It's somewhat fitting that two teams that have been directly impacted by the coronavirus, albeit in different ways, are meeting in the New Mexico Bowl, which had to move from Albuquerque to Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, because of state restrictions.
Houston (3-4, 3-3 AAC) has endured plenty of schedule disruptions this season because of numerous cancellations. In fact, Dana Holgorsen's team has played just once since Nov. 14, losing 30-27 at Memphis a couple of weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the Cougars aren't taking this game for granted.
"I think we're just excited about having another opportunity to be able to play another game," Holgorsen told reporters. "You get so many games canceled (this year) that the last thing I thought would happen would be bowl games... Our guys like playing and like competing. The opportunity to do this one last time in 2020 is something that we're excited about."
Hawaii's (4-4 overall and in Mountain West play) story is a little different. The Rainbow Warriors didn't lose any games because of COVID-19, making them one of a handful of teams to avoid that fate, but they are currently looking for a new home field with the recent announcement that Aloha Stadium won't be hosting any future events due to financial hardships caused by the pandemic.
This unexpected development has only added to the obstacles head coach Todd Graham has dealt with in his first season leading Hawaii, but where the Rainbow Warriors will play their home games in 2021 takes a back seat, for now, to the program's third straight bowl appearance and fourth in five years.
"I am so excited for our team and staff,” Graham told reporters. "They've worked hard throughout this entire season, under such challenging circumstances. This game is a great chance to showcase our team to the people of Texas and to a national television audience. Houston is a fine program, and we can't wait to compete against them on Christmas Eve."
Graham and Holgorsen have faced each other before as each's career has featured stints at several different schools. Holgorsen is a perfect 3-0 against Graham thus far, but a win on Thursday would be extra special for the Hawaii head coach as it would be the 100th of his career (currently 99-65 across 13 seasons). Graham also has fared better than Holgorsen in bowl games, sporting a 5-4 record vs. 2-5.
And if that familiarity wasn't enough, these two teams have met in a bowl game before. That was way back in the 2003 Hawaii Bowl, which was won in three overtimes on Christmas by the host Rainbow Warriors but is probably more remembered for the postgame brawl at midfield. Hopefully, that kind of history won't repeat itself in Toyota Stadium on Christmas Eve.
New Mexico Bowl: Hawaii vs. Houston
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
Spread: Houston -13
When Hawaii Has the Ball
It's simplistic but in this case, it's appropriate. As quarterback Chevan Cordeiro goes, so go the Rainbow Warriors. A true dual-threat leading the offense, Cordeiro also has been sacked 26 times in eight games.
So it's no stretch to say that the Hawaii backfield is where this bowl game gets decided. Houston is one of the best in the nation at getting to the quarterback. The Cougars average better than three sacks per game (22 total), which ranks them among the top 20 in FBS.
But if Cordeiro can stay away from the big losses behind the line of scrimmage and protect the ball, he should be able to put some scoring drives together. Third in the Mountain West in total offense at 300 yards per game, Cordeiro also has accounted for 18 total touchdowns (11 passing, 7 rushing). Again, when he's good, so are the Rainbow Warriors, who averaged 33.8 points in their four wins vs. 18.3 in their four losses.
Cordeiro also will need help from his supporting cast. Running back Calvin Turner does it all, as he leads the team with 458 receiving yards and is averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He's also scored nine touchdowns, five through the air and four on the ground. Miles Reed is behind Cordeiro in both rushing attempts (82) and yards (346) but he's found the end zone just once and entered the transfer portal after the regular season finale versus UNLV.
Three wide receivers have logged 29 or more catches thus far with Jared Smart leading the trio in both receptions (33) and yards (287). Fellow seniors Rico Bussey and Melquise Stovall aren't too far behind Smart in either category but the trio also is averaging a collective 8.5 yards per catch, so they're performing more like possession receivers rather than big-play threats.
The Cougars gave up nearly 420 yards and 33 points per game during the regular season and will be without two of their best defenders in the bowl game. Senior linebacker Grant Stuard, who leads the AAC in tackles per game (8.7), and senior defensive lineman Payton Turner (team-high 5.0 sacks) have both opted out to start preparing for next year's NFL draft. That should make things easier for Cordeiro and company.
When Houston Has the Ball
A hallmark of Dana Holgorsen teams has been the offense and it's no different with this year's edition of the Cougars, even if they dealt with multiple stops and starts to their season. Despite all of the schedule shuffling, Houston is averaging 32 points and 423 yards per game.
Clayton Tune is the trigger man and the junior enters the bowl game with 1,832 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's also second on the team with 269 rushing yards on 62 carries (4.3 ypc) and has scored five times on the ground.
Kyle Porter is the leading rusher with 394 yards and four touchdowns, but he's averaging a modest 4.1 yards per carry. Collectively, the Cougars average 4.3 yards per attempt and have totaled 12 rushing touchdowns in seven games. In fact, Houston is averaging just as many rushing yards per game (155.3) as Hawaii is allowing (155.1), so it will be interesting to see if these trends continue on Christmas Eve.
Wide receiver Marquez Stevenson will not play in the bowl game and instead turn his attention to the Senior Bowl and getting ready for the draft. that still leaves fellow wideouts Keith Corbin and Nathaniel Dell, as well as tight end Christian Trahan, each of whom are averaging at least 12 yards per catch.
For its part, Hawaii has been pretty stingy against the pass, giving up 191 yards per game with nearly as many interceptions (nine) as touchdown passes (10) allowed. Sophomore linebacker Darius Muasau has been making plays all over the field. He's first in the Mountain West and fourth nationally in tackles per game (11.9), racking up 95 (including 63 solo) in eight games. He also leads the team in sacks with 3.5.
Regardless of where it's being played, this is the first either team has appeared in the New Mexico Bowl. Houston is playing in its 28th bowl game overall while it's Hawaii's 14th. The Rainbow Warriors are more accustomed to playing at home for the holidays, as this will be just their third bowl game on the mainland and first since the 2008 Sugar Bowl loss — 41-10 — to Georgia.
But that means nothing — really, neither does Hawaii's fifth-place and Houston's sixth-place finishes respectively in the Mountain West and AAC — especially in a season so vastly affected by the virus.
COVID-19 has hit Houston in waves, keeping the Cougars off the field for long periods of time, including just playing once (Dec. 12) since mid-November.
"I challenge (our players) to win this game so we can buy some rings that say 'COVID CHAMPS' on them — something to remember 2020 by," head coach Dana Holgorsen told Houston radio station SportsTalk 790. "Let's do something to feel good about what happened in 2020. Let's get a ring, put it on a shelf and look at it and say, 'I remember 2020,' and tell your kids about it one day."
But can Houston shake off the rust? That could be what tilts this game towards Hawaii, especially early on. Either way, expect the Rainbow Warriors to be ready come Christmas Eve.
"To have the opportunity to... compete to be a bowl champion is a big, big deal and is something that I think is going to help us tremendously," Graham told reporters. "Our guys were shocked (to get the invite), but I know I'm excited for them."
Prediction: Hawaii 35, Houston 30
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(Chevan Cordeiro photo by Matt Burn/University of Hawaii)