After numerous delays and obstacles amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 college football season is finally a reality for the University of Hawaii football team.
The Rainbow Warriors departed Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on Thursday afternoon ahead of their season opener at Fresno State, which kicks off on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. HST.
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The game will also mark the debut for new UH head coach Todd Graham, who inherits a program that won eight games in 2018 and 10 games in 2019. Despite the success of Hawaii’s two most recent teams, both were unable to beat the Bulldogs. Hawaii’s all-time record against Fresno State, one of the program’s biggest rivals, is 22-29-1. Despite the history between the two teams, the prevailing sentiment among players and coaches is that it’s just another game.
“I feel like we just gotta take it as a regular game,” quarterback Chevan Cordeiro said. “Just do what we’ve been doing, just practicing hard, just getting ready for the games, listen to the coaches and just getting better every day.”
A pandemic-shortened 2020 season will see the ‘Bows play just eight regular season games, all against Mountain West Conference opponents. UH joined the Mountain West as football-only members prior to the 2012 season and didn’t win the West division until 2019. A conference championship is clearly the goal for this year’s squad, with Fresno State as the first opponent towards achieving that objective.
“Honestly, we all just see it as a game,” UH sophomore receiver Nick Mardner said. “We gotta come out, we get an opponent every week, we gotta beat them. It is what it is. It’s a team, they play football, everybody does the same things so at the end of the day, we just gotta come out there, roll them over and go into the next week. We just think about the week we have right now and just handle it.”
Cordeiro, who was born and raised in Oahu, grew up a Hawaii fan. With four years of eligibility remaining, the undisputed leader of the 2020 team figures to be the face of the program for years to come.
“I feel like growing up, every game was a crazy game no matter who (Hawaii) played,” Cordeiro said. “Boise, Fresno, anybody in their division. Anybody who they played, it was a crazy game.”
Nobody on the team has waited for Saturday’s game longer than Graham, who is coaching his first contest since 2017. Although he understands the importance of the rivalry between the two programs, the goal for his team is to simply execute what the new coaching staff has taught over the past handful of months.
“It’s the most important game. It’s our first game,” Graham said. “Obviously, with an abbreviated season, each opportunity, its value is tenfold. But yeah, I know the history behind it. I don’t get too much into it. Yesterday, they shared that I guess we’ve had difficulty beating them in the recent years or whatever. If you let that in, then it becomes part of your mindset. I don’t care what the weather’s like, I don’t care if it’s raining, snowing, sleeting, whatever. I’m not gonna worry about things I can’t control. Tradition matters. Going on the road and winning in college football is absolutely the hardest thing there is to do. You gotta be really mentally tough to do that, especially in this circumstance that we’re in and the bottom line I try to do is I don’t really spend much time thinking about those other things.”
Fresno State also enters the game with a new head coach in Kalen DeBoer. They also enter with a new quarterback in Jake Haener, who was reportedly close to winning the starting job at Washington before transferring in 2019. With questions marks on both sides following an offseason full of uncertainty, Saturday’s rivalry game will officially kick off a new era for both teams.
“It’s gonna be the same thing as far as what it takes to win the game but I’ve been really approaching our guys with the mindset that you gotta play with that next-snap mentality. Go in and max out on every single set there is and our guys know what it means,” Graham said. “They know the value of it, they know how important it is and I just don’t like putting anything else into their head.
“It’s a new year. It doesn’t matter what happened last year. They don’t care what I did at Arizona State, they care what I do for them and they want my best and so that’s what we’re focused on and I think that this game has nothing to do with the opponent. It has everything to do with us and us not beating ourselves. That’s the biggest thing. They’re a good football team. I think they’re picked to beat us. Somebody told me that today, which, who cares. … I don’t need that to motivate me. None of that stuff matters. What matters is us and us establishing discipline as a football team. If we do that and be sound fundamentally, I like our chances against anybody and these kids are gonna fight, they’re gonna battle.
“These kids have had success here; you can tell that. We’re thin in a lot of places, we gotta stay healthy. Obviously the lack of practice has been a challenge but no excuses, man. We gotta go out there and figure out a way to win.”
Kickoff between Hawaii and Fresno State is set for Saturday at 1:30 p.m. HST. Stay with KHON2 as we’ll provide live updates of the game. The game can also be purchased on pay-per-view for Spectrum or Hawaiian Telcom viewers.