Hawaii had been through a decade of losing seasons, so when Nick Rolovich took the head coach job this season at his alma mater, his effort to turn things around featured an approach that was — at times — unconventional.
Rolovich continued with his unorthodox surprises in the Hawaii Bowl, dialing up two gutsy fourth-down conversions — including a particularly spectacular fake punt — on a critical third-quarter touchdown drive. That sequence fueled the Rainbow Warriors’ 52-35 upset of Middle Tennessee.
It was only the third time that Hawaii had won this season when its opponent scored more than 30 points.
With the Rainbow Warriors’ postseason hopes again dwindling in November — they fell to 4-7 after a loss to Boise State, a game in which they trailed 42-3 in the third quarter — Rolovich ordered the Aloha Stadium maintenance staff to remove the sideline benches so that players couldn’t sit down.
“I was sick of them sitting down pouting,” the coach explained after that incident.
The tactic worked: Hawaii has won ever since. The Rainbow Warriors outscored the Broncos throughout the remainder of that game, then won consecutive games against Fresno State and UMass to capture bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.
Rolovich had a few more tricks up his sleeve for this bout with Middle Tennessee’s high-powered passing attack, which marked Hawaii’s first bowl victory since 2006.
The most remarkable maneuver came as the Rainbow Warriors looked to pad a 10-point third quarter lead. They introduced a bizarre formation on fourth down: Receiver Makoa Camanse-Stevens lined up far behind the punter on the play, and long-snapper Noah Borden rifled the football about 22 yards on a diagonal to him. Camanse-Stevens then fired a strike to Ammon Barker downfield for the first down.
After yet another fourth-down conversion, Hawaii punched the ball into the end zone for a 17-point lead.
Although one last Rolovich gamble didn’t pay off — Middle Tennessee scored a fourth-quarter touchdown after a failed Hawaii fourth-down attempt — the Rainbow Warriors had already verified that this was their night.
Quarterback Dru Brown threw for four touchdowns and completed passes to nine receivers, and running back Diocemy Saint Juste‘s 170 yards on 25 carries carved up the Blue Raiders’ defense. Receiver John Ursua caught six passes for 120 yards, helping the Hawaii offense score more than 25 points above its regular-season average.
The Rainbow Warriors defense also did its part. That unit was ranked No. 115 in the nation coming in, and the task against Middle Tennessee’s No. 12-ranked passing offense seemed daunting. But Hawaii intercepted Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill twice, including a 68-yard Trayvon Henderson pick-six that capped a 28-0 first half run.
Middle Tennessee racked up impressive offensive numbers again — Stockstill threw for 432 yards and star receiver Richie James caught eight passes for 162 yards — but Hawaii ultimately played the cleaner game.
The Rainbow Warriors’ minus-11 turnover differential was the worst among all bowl teams, but they ended up plus-three on Saturday against Middle Tennessee.
For Rolovich, that might have been the best news as he enters the second year of his tenure on a good note: Hawaii is playing clean football again — and he’s added some unexpected flare to it.