Hawaii has been anything but paradise for the Nevada Wolf Pack football team over the past four-plus decades.
"It hasn't been a vacation for us over there," said Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault, whose Wolf Pack will take on the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in the Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu on Saturday (5 p.m., 630-AM, ESPN-TV). "We haven't have a lot of fun over there."
The Wolf Pack has lost eight of its last nine games in Hawaii dating back to 1968. Seven of the losses have come to the Hawaii Warriors, including last season's 27-21 loss that ruined the Pack's perfect season (they finished 13-1). Another Pack loss in Hawaii came in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl (45-10) to SMU, which just so happened to be coached by former Hawaii coach June Jones.
"We got our butt kicked," said Ault of the 2009 Hawaii Bowl. "That game was a disaster. Nothing good happened in that game."
The Wolf Pack played SMU two years ago in Hawaii without a defensive coordinator (Nigel Burton left to become Portland State's head coach two weeks before the bowl game) and without their top two running backs in Vai Taua (suspended for academic reasons) and Luke Lippincott (injured).
"We were scrambling," Ault said, shaking his head.
Things are a bit more stable for the Pack this time around in Hawaii. The 7-5 Wolf Pack has had three weeks since its 56-3 regular season-ending win over Idaho to get healthy for Southern Miss.
"Everybody is healthy for the first time since Week 1," defensive tackle Brett Roy said. "And a healthy defense is a great defense."
Southern Miss, the Conference USA champion, is also healthy.
The Golden Eagles, 11-2, are currently ranked 21st in the nation in the Bowl Championship Series standings and by USA Today and are 22nd in the Associated Press rankings. They are also a one touchdown favorite over the Pack according to Nevada oddsmakers.
Ault called the Golden Eagles as good as any team the Pack has faced in its current seven-year streak of going to bowl games.
Maryland (2008 Humanitarian Bowl) and Miami (2006 MPC Computers Bowl) were just as good but the difference is that Southern Miss is a champion," Ault said. "Miami and Maryland weren't champions when we played them."
The Pack, which is 1-1 in the Hawaii Bowl (they beat Central Florida, 49-48 in overtime in 2005), looks at the Golden Eagles as a golden opportunity at the end of a frustrating season.
"Anytime a team wins their conference you have to give them respect," Roy said. "This game is against a ranked opponent. It's huge for us. Winning this game is paramount to where we want to take our program."
Southern Miss, which has produced, among others, former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, has brought a strange coaching situation with them to Hawaii. Head coach Larry Fedora has already accepted the head coaching job at North Carolina but will coach the Golden Eagles in Hawaii. Southern Miss also has already hired Fedora's successor in South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.
"That shouldn't affect anything," Ault said. "He'll (Fedora) be there and I'm sure they'll want to send him out a winner."
In addition to the Fedora-Johnson coaching revolving door, the Golden Eagles also bring 18 consecutive winning seasons and 10 straight bowl appearances with them to Hawaii. They compiled their first 11-victory season in school history this fall behind an offense led by senior quarterback Austin Davis and an attacking defense led by linebackers Ronnie Thornton and Jamie Collins, defensive end Cordarro Law and safety Jacorius Cotton.
"That is an outstanding football team," Ault said. "It's going to be a great challenge for us and a great opportunity."
Davis has passed for 3,331 yards and 28 touchdowns this year and rushed for 332 yards and four scores. The Eagles running attack is led by 5-8 Jamal Woodyard, who leads the team with 683 yards. Tracy Lampley (450 yards rushing, 43 catches for 549 yards) and Kendrick Hardy (426 yards rushing) are also a big part of their offense. Kelvin Bolden leads the Golden Eagles with 55 catches for 647 yards and six touchdowns and Ryan Ballentine has 49 catches for 428 yards and eight scores.
"Their skill set is huge," Roy said. "Across the board at every skill position they are very explosive. They are going to be a very big meal for us to eat."
Fedora, the former offensive coordinator at Florida and Oklahoma State, will definitely test the Pack defense. The Golden Eagles lead all Football Bowl Sub-division teams in the nation with 24 different players scoring at least one touchdown this season and this year they went over 6,000 total yards of offense for the first time in school history.
"They spread you out and want to get you in one-on-one situations," Ault said. "They key is to eliminate the big play. They are going to get their yards but if you take away the big plays you have a chance to win."
The Golden Eagles defense also has a tendency to make big plays. Thornton has 104 tackles and 8.5 tackles for a loss, Law has 17.5 tackles for a loss, including 7.5 sacks, Collins has 94 tackles and 19.5 tackles for a loss, including 6.5 sacks and Cotton has 91 tackles.
The Pack, though, doesn't have to take a backseat to the Golden Eagles statistically. The Wolf Pack, in fact, has a better national standing than Southern Miss in many categories.
The Pack is eighth nationally in rushing at 252 yards a game while Southern Miss is 23rd at 208. The Pack is 30th in passing with 271 yards a game and Southern Miss is 32nd at 263. The Pack is fifth in total offense at 523 yards a game and Southern Miss is 13th at 471. Southern Miss has averaged 38 points a game to Nevada's 33.
Southern Miss, though, rates a slight edge defensively when compared to the Pack. The Golden Eagles allow 113 yards rushing, 232 yards passing, 345 total yards and 21 points a game. The Pack has allowed an average of 145 yards rushing, 227 yards passing, 372 total yards and 25 points a game this year.
"We know we're the underdog in this game," Ault said. "They are better than anybody we've played in our conference this year."
Ault is 11-15 in postseason games in his career (9-9 in the Division I-AA playoffs and 2-6 in Division I-A bowls). The Wolf Pack, which beat Boston College 20-13 in the Kraft Bowl in January to break a four-game bowl losing streak, seems ready for the challenge.
"Anything can happen on any day," wide receiver Rishard Matthews said. "We're going out there to earn respect for Nevada."