Most of the hype preceding Hawaii’s homecoming clash with 18th-ranked Fresno State consisted of attention away from the field. The Warriors were set to take the field at Clarence T.C. Ching Complex to the sound of the band and piped-in music, because once again Hawaii was not allowed to have fans in attendance due to COVID-19 rules coming from the state of Hawaii and city of Honolulu. Again, the Warriors would be the only team at the FBS level voluntarily playing in front of no fans.
It was a homecoming advantage for the visiting Fresno State Bulldogs, and they knew it.
The avalanche of 2021 misfortune continued leading up to kickoff, and slightly afterward. Hawaii announced that freshman quarterback Brayden Schager would start in place of star quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, who unbeknownst to fans picked up an injury against New Mexico State.
On the opening kickoff, emerging star cornerback Cameron Lockridge had to be carted away with an injury. No Cordeiro. No Lockridge against a vaunted passing attack. No fans. Time to turn off the TV and call it a night, UH was poised to lose big.
Todd Graham’s team instead tapped into some unexpected Manoa magic.
Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener, the story of the season in the Mountain West, carved up Hawaii on the first drive, but wide receiver Jalen Cropper fumbled after converting a 3rd-and-long, forced by Hugh Nelson II and recovered by Kai Kaneshiro.
Hawaii then marched down the field on an 11-play, 72-yard drive highlighted by a 3rd-and-10 conversion from quarterback Brayden Schager to wide receiver Nick Mardner that put Hawaii at the 1-yard line. Calvin Turner Jr. punched it in to give the Warriors a 7-0 lead.
Fresno State punted on the following drive, and Hawaii capitalized on the ensuing possession with a field goal from kicker Matthew Shipley, aided by two long runs from Turner Jr. and running back Dedrick Parson. Just like that, Hawaii surprisingly had a 10-0 first quarter lead.
On Fresno’s next drive, the party-pooping began. Haener found receiver Zane Pope for a 65-yard touchdown. Too easy. The Bulldogs appeared to be settling into the game, closing the gap to 10-7.
The second quarter featured another Haener-to-Pope touchdown to give the Bulldogs a 14-10 halftime lead, but notably Haener threw two interceptions in the period that kept the game from being blown open into a rout. The second pick belongs to nickelback Khoury Bethley, who was about to etch his name into Hawaii folklore Saturday evening.
Halftime | FS 14 UH 10— Hawaii Football (@HawaiiFootball) October 3, 2021
The second interception of the night, and both were in the RedZone. Khoury Bethley with the big pick! pic.twitter.com/GLNbZ7wfvv
To open the second half, Hawaii was quickly forced to punt the ball. Haener proceeding to crave Hawaii up, resulting in a 35-yard touchdown pass to star receiver Jalen Cropper. Hawaii was then forced to punt again after another unsuccessful drive, and it appeared as if the stage was starting humble the Schager-led Hawaii offense.
Fresno State again marched into Hawaii territory with ease, but a sack from defensive tackle Pita Tonga on 3rd-down meant the Bulldogs were forced to settle for a field goal. In hindsight, a pivotal sack.
With 4:29 remaining in the third quarter, it appeared as if the Bulldogs would run away with victory on Hawaii’s fan-less homecoming. Little did viewers know, the Bulldogs would turn the ball over on each of their following four drives.
Taking a 24-10 lead into the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs turnover-laden demise began with another interception by Khoury Bethley. Give it up, #5 was in Haener’s head all night.
Q4- 14:13 | FS 24 UH 10— Hawaii Football (@HawaiiFootball) October 3, 2021
The third pick of the night for the UH defense, and the second for Khoury Bethley! It's the second multi-interception game of his career! pic.twitter.com/vMI0Rz9eDn
The Rainbow Warrior offense did not waste the gift from Bethley. Aided by a roughing the passer penalty near midfield, freshman quarterback Brayden Schager began to settle down, finding tight end Caleb Phillips for a 26-yard strike to close the deficit to 24-17.
On the next drive, Haener’s magic was set to takeover and spoil the party. On a 3rd-and-6 from the Fresno 29, Haener scrambled for 28-yards to convert for a first down, beaten up ankle and all. Haener wasn’t perfect Saturday evening, but his grit was on display. Despite the long run, the Bulldogs would turnover on downs.
Hawaii cashed in on that turnover, this time relying on a stead dose by Calvin Turner Jr. and Dae Dae Hunter. Schager’s 18-yard toss to Turner Jr. tied the game at 24-24 with 7:05. Belief was growing.
TIE. BALLGAME.@_ctjr gets a foot down and @HawaiiFootball has tied it up halfway through the fourth#AtThePeak | #MWFB | #WinEveryDay pic.twitter.com/dBh7tYGktA— Mountain West (@MountainWest) October 3, 2021
The feeling that “tonight was the night” began to permeate among the players and TV-viewing fans after Khoury Bethley forced a fumble from Jake Haener, recovered by Jonah Laulu at midfield. Another Bulldogs turnover. Bethley should easily win Mountain West defensive player of the week.
Hawaii rightfully played it safe, giving the ball to Dae Dae Hunter who led the Warriors into Bulldogs territory. A key 3rd-and-5 pass completion from Schager to Turner Jr. put the Warriors in Matthew Shipley range. With 3:33, Shipley converted a field goal from 33-yards out.
Holy smokes. Hawaii lead 27-24.
...but here comes Jake Haener.
The star Fresno quarterback marched Hawaii well into field goal territory, but the Bulldogs weren’t thinking overtime. They had plans to spoil Hawaii’s homecoming right then and there. It appeared as if Fresno would easily march into the end zone, and then it happened...
Q4- 00:09 | UH 27 FS 24— Hawaii Football (@HawaiiFootball) October 3, 2021
A deflected pass into the chest of Hugh Nelson II. From the tragic losses of Colt Brennan and Robert Kekaula, to Aloha Stadium’s condemnation, to being the only FBS team forced to play in front of vacant bleachers, even in an improvised stadium at Clarence T.C. Ching Complex, it felt like Hawaii would never catch a break in 2021. Whoever blew that pass slightly off the hands of wide receiver Ty Jones, thank you.
13 years after upsetting the then-ranked Fresno State Bulldogs, the Warriors did it again: when many least expected it, Hawaii beats 18th-ranked Fresno State 27-24. New Year’s 6 hopes for Fresno: dashed. Hawaii’s season given new life.
Hawaii enters the bye week 3-3 (1-1). The Warriors will play in Reno, Nevada on October 16th against Carson Strong and the flying-high Nevada Wolf Pack.
Until then, celebrate Rainbow Warriors fans. Enjoy these moments.