Feature graphic courtesy of Sarah Sopher.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (6-7) vs. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (8-4)
Where: Aloha Stadium, Honolulu, Hawaii
When: Dec. 24, 8 p.m., ESPN
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
How they got here:
The first season of the Nick Rolovich era got off to a rough start for the Rainbow Warriors, as Hawaii dropped three of its first four games to open the season. Once the schedule eased up, Hawaii took the opportunity and ran with it, reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
The Rainbow Warriors finished the regular season just 1-4 against bowl-eligible opponents, but their one win was a thriller. In double overtime, Hawaii topped Air Force 34-27, a win that snapped Air Forces’ 15-game home winning streak. However, the schedule got tougher yet again, as Hawaii then lost three straight to bowl-eligible Mountain West foes.
Back-to-back wins against Fresno State and Massachusetts to wrap up the season gave Hawaii the elusive sixth win and a trip to the postseason. Reaching the postseason is an accomplishment for Rolovich, the first-year head coach, but it helped tremendously that the Rainbow Warriors faced the 107th toughest schedule in the NCAA.
Why they can win:
While Hawaii is not elite in any aspect of offense, it has one of the most balanced offenses in the country. According to Team Rankings, Hawaii called a passing play 50.74 percent of the time while it ran on 49.26 percent of its plays. Because of this balanced attack, the Rainbow Warriors have scored a touchdown on 90 percent of their trips into the red zone.
Quarterback Dru Brown is a big reason for the balanced offense. The redshirt sophomore is capable of scrambling, adding another dimension to Hawaii’s offense. Since he took over the starting job in October, he has thrown 15 touchdowns to six interceptions while rushing for three more scores. He is fresh off the best game of his career, a five-touchdown performance in a 48-42 victory against Massachusetts.
If the game turns into a shootout, that could bode trouble for Hawaii, which has lost six-of-eight games when it allows its opponent to score 30 or more points. One silver-lining for the Rainbow Warriors could be the reliability of their kicker, Rigoberto Sanchez. The senior kicker from Hamilton City, CA has made all 12 of his field goal attempts while converting 42-of-43 extra points.
Defensively, senior linebacker Jahlani Tavai leads the charge for Hawaii. The 2016 All-Mountain West First-Team elect has recorded double-digit tackles in seven games and has sacked the quarterback four times in Hawaii’s last three games.
Player to watch: WR Marcus Kemp
Kemp is Brown’s top target and for good reason. The 6-foot-4 receiver from Layton, Utah broke out this season, catching 70 passes for 1,036 yards and seven touchdowns. He became the first Hawaii wide receiver since Royce Pollard in 2011 to surpass the 1,000-yard mark.
Kemp’s shining moment came in Hawaii’s victory over Air Force. The senior pass catcher hauled in a pair of scores in overtime play, including the game-winning catch on the first play from scrimmage in the second overtime. His 5.4 receptions per game ranks fourth in the Mountain West conference while his 79.7 receiving yards per game is fifth.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
How they got here:
Middle Tennessee had a pair of SEC challengers in between tough conference play in the Conference USA. The Blue Raiders split games against Vanderbilt and Missouri, defeating the Tigers on the road in an impressive showing, while they finished 5-3 in conference play.
The high point of the season was without a doubt defeating a SEC foe on the road. In the victory over Missouri, the offense was spectacular, scoring 51 points and 595 total yards. The low point came later in a letdown loss to a three-win Marshall team.
However, the Blue Raiders bounced back nicely, finishing the season with a pair of wins despite the absence of their starting quarterback Brent Stockstill due to injury.
Perhaps facing SEC opponents helped Middle Tennessee face the elite opponents in its conference. The Blue Raiders defeated Western Kentucky, the winner of the C-USA West, and only lost to Louisiana Tech, the winner of the C-USA East, by one.
Why they can win:
The Blue Raiders boast one of the nation’s best offenses. This is a team that is built for shootouts.
Middle Tennessee has scored at least 30 points in nine games, including a 51-point performance against a SEC defense (Missouri) and a 77-point display in the regular season finale against FAU. Their 40.1 points per game ranks 16th in the nation and their 516 yards per game ranks ninth.
Additionally, they may get their starting quarterback Brent Stockstill back for the bout with Hawaii. Stockstill, who broke his collarbone and missed the Blue Raiders’ last three games, was having a record-setting season before the injury. In nine games, Stockstill threw for 2,801 yards and 27 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He was just heating up too, as he threw nine touchdowns without an interception in his last three games.
No matter who is starting at quarterback, he will have the benefit of several playmakers on the offense. Wide receiver Richie James recorded 1,463 receiving yards and running back I’Tavius Mathers surpassed 2,000 yards from scrimmage thanks to his skill both running and catching the ball.
Furthermore, Middle Tennessee has proven all season that it is capable of winning on the road. The Blue Raiders went 4-2 in road games this season including a win on the road against Missouri.
Player to watch: RB I’Tavius Mathers
Honestly, you could really pick anyone on the Middle Tennessee offense as player to watch. From quarterback to running back to wide receiver, the Blue Raiders have weapons all over the field.
I’ll stick with Mathers because he has been incredible all season. In his first season since transferring from Mississippi, Mathers has ran for 1,504 yards and 16 touchdowns while catching 62 passes for 589 yards and an additional three touchdowns.
The 5-foot-11, 197-pound running back has solid speed for a player his size and the big-play ability that often changes the outcome of postseason games.
Edited by Maggie Gottlieb.
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