Hawaii running back Dedrick Parson stiff-arms Fresno State linebacker Levelle Bailey during their game Oct. 2, 2021, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
The Nevada Wolf Pack and Hawaii Rainbow Warriors each want to leave Mackay Stadium on Saturday with momentum.
Both teams are members of the West Division of the Mountain West and will ride a two-game winning streak into the 7:30 p.m. kickoff (CBS Sports Network). But only one will still have that elusive momentum Sunday morning.
“We want to use this as momentum to launch us forward,” Hawaii wide receiver Calvin Turner said.
“Each week is a must-win situation,” Hawaii head coach Todd Graham said.
“We don’t want to let any team off the hook,” Pack coach Jay Norvell said.
The Wolf Pack is 4-1 overall and 1-0 in league play after back-to-back wins over Boise State and New Mexico State. Hawaii is 3-3, 1-1 and coming off wins over New Mexico State and Fresno State.
Hawaii, though, has been the Wolf Pack’s momentum killer the past two seasons. Two years ago the Pack was 3-1 but Hawaii came to Mackay Stadium and blitzed Nevada, 54-3. Last year the Pack was 5-0 and on top of the Mountain West but suffered a stunning 24-21 loss in Honolulu.
“I felt like we just ran out of time,” Norvell said of last year’s loss to the Rainbow Warriors. “We were gaining momentum late.”
There’s that word again.
“We can’t take a step back,” said Graham, who was Arizona State’s head coach in 2016 when Norvell was the Sun Devils’ wide receivers coach.
The Wolf Pack has a 14-11 edge in its series with Hawaii, a rivalry that began in 1920 when Nevada was the first team from the mainland to ever play the Rainbow Warriors. The two programs played each other just four times from 1920 through 1999 but have met each year since when both were rivals in the Western Athletic Conference (2000-11) and Mountain West (since 2012).
It was Hawaii that ruined the Pack’s momentum (and perfect season) in 2010. Hawaii also ended three-game Wolf Pack winning streaks in 2006 and 2007.
The Rainbow Warriors, though, also have been the source of Wolf Pack accomplishment, serving as the Wolf Pack’s first-ever Mountain West opponent and victory in 2012, coach Brian Polian’s first Mountain West opponent and victory in 2013 and Norvell’s first Pack victory overall in 2017 (after an 0-5 start).
None of that history means anything, though, come Saturday night. Both teams just want to wake up on Sunday with some additional Mountain West momentum.
“We can still play better,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack is a 14-point favorite on Saturday.
The Wolf Pack will toss the second-best passing offense (357 yards per game) in the Mountain West, thanks to Carson Strong’s 1,595 yards and 14 touchdowns, against Hawaii’s vulnerable passing defense. The Rainbow Warriors have the second-worst pass defense, allowing 292 yards a game, in the conference.
“There are a lot of different ways we can score,” Norvell said.
Throwing the ball is, without question, the Pack’s favorite way to get into the end zone. The Pack has 15 passing touchdowns and just five on the ground.
“We need to be aggressive,” Norvell said. “We don’t want to go through a game and not force people to play against our playmakers. All those guys should have the opportunity to get their hands on the ball. We have a very good quarterback and a lot of very good receivers and we’re not going to look past that.”
“Once we get rolling there’s no stopping us,” Strong said.
“We have a big challenge ahead of us,” said Graham, who devised a defense last year that held Wolf Pack wide receiver Romeo Doubs to just one catch. “We’re playing the best quarterback in the league.”
Strong was also the best quarterback in the league last year but Hawaii took Doubs out of the game and held Strong to just 168 yards and two touchdowns. Doubs missed last week's New Mexico State game with minor injuries but is expected to play on Saturday. The Pack wide receiver has just one touchdown in his last eight games, a stretch that began with last season's loss at Hawaii.
"We're hopeful of getting him back," Norvell said.
Hawaii played Fresno State’s Jake Haener, currently the best quarterback in the league statistically, two weeks ago. Haener (2,230 yards, 18 touchdowns) passed for 388 yards and three touchdowns but also completed just 28-of-50 throws and was intercepted four times. Cornerback Hugh Nelson’s interception at the Hawaii 2-yard line put the game away with nine seconds to play. Hawaii safety Khoury Bethley had nine tackles, two interceptions and a sack and also forced a fumble in one of the best defensive performances of the year in the Mountain West.
“Coach Graham does a great job of getting me around the ball so I can make plays,” Bethley said.
Hawaii might have the most balanced offense in the Mountain West as the only team in the conference with at least 900 rushing yards (956) and 1,500 passing yards (1,549). Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, who is expected to play Saturday after missing the Fresno State game with a shoulder injury, has passed for 1,410 yards and seven touchdowns and has rushed for 195 yards and a touchdown. He is second in the conference in total offense with an average of 321 yards a game. Strong is third at 309.4 per game (Haener is first at 376.8).
The Rainbow Warriors’ top offensive player might be the versatile Calvin Turner. Turner has lined up as a wide receiver, running back and wildcat quarterback and also returns punts and kickoffs. He has caught 31 passes for 401 yards and two touchdowns and run the ball for 184 yards and six touchdowns. His 727 all-purpose yards are the most in the Mountain West.
“He’s one of the most athletic players in our league,” Norvell said. “They find a way to put the ball in his hands and we have to get after him.”
The Rainbow Warriors also feature 6-foot-6 wide receiver Nick Mardner, who has 24 catches for 492 yards and three touchdowns as well as Jared Smart, who led the team in receiving the past two seasons but has just 10 catches this year. Smart is the son of Keith Smart, a former Indiana Hoosiers teammate of Wolf Pack basketball coach Steve Alford, who hit the game-winning shot in the 1987 NCAA basketball title game against Syracuse.
“Their team is starting to show his personality,” said Norvell of Graham. “He loves defense and he is very, very aggressive. They play a lot of bump-and-run man-to-man defense and they love to blitz. He is also very innovative offensively. He likes to play fast. Their style of football is a total reflection of him. I know the things he loves to do.”