UH football looks to start anew at Hawaii Bowl to conclude 2021 season

Sports

Hawaii quarterback Brayden Schager (13) hands the ball off to running back Dedrick Parson (31) during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against New Mexico State, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

After the 2020 edition was canceled, the Hawaii Bowl makes its return to the islands with a 3 p.m. kickoff at Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex at the UH-Manoa campus.

Friday will mark Todd Graham’s first Hawaii Bowl as UH’s head coach, but it won’t be his first Hawaii Bowl overall. In 2010, he was at the helm when Tulsa walloped Hawaii 62-35, putting a damper in what was otherwise a highly successful 10-win season for UH.

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Additionally, the 2010 Hawaii Bowl was the final game Graham would coach for Tulsa. From there, he landed the Pittsburgh vacancy before making the leap to Arizona State after the 2011 season. After ASU moved on from Graham in 2017, he didn’t return to college coaching until David Matlin, who handed Graham the Hawaii Bowl trophy in 2010 as the game’s executive director, handed him the UH job 10 years later.

“Eleven years ago,” Graham recalls of his 2010 Hawaii Bowl experience. “It was one of the greatest experiences as a head coach that I’ve had. Obviously, coming here, had two great teams back then playing and it was a heck of a game. I’m looking forward to that experience and for our guys getting to experience that, and obviously for our fans to have our guys compete and represent them in the Hawaii Bowl.”

Hawaii’s spot in the 2021 game was in doubt for much of the season, particularly when the Rainbow Warriors lost to UNLV on Nov. 13. At the time, it was believed that the team’s seventh loss knocked the team out of the 2021 bowl picture permanently. But due to the NCAA adding a 42nd bowl game to accommodate all 83 bowl-eligible teams, the Rainbow Warriors were on the receiving end of an early Christmas gift and became the only seven-loss team in the country to go bowling.

A bowl berth did little to calm internal problems within the team, as multiple key players departed the program following the conclusion of the regular season, most notably quarterback and Saint Louis alum Chevan Cordeiro, who signed with San Jose State on Wednesday. Starting running back Dae Dae Hunter also entered the transfer portal following the regular season and recently signed with Liberty.

The Hawaii team that takes the field on Friday will look fairly different from the team that played 13 previous times in 2021, and it starts at quarterback. With Cordeiro gone, true freshman Brayden Schager will get the start behind center. Although he’s 2-1 as a starter for UH, Friday will be Schager’s first start without Cordeiro on the roster.

“It’s his football team now,” Graham says of Schager. “I think he’s excited about that. On the same hand, preparing and getting ready, a bowl game’s a lot like the first game of the year. Just don’t beat yourself. So we’ve been working on taking care of the football, taking what they give us and getting prepared. But he’s very, very excited and I’m excited for him. This is his opportunity that he’s been waiting for and what he came here to do.”

Friday will also mark the last time UH fans will be able to see Calvin Turner Jr., who turned down the 2021 NFL Draft to return for his senior year of college football. He is just three return yards away from earning the historic milestone of passing, rushing and returning for over 1,000 yards each.

Just as Turner’s performance in the 2020 New Mexico Bowl set the table for heightened expectations entering the 2021 season, Friday’s Hawaii Bowl, for better or worse, could give fans a glimpse of what’s in store for the 2022 campaign.

“It’s always positive to end the season with a win,” all-conference linebacker Darius Muasau said. “It builds confidence and motivation for the team going into the offseason, so we’re obviously looking for a win.”

Added Graham: “Everybody’s focused. Obviously, we’ve had really spirited practices. Got a really good team, got a really good Memphis team that’s very much like the Houston team last year. Very talented, come from the American (Athletic) Conference, very physical, got very good skill players. Obviously, we’ve gotta do a great job getting prepared. We did a good job last year, the key is preparation, the key is coming out and having a focus about what you’re doing. We’ve had good practices. Our guys have been focused.

“The bottom line about bowl games, it’s only a good experience when you win.”

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