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Hawaii vs. Houston: Three things to look for, Prediction

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Hawaii travels to the relocated New Mexico Bowl in Texas in search of one more victory

UNLV v Hawaii Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

HAWAII VS. HOUSTON

Bowl: New Mexico Bowl

Location: Frisco, Texas (Toyota Stadium)

Date/Time: Thursday, December 24th at 10:30 a.m. (Hawaii Time)

Television: ESPN

Streaming: ESPN app or espn.com/watch (cable subscription required)

Radio: ESPN Radio nationally, ESPN Honolulu locally

Head-to-Head: This is the second meeting between the two programs. The first matchup came in the 2003 Hawaii Bowl, one of the most famous (infamous?) football games in Hawaii history. Hawaii won 54-48 in three overtimes. Quarterback Timmy Chang reclaimed his starting position during the game after losing it towards the end of the regular season, and UH just dominated offensively. Hawaii’s defense made a key stop in the final overtime to win. A brawl broke out postgame. It was a truly ridiculous and amazing game.

Three things to look for:

1. It’s a COVID Christmas

Well now, nobody could have possibly expected that the final football game of the season for the Hawaii Warriors wouldn’t be without a slight COVID-19 factor? The 2020 New Mexico Bowl is being played at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Same stadium where FC Dallas of MLS plays. Why? State restrictions in New Mexico prevent the game being hosted in Albuquerque, hence why the game was moved to Texas.

This, by the way, is Hawaii’s third appearance ever in a mainland bowl game, the famed 1992 and 2007 teams being the other two trips. Impressive company.

Anyway, Hawaii was one of only two teams in the Mountain West that did not experience a breakout of COVID-19 (the other was Nevada). Hawaii played all 8 of their scheduled games, and were never a threat to jeopardize games.

That is not the case for Houston.

Houston has only played one game since mid-November after their contests against Tulsa and SMU were canceled due to the virus. Their first three games of the 2020 season were postponed, meaning the Cougars’ season didn’t start until October 8th. The Cougars ultimately had 8 games either postponed or canceled. It’s fair to wonder how motivated Houston will be for this game, as few programs in college football have been influenced by the pandemic like the Cougars.

2. Do not allow special teams to become a factor

Houston quarterback Clayton Tune rightfully garners headlines when it comes to Houston playmakers to beware of, but kick returner Marcus Jones and punt returner Marquez Stevenson have combined to provide the Cougars with one of college football’s most formidable set of return teams. Jones in particular leads the FBS averaging 21.1 yards per punt return, which is pretty ridiculous.

Hawaii ranks 110th in kick return defense amongst FBS teams, and oddly enough 110th in punt return defense as well. Earlier this season, head coach Todd Graham urged his team to focus on stopping Boise State punt returner Avery Williams in the return game, only to watch Williams feast. Hawaii has the offensive and defensive units to provide Houston with a challenge, but the path to victory becomes tougher if dodgy special teams units reemerge. Hawaii must prevent the big play and losing the field position battle via the likes of Houston’s Jones and Stevenson.

3. Beware of Clayton Tune

This Houston offense is precisely the challenge Hawaii’s defense invites. It was expected in the preseason that Hawaii’s pass defense, it’s secondary in particular, would be a strength this season. That group didn’t disappoint. Hawaii ranks 20th nationally in pass defense, the best Hawaii’s finished in that category in a long time.

That’s good news! Because Houston quarterback Clayton Tune is really good. The Cougars rank 31st nationally in passing offense. Houston’s rushing offense ranks 74th, middle of the pack, and Tune is one of the team’s leading rushers. I know, I noticed it too: sure sounds like a certain Hawaii quarterback by the name of Chevan Cordeiro.

In the 2003 Hawaii Bowl, the first showdown between Hawaii and Houston, Hawaii’s Timmy Chang and Houston’s Kevin Kolb took center stage. 17 years later, it’s another quarterback duel. The special teams factor I noted earlier could end up being a serious factor in the final score, but Cordeiro vs. Tune is where this game will be won or lost. Two of the best dual-threat quarterbacks around duking it out in a soccer stadium.

Prediction

Well I’ll be damned, I did not expect to be writing another Hawaii football game preview until August of 2021. A pleasant surprise granted to Hawaii has extended the Warriors season and allowed for a rare mainland bowl appearance.

Hawaii’s a surprisingly big underdog in this contest. The Cougars are favored by 12.5 points, with the o/u floating around 59.5. Hawaii is, after all, traveling all the way to Texas, and the Cougars do recruit better than the Warriors.

That said, it’s the bowl season, where weird things happen. I think Hawaii will be the more motivated team, and opportunity to show viewers that the Warriors are prepped to fight for the West Division title in 2021 will propel this group. Give me Hawaii 30, Houston 27.