The Nevada Wolf Pack and Hawaii Rainbow Warriors both need a victory.
The Wolf Pack and Rainbow Warriors, which will meet Saturday (9 p.m., Channel 21) at Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium, are coming off emotional losses in important rivalry games a week ago. The Pack lost to Boise State, 31-27, at Mackay Stadium while Hawaii lost at BYU, 49-23.
“It’s always tough to bounce back after playing BYU,” Hawaii wide receiver John Ursua said. “We just have to refocus.”
“To lose is always a tough pill to swallow,” Wolf Pack linebacker Malik Reed said. “It hurt. It definitely hurts.”
“We need to get over that and bury it,” Wolf Pack defensive tackle Korey Rush said. “We worked so hard (against Boise State). To not pull it out is heartbreaking. But we have to move on.”
Both the Wolf Pack and Warriors have a lot to play for this season, namely a West Division championship in the Mountain West. Hawaii, 6-2 overall and 3-0 in the Mountain West, currently leads the division simply because it has played more league game than Fresno State and San Diego State (both 2-0). The Wolf Pack sits at 3-4, 1-2 after losses at home to Fresno State (21-3) and Boise State the past two weeks.
“I knew we could play with the best teams in the conference,” Rush said. “Now we are looking forward to proving it to the rest of the conference.”
The Wolf Pack has won six of its last seven games against Hawaii to take a 13-9 lead in the series. The one loss in those last seven games, though, took place in its last trip to Honolulu, 38-17 in 2016.
“It’s a challenge whenever you go to Hawaii,” said Nevada coach Jay Norvell, who has never coached against Hawaii since starting his career as a graduate assistant at Iowa in 1986. Norvell, though, did play one game at Hawaii, his junior year for Iowa in 1984 (a 17-6 Iowa victory).
“It’s up to the maturity of our coaches and our team how to handle an opportunity like this,” Norvell said.
The Wolf Pack, Norvell said, was going to practice at 9 p.m. at Mackay Stadium this entire week to prepare for today’s 9 p.m. start. “We wanted to kind of get them on island time,” Norvell said.
The Wolf Pack is just 5-8 against Hawaii in Honolulu with seven of the losses coming in a row from 1968-2010. The most damaging loss during that stretch was a 27-21 defeat that handed the 2010 Wolf Pack team its only loss. Hawaii is 4-0 at home this season while the Pack has lost 15 of its last 17 road games.
“It’s important our kids understand this is a business trip,” Norvell said. “Yes, we’re going to the beach. When we get off the plane we’re going straight to the beach so they (the players) can say they saw the beach. That’s part of it. But we’re going there to win a football game. We want to get the job done. That’s the most important thing.”
Hawaii has already won twice as many games this year than it did a year ago when it finished 3-9. The Rainbow Warriors, though, still need one more victory to become bowl eligible because it plays 13 games this season. The Pack needs three more victories to become bowl eligible because it plays 12 games.
“There is something special about this team,” said Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich, a former Wolf Pack offensive coordinator (2012-15). “This team has something between them, a connection that is very special. I think it is rooted in the aloha spirit.”
Rolovich, a former Hawaii quarterback (2000-01), has returned the Rainbow Warriors to its run-and-shoot offense. Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald leads the Mountain West and is second in the nation in passing yards (2,348) and touchdown passes (26). McDonald has thrown for two or more touchdowns in all seven of his games this year (he missed one game with an injury) and has been intercepted just three times all season long. The 248 yards he passed for against BYU is his lowest output of the year.
McDonald, a 6-foot-4 sophomore from La Mirada, Calif., hit the ground running in the Rainbow Warriors’ run-and-shoot offense, passing for 846 yards and nine touchdowns combined in victories over Colorado State (43-34) and Navy (59-41) to start the year.
Ursua has been McDonald’s favorite target. The 5-10 wide receiver from Kailua Kona, Hawaii, leads the nation in catches (64), receiving yards (890) and touchdown catches (13). McDonald also has Cedric Byrd (53 catches, 594 yards, seven touchdowns), JoJo Ward (32-492-4) and Marcus Armstrong-Brown (28-293-1) running routes on most every play.
“They are super up-tempo, super fast-paced,” Rush said. “I was watching the BYU game and, wow, they sling it around.”
The Wolf Pack has allowed an average of 262.3 yards a game through the air this season.
“It (the run-and-shoot) is a little different preparation for us,” Norvell said. “But we’ll have a good package for them. It’s a tough offense to prepare for. The quarterback (McDonald) is playing at a high level. He’s a good athlete, too. They are playing to their strengths.”
The Wolf Pack has played against two of the better quarterbacks in the Mountain West the past two weeks. Fresno State’s Marcus McMaryion completed 20-of-28 for 241 yards and two touchdowns against Nevada while Boise State’s Brett Rypien was 28-of-38 for 299 yards and two touchdowns. The Wolf Pack intercepted Rypien three times and didn’t pick off a McMaryion pass.
“They have a lot of option routes in the run-and-shoot,” Norvell said. “They are going to run four wide receivers almost exclusively and their receivers run routes and adjust according to the coverage. We’re going to get beat physically at times. That’s football. But we just can’t get beat mentally against a team like this. That’s going to be real important this week. We have to have our eyes in the right spot. It’s the yardage after the catch that kills you against an offense like this.”
Hawaii can also run the ball. Dayton Furuta has 357 yards and two touchdowns while Fred Holly has 348 yards and four touchdowns. McDonald will also keep the ball and run (247 yards, two scores). Furuta and Holly, though, only get 17 carries a game combined while McDonald has attempted just under 40 passes a game.
“Our defense is playing with a lot of confidence,” Norvell said. “They expect to make turnovers and to play well on third down. It really upsets us when people make yards on us. That’s a huge difference. We didn’t have that last year.”
“They put a lot of hats on the ball,” Rolovich said. “They pose a definite challenge for us.”
Rolovich still has a lot of friends in the Wolf Pack locker room. Rolovich was at Nevada and helped recruit Pack seniors such as Dameon Baber, Asauni Rufus, Reed, Rush and Gabe Sewell. Senior offensive lineman Kalei Meyer is from Hawaii and was part of the Pack program in 2014 and 2015 with Rolovich. The Pack still has 20 players on its roster who were with the program in Rolovich’s last year at Nevada (2015) either as a red-shirt or active player.
“I’m happy for his success,” said Meyer of Rolovich. “He’s the one who recruited me here. I’m happy he’s turned them around.”
“Coach (Brian) Polian did a real nice job of recruiting high character guys for them,” said Rolovich of the Pack’s former head coach from 2013-16. “They have a lot of good seniors that are still there from when we were there, guys like Asauni Rufus, Dameon Baber, Malik Reed, Hausia Sekona, Gabe Sewell. All those guys were in the last group we recruited. They are all good players and they are playing well.”
The Wolf Pack likely can’t afford another league loss if it wants to win the West Division. The program’s first winning record and bowl game appearance since 2016 is also on the line over the final five games of the regular season. The Pack also has never finished better than 4-4 in the Mountain West since joining the conference in 2012.
“This is an important conference game for us,” Norvell said. “We have an opportunity to realize a tremendous amount of our goals. But we have to be the team that does the right things going down the stretch.”