1 year ago, Hawaii gave Pack worst home loss in 100 years
It will be quite a while before Jay Norvell completely forgets a rainy, cold, frightful night in Reno in late September 2019.
“We did not play well against this team a year ago,” said Norvell this week as his Wolf Pack prepared to play the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors on Saturday (8 p.m., Channel 21) at Honolulu‘s Aloha Stadium. “We were embarrassed by our performance, to say the least.”
The 54-3 loss to Hawaii on Sept. 28, 2019 was the most one-sided Wolf Pack loss at home since a 54-0 beating from the California Golden Bears freshman team on Oct. 27, 1917.
“We were not happy at all with last year’s game,” Norvell said.
The Nevada media guide lists home losses of 55-0 to Santa Clara in 1950, 51-0 to Pacific in 1938, 61-0 to St. Mary’s in 1933 and 54-0 to Saint Mary’s in 1929 but all four games were actually played away from Reno. The 1950 loss was in Sacramento, the 1938 loss was at Pacific and the 1933 and 1929 losses were in San Francisco.
Northern Nevada, as well as a national ESPN2 audience, saw up close what happened at Mackay Stadium in late September 2019. Television, let alone a cable television all-sports channel, was not on anyone’s mind back in 1917, the last time the Pack lost a home game by 50 or more points.
“We did not give them any fight,” was how Norvell described the game less than 48 hours after it happened last year.
Hawaii led 31-3 at halftime. Rainbow Warriors quarterback Cole McDonald, who was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round last spring and waived in August, was 25-of-30 for 312 yards and three touchdowns and didn’t play the fourth quarter. Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong was 7-of-14 for 46 yards and an interception and was benched at halftime and didn’t play for another two weeks. Hawaii, coached by former Wolf Pack offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, out-gained the Pack 512-203.
“I know that wouldn’t sit well with me,” said Todd Graham, who became Hawaii’s head coach this past January. “Anytime I’ve been beaten that badly, it becomes our whole mission to beat that team the next time we play them. I’m sure it’s on the mind of a lot of their players. I’m sure they are aware of it.”
The Wolf Pack, now 5-0, is in a little different situation than it was the last time it played Hawaii.
“We were a little bit disjointed as a team last year when we played them,” Norvell said. “We were playing a freshman (Carson Strong) at quarterback and we had some instability and youth at some positions. We’re more mature now, we’re more experienced and we’re more consistent as a team. Last year at the middle of the season we were still kind of trying to find ourselves.”
Graham, who was the Arizona State head coach from 2012-17 when Norvell was the Sun Devils’ wide receivers coach in 2016, has his own concerns this week. Hawaii is just 2-3 this year and coming off a 34-10 loss to San Diego State in Carson, Calif., two weeks ago and a 40-32 loss to Boise State at Aloha Stadium last week.
Graham, though, is remaining positive.
“These guys (Hawaii) do not have any give-up in them,” said Graham, who will turn 56 on Dec. 5. “Our sideline against Boise State was the best sideline I’ve ever been on in my career. I was talking to the defense during one timeout and some of the offensive guys were all behind me yelling encouragement to the defense. That tells me we have guys that serve each other. We are building something special and laying a great foundation.”
Norvell’s Wolf Pack has also built something special. The Pack is on top of the Mountain West at 5-0 with three games remaining. San Jose State and Boise, which meet this weekend, are both 4-0. Strong has passed for 1,805 yards and 14 touchdowns while wide receiver Romeo Doubs has 36 catches for 778 yards and nine touchdowns.
“They are probably playing the best football in the league,” Graham said.
This Saturday’s game will be the Wolf Pack’s first contest outside the state of Nevada since a 30-21 loss to Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Boise State on Jan. 3. The Pack won at Hawaii 40-22 in 2018, outscoring the Rainbow Warriors 30-8 over the final three quarters.
“At the end of the day they are undefeated,” Graham said. “They are playing to win the Mountain West championship. That’s enough motivation for them.”
“We make no bones about it,” he said. “We want to win championships. To me, it’s not worth playing if you are not in it to win championships.”
Hawaii is led by quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound sophomore from Honolulu. Cordeiro was 5-of-5 for 47 yards in relief of McDonald last season at Mackay and has taken over as the starter this season.
Cordeiro has completed 106-of-183 passes for 1,211 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions this year. In just two home games he has thrown for 663 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He threw for 253 yards and three touchdowns against Boise State last week.
“They have an athletic quarterback,” said Norvell of Cordeiro, who also leads Hawaii in rushing with 264 yards on 70 carries. “This is a very dynamic team.”
Graham, a former defensive coordinator at West Virginia and Tulsa, built his reputation on defense. Hawaii, though, has allowed 31 or more points in each of its last four games.
“He is just a really aggressive coach,” Norvell said. “He loves to blitz and bring pressure on the quarterback. He wants to try to hit your quarterback and get him rattled.”
The Wolf Pack defense also might be in for its biggest test of the season this Saturday. Hawaii has scored 32 or more points in three games and has the best passing offense (242.2 yards a game) the Pack has faced this year.
“We have to do the things that they are doing,” said Graham of the Wolf Pack. “Nevada is playing with great discipline, they are not turning the ball over and they are not giving up big plays on defense.”
The Wolf Pack holds a 14-10 edge over Hawaii since the rivalry began in 1920. The Pack snapped a seven-game losing streak at Honolulu with a 69-24 win in 2012 when running back Stefphon Jefferson scored a NCAA-record seven touchdowns. Those 69 points are still the most that Hawaii has ever allowed at Aloha Stadium (built in 1975) and the most the Rainbow Warriors have allowed at home since a 74-20 loss to Stanford in the January 2, 1950 Pineapple Bowl.
“This is always a difficult trip but we’ll be ready,” Norvell said.
The Wolf Pack, despite the 51-point loss to Hawaii a year ago, is a touchdown favorite this weekend.
“There’s definite expectations when people expect you to win,” Norvell said. “Our kids are beginning to understand that.”