8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Memphis -8.5, Over/Under: 56
Get ready to enjoy a merry Christmas Eve from the island as the Memphis Tigers and Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors look to end 2021 on a positive note in tonight’s Hawai’i Bowl from Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex in Honolulu, Hawai’i. After enjoying what was certainly the most successful spell in the history of the program (57-23 from 2014 to 2019), it appears that Memphis (6-6, 3-5 in AAC) is indeed trending in the opposite direction following (Head Coach) Ryan Silverfield’s second season in charge. The longtime assistant spent four years under former Head Coach, Mike Norvell, coaching a variety of positions on the offensive side of the football only to take over in 2020 in lieu of the pandemic-influenced campaign. All things considered, Silverfield did a solid job in his first year as the Tigers’ leading man, directing them to an 8-3 finish en route to ending a five-year bowl losing streak, toppling Florida Atlantic in the Montgomery Bowl, 25-10. Simply put, it was nothing short of an admirable performance by the 41-year-old, who saw his team go nearly a month between games due to a breakout of positive COIVD-19 cases, while also losing a pair of key contributors, (All-American Tailback) Kenneth Gainwell and (All-AAC Receiver) Damonte Coxie, with both players opting out of 2020 altogether. A year later and it appears that Silverfield’s Sophomore campaign has been even more difficult, what with losing nearly twenty players to opt-outs and the transfer portal, all the while searching for a solution at the game’s most important position: Quarterback. Memphis benefitted greatly by the presence of (former Quarterback) Brady White last season, with the fifth-year Senior choosing to finish his career with the Tigers, whom over the course of the last three years threw for 10,690 yards and ninety touchdowns en route to amassing a stellar 28-11 record, the most victories by any Quarterback in school history. Needless to say, replacing him was always going to be at the top of Silverfield’s list of priorities, and though this season hasn’t played out as he would have liked, it appears that he’s certainly gotten this one right. The Spring featured a bonafide competition for the starting gig headlined by a number of transfers including Grant Gunnell (Arizona State) and Peter Parrish (LSU), along with returnee Keilon Brown and (Freshman) Seth Henigan (59.8%, 3,322 YDS, 8.5 Y/A, 25 TD, 8 INT), who would eventually earn the confidence of the coaching staff. Despite his lack of experience, Henigan has started all but one game this season in leading a potent attack that has produced 30.1 points per game (52nd in FBS) on 435.5 total yards, including 298.8 through the air and a much improved 136.8 on the ground, netting a healthy 6.1 yards per play. Like his predecessor before him, Henigan has exhibited sound decision-making for a passer of his age, while continuing to push the football downfield, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt. (Redshirt Freshman Tailback) Brandon Thomas (116 CAR, 669 YDS, 5.8 Y/A, 8 TD) has emerged as the top option in an experienced Backfield, while the diminutive (Senior Receiver) Calvin Austin (74 REC, 1,149 YDS, 15.5 Y/R, 8 TD), though it probably that neither will take part in tonight’s affair in Honolulu; Thomas missed the final two games of the campaign for undisclosed reasons, while Austin is opting out of the bowl to prepare for the National Football League. Despite utilizing a more balanced approach than in 2020, this unit as a whole has struggled in terms of execution, particularly in terms of taking care of the football; Memphis has committed nineteen turnovers, including an AAC-worst eight lost fumbles, with multiple giveaways in half of their twelve outings. With that said, the biggest concern with this team continues to be the play of their Defense, which left a lot to be desired last season and is once again a problem in 2021. The train of thought was that with nine starters returning from a group that yielded 27.9 points per game (3rd in AAC) on 434.3 total yards (8th in AAC) coupled with a full and proper offseason post-pandemic, that the Tigers would upgrade themselves on this side of the football, but with half of the campaign in the rearview that simply hasn’t been the case. (Defensive Coordinator) Mike MacIntyre’s troops have been slow to improve, relinquishing 29.2 points (90th in FBS) on 418.5 total yards, though they have developed a penchant for takeaways of late, totaling twelve of their fifteen over the last five games alone. And in all respects, that has allowed them to pull themselves out of a midseason three-game losing streak; 3-3 over the last six games, the Tigers are plus-five in turnover differential in those three victories opposed to minus-2 in the three defeats. It took a whopping FOUR takeaways to make them bowl eligible for an eighth consecutive season (the longest active streak in the AAC) when we last saw them in a back-and-forth affair with Tulane three weeks ago. After trading touchdowns throughout the first half, Memphis would net back-to-back field goals before the visiting side moved back in front to close out the third quarter. Then facing a third and seven, Henigan struck (Junior Tailback) Asa Martin (48 TCH, 258 YDS, 5.4 Y/T, 4 TD) for a 24-yard reception, and four plays later capped a 70-yard drive with a rushing score courtesy of Martin to retake the lead. And this is where the game changed, folks, for on the ensuing kickoff, Martin forced a crucial fumble, with the Tigers recovering the football at the 29-yard line, setting up an eventual 25-yard touchdown from Henigan to (Junior Wideout) Eddie Lewis (22 REC, 349 YDS, 15.9 Y/R, 4 TD) to build a commanding 12-point lead. When the Green Wave received possession and eventually threatened inside the 20-yard line, (Senior Linebacker) Xavier Cullens (69 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 2.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 INT, 2 PD) picked off (Tulane Quarterback) Michael Pratt late in the fourth period. Though the visitors would cut the deficit to five points inside of two minutes to play, Silverfield’s charges would recover the onside kick, ending the contest. Despite giving up 452 total yards, including a staggering 305 of the rushing variety, Memphis prevailed by getting stops, which is something that you couldn’t say earlier in the season. The Offense accounted for 392 yards despite proving unable to run the ball much at all (34 CAR, 56 YDS), with Henigan carrying the load with 336 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-42 passing, and (sixth-year Senior Tight End) Sean Dykes (48 REC, 657 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 7 TD) reeling in seven receptions for eighty-nine yards. Look for Martin and Dykes to play a major role in tonight’s matchup with Austin and perhaps even Thomas out of action. This is Memphis’ fourteenth bowl appearance amassing a 5-8 record overall, and their first trip to Hawai’i in school history.
