3 passing yards per game, and the ground attack ranked 10th by recording 160.6 yards per contest.
Senior Ikaika Woolsey opened the season as the starting quarterback but was replaced by Dru Brown on Sept. 17 against Nevada. The sophomore had his share of ups and downs as the starter but posted an overall solid year for his first action at the FBS level. Brown threw for 2,214 yards and 15 scores and completed 62 percent of his throws, while also adding 283 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Receiver Marcus Kemp (70 catches) is Brown’s go-to target, with John Ursua (47) and Dylan Collie (29) also working as key contributors in the passing attack.
Brown’s development during bowl practices is a storyline to watch, but the focus of Hawaii’s offense on Saturday night should be the running game. The Blue Raiders ranked seventh in Conference USA in rush defense, allowing just under 200 yards per game (198.2) this season. Additionally, MTSU surrendered 35 rushing scores and gave up at least 200 yards in five out of the last six contests. The Rainbow Warriors use a trio of running backs to anchor the ground attack, as Diocemy Saint Juste leads the team with 836 yards, followed by Paul Harris (537) and Steven Lakalaka (415). Saint Juste and Harris provide more big-play ability to the rushing game, while Lakalaka (210 pounds) is a force around the goal line with 12 touchdowns.
MTSU’s rush defense has been problematic all year and has another tough assignment ahead on Saturday night. If Hawaii establishes the run and controls the clock, Stockstill or Urzua will have a few less opportunities to attack a suspect secondary. The Rainbow Warriors rank last in the Mountain West in third-down offense and the Blue Raider defense would like to keep this unit in third-and-long situations.
3. MTSU’s Dynamic Playmakers
Regardless of which quarterback starts on Saturday night, the gameplan for MTSU coordinator Tony Franklin is pretty simple: Find ways to get the ball in the hands of I’Tavius Mathers and receiver Richie James. Mathers finished second among rushers in Conference USA during the regular season by recording 1,504 yards and 16 scores on 220 attempts. He was also a big factor in the passing game, catching 62 passes for 589 yards and three touchdowns. James needs just three receptions to reach the 100-catch mark for the second consecutive year. The sophomore grabbed 97 receptions for 1,463 yards and 11 touchdowns and also added 300 rushing yards and for scores on the ground. James isn’t the only target in the receiving corps. Ty Lee (53 catches), Dennis Andrews (28) and Patrick Smith (28) are key weapons for Stockstill or Urzua.
How can Hawaii contain MTSU’s offense? A deep look at the numbers shows coordinator Kevin Lempa is going to have his hands full. Hawaii’s defense ranks ninth in the Mountain West by surrendering 6.3 yards per play and last by giving up 37.5 points per game. In addition to those totals, the Rainbow Warriors have forced just 14 turnovers and allowed 37 plays of 30 yards or more.
Winning the battle in the trenches is essential for Hawaii after allowing 243.8 rushing yards per game this year. If Mathers is able to find running room, it won’t matter whether Stockstill or Urzua starts. The Rainbow Warriors haven’t allowed a ton of big plays through the air, so this unit will make Stockstill or Urzua work their way down the field in small chunks.
James and Mathers are two of the best skill players Hawaii has played this season. Can Lempa find a way to keep these two players in check?
It may seem like a broken record, but let’s state it once again: The status of MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill is going to have a huge impact on this game. Stockstill was cleared to play, which should help the Blue Raiders win this one by a touchdown (or more). The sophomore could be rusty in his return, but running back I’Tavius Mathers and receiver Richie James will be enough to keep the offense moving at a high level. However, if Stockstill doesn’t play, the margin for error for MTSU gets a little smaller. Regardless of what happens with the quarterback situation for MTSU, Hawaii’s offense is going to give its share of headaches to Stockstill’s defense. The guess here is Stockstill plays and sparks MTSU’s offense to a huge performance on Christmas Eve in Honolulu. Hawaii is headed in the right direction under Rolovich, but there’s just too much firepower on the offense for the Blue Raiders.