HONOLULU – In his last college football game, Nick Rolovich threw eight touchdown passes and led Hawaii to an upset of then-No. 9 BYU 72-45.
That was in 2001, when the Rainbow Warriors finished with a 9-4 record, but had nowhere to go for the postseason.
The next year the Hawaii Bowl was born.
Fast-forward 15 years and Rolovich finds himself leading Hawaii into its first bowl game in six seasons when it takes on Middle Tennessee on Saturday in the very game he had a hand in creating.
“It is a little bit special for myself and the group of seniors we had in 2001,” said Rolovich, the Rainbow Warriors’ first-year coach. “We ended up playing some pretty good football at the end (of the season) and didn’t have a place to go for a bowl game, so I can appreciate the Hawaii Bowl being here. I do feel a little connected to it, but I’d like to play well in it. That’s more important.”
While the Rainbow Warriors (6-7) will be getting their first taste of the postseason since 2010, the Blue Raiders (8-4) will be playing in their second straight bowl game and sixth since 2006, all of them coming under Rick Stockstill.
“It’s hard to get to bowl games, especially for Conference USA teams, Mountain West teams, Group of 5 teams, because of who we have to play out of conference,” said Stockstill, who is 72-65 in 11 seasons at Middle Tennessee. “Both us and Hawaii played tough, challenging schedules this year, so it’s special to go to a bowl there. There are a lot of traditional, great teams that aren’t playing in bowl games this year, so to be sitting here and playing in the Hawaii Bowl is special for us and we’re extremely excited to play in this game.”
Middle Tennessee went 3-1 in non-conference games this season, including a 51-45 win over SEC member Missouri.
Here are a few things to watch for in the Hawaii Bowl on Saturday:
AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW: Hawaii is seeking to finish with its best record since a 10-4 season in 2010, which culminated in a 62-35 loss to Tulsa in the Hawaii Bowl. The Rainbow Warriors are 5-5 in 10 previous bowl appearances, including a 3-3 mark in the Hawaii Bowl.
QB QUESTIONS: Stockstill’s son, Brent, has completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 2,801 yards with 27 touchdowns and five interceptions but suffered a broken collarbone in a 45-25 loss to UTSA in early November and missed the Blue Raiders’ last three games. The sophomore quarterback’s status for Saturday will be a game-time decision.
“I don’t really know yet, but I’ve been practicing and preparing like I’m going to play,” Brent Stockstill said this week. “They said six to eight weeks and six weeks was (Sunday), so we’ll see what the doctor says, but I’m optimistic about my chances to play in this game.”
POTENT PLAYMAKERS: Middle Tennessee’s offense has no shortage of playmakers, including running back I’Tavius Mathers (1,504 rushing yards, 16 rush TDs) and wide receiver Richie James (97 receptions, 1,463 yards, 11 TDs). James broke his own school record with 16 receptions for 223 yards and two touchdowns against Western Kentucky in October and is just 12 catches shy of setting a new Middle Tennessee mark for receptions in a season. The current owner of that record? That would be James, who posted 108 grabs for 1,334 yards as a freshman last year.
“They have, by far, one of the fastest tempo offenses that we’ll face this year,” said Hawaii sophomore linebacker Jahlani Tavai, who has made a team-leading 118 tackles this season. “They have a great offense, but as a defense we have to accept the challenge. We’ve been working our tails off conditioning, making sure that we can handle it.”
KEMP’S CATCHES: Hawaii senior wide receiver Markus Kemp leads the team in receptions (70), receiving yards (1,036) and receiving touchdowns (7). It is just the 19th time in program history a player has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
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