Given the nature of the 2020 college football season, the Mountain West Conference championship race is shaping up earlier than usual for the University of Hawaii football team.
When the 2020 Mountain West championship game is played on Dec. 19, the top team in the standings will host the second-place team. Divisional play will not be regarded in the 12-team conference for the current season. With a pair of surprise 3-0 teams in Nevada and San Jose State and conference favorite Boise State (2-1 overall, 2-0 Mountain West) at the top of the standings so far, the Rainbow Warriors will visit fellow 2-1 team San Diego State in a critical matchup to stay in the MW title race.
Before Hawaii earned its first-ever appearance in the Mountain West championship game in 2019, it first had to defeat San Diego State to win the West division. Although Saturday’s matchup won’t guarantee the winner a shot at the conference championship like it did last season, the stakes remain high.
“I think the winner of this game puts themselves in great position to move forward. You can’t afford to lose this game, period,” Hawaii head coach Todd Graham said. “Obviously, there’s not divisions this year so it’s gonna boil down to the two best records and who beat who and all that. I do think of the teams we’ve played so far there’s not any question in my mind that this team is the best athletically.”
The Aztecs suffered their first loss of the season last Saturday to San Jose State, 28-17. But in their two previous games, they beat UNLV 34-6 and Utah State 38-7 in a similar fashion to how Wyoming beat Hawaii 31-7: with a rushing attack that wore the opposing defense down. SDSU running back Greg Bell, a transfer from Nebraska, has run for over 100 yards with a touchdown in all three games thus far. In Hawaii’s lone loss of the season, Wyoming running back Xazavian Valladay carried the ball 32 times for 163 yards and three scores.
“They got a very, very strong running attack, physical running attack, great backfield,” Graham said of the Aztecs. “Great personnel in the backfield. Bell is a special tailback. He reminds me a lot of the young man from Wyoming except I think he’s a little better.”
Darius Muasau, Hawaii’s leading tackler in all three games thus far, acknowledges that containing the run game on Saturday will be of the utmost importance. Muasau also remembers the thrill of last year’s win in the de facto West division championship game and understands a similar effort on defense will be required to win.
“It’s really important. Just like last year, the game between us and San Diego determined who was going into the championship,” Muasau says. “Coach said this is gonna be one of our most important games this week, just like how it is every week. We’re attacking this week as if it’s a championship week this week. Coaches are coming up with great game plans for San Diego State and we’re just ready to take them on.”
Another major key for the Rainbow Warriors this week will be starting fast. On top of not scoring first in any of their games this season, the ‘Bows have also turned the ball over in the first quarter in all three games.
“It’s definitely real critical. As we’ve seen in the past really three games, we haven’t really come out firing on all cylinders on offense or defense and we know San Diego being the type of team they are and how things are playing out for the whole Mountain West, this game is definitely big,” receiver Jared Smart said.
Graham has placed high standards on the team from the day he took the job in January. The word ‘championship’ has often been uttered when he speaks of his program, whether it’s playing for championships or wanting his players to lead a championship life long after they’re done wearing a UH uniform. Graham says that Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 11 a.m. HST at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., will be his biggest test of his UH tenure to date. It will also likely determine if his team will have an opportunity to play for a championship this season.
“It’s a big challenge for us this weekend but heck, this is what you sign up for,” Graham said. “Our players know that. They know the team that won this game last year played for the championship. We gotta find a way to go and fight and scratch and know we’re gonna be in a dogfight on the road and figure out a way to win and the path to that is 100 percent ball security, no negatives, no cheap ones and win the turnover battle. That’s the key to it.”