Meanwhile, for the twelfth time in the history of their program, Hawai’i (6-7, 3-5 in MWC) will be staying home for a bowl, appearing yet again in Christmas Eve’s eponymous Hawai’i Bowl. Like their opponent tonight, the Rainbow Warriors were forced to rally down the stretch to become bowl eligible, winning their final two contests of the 2021 campaign to become eligible for a fourth consecutive year and second under (Head Coach) Todd Graham. After going 5-4 in his first year with the ‘Bows, Graham spent this season preparing his charges for some rather large changes for the program; the team played all their home games at Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex and will continue to do so for the next two years as their longtime home, Aloha Stadium is torn down in favor of a new 35,000-seat stadium being built in its place. Additionally, the oft traveled Warriors faced a school-record seven road games in 2021, going 2-7 in such contests, though it was ironic that the victory that ensured their passage into the postseason came on the mainland in a 38-14 thrashing of Wyoming. The visitors wasted no time in getting down to business, scoring on five of their first six drives en route to building a commanding 24-0 lead. Graham’s troops racked up 490 total yards on twenty-six first downs, rushing for 167 yards and a pair of touchdowns on thirty-six carries, while (Sophomore Quarterback) Chevan Cordeiro (55.2%, 2,793 YDS, 7.9 Y/A, 17 TD, 11 INT) torching the Broncos’ defense for 323 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception on 19-of-31 passing. Cordeiro also led the team with eighty-six rushing yards and another score on fourteen attempts, then again that’s really nothing new for he has contributed a great deal to Hawai’i’s rushing attack with 342 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. For a program that has long been associated with the wide-open Run & Shoot, Graham has instituted much balance to the attack in his two years on the island; a year ago they averaged 383.9 total yards (76th in FBS), including 152.4 rushing yards (76th in FBS), and this year they’ve posted 405.0 total yards with 142.8 of that number coming on the ground. Apart from Cordeiro, (Tailbacks) Dedrick Parson (117 CAR, 618 YDS, 5.3 Y/A, 8 TD) and Dae Dae Hunter (101 CAR, 651 YDS, 6.4 Y/A, 3 TD) have combined for 1,269 yards and eleven touchdowns on 5.8 yards per carry. However, the most dangerous playmaker is certainly Calvin Turner Jr. (146 TCH, 1,192 YDS, 8.2 Y/T, 12 TD), who has had a habit of roasting defenses no matter how he touches the football. A transfer from Jacksonville University following the dropping of their football program two years ago, Turner arrived on the island as a Quarterback having previously started for two years with the Dolphins, though has since been used in a variety of ways by the coaching staff, scoring a total of eleven touchdowns in 2020 as a Tailback, Receiver, Wildcat Quarterback, and as a Kick Returner. Though he hasn’t thrown any passes (yet), the Senior operated mostly out of the slot with seventy-three receptions for 876 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing for another 316 yards and eight scores on seventy-three carries, along with returning thirteen kicks for 285 yards, parlaying to an average of 21.5 yards per return. In that aforementioned victory over Wyoming, Turner amassed ninety-nine yards from scrimmage on thirteen touches with one rushing touchdown. While this team is as explosive as any offensively, their rapid, up-tempo approach has often led to mistakes on their own behalf, committing an insane TWENTY-NINE turnovers this season, which is by far and away the most in the Mountain West Conference. Graham’s troops have multiple giveaways in ten of their thirteen games, including three or more on three occasions. Ironically, they’ve forced nearly as many turnovers on defense, with twenty-seven thus far, which is also the most in the conference. While they’ve long been prolific on the offensive side of the football, Hawai’i has never been confused with being a defensive juggernaut, and though that has yet to change since Graham has taken over, this cavalcade of takeaways is indeed a positive sign for a unit returning ten starters. In their six victories this season, the ‘Bows have forced a whopping EIGHTEEN turnovers, leading to a healthy differential of plus-five, in comparison to a minus-8 differential in their seven losses. Junior captain, Khoury Bethley (99 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 4.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 5 INT, 6 PD, 1 TD) flourishes in the role of a hybrid Linebacker/Safety, totaling ninety-nine tackles, 8.5 for a loss and four sacks along with an FBS-best FIVE interceptions, with one being returned for a touchdown. Simply put, if there is a big play happening on this side of the football, then there is a very good chance that this kid is in on it. (Sophomore Linebacker) Darius Muasau (108 TKL, 14.0 TFL, 7.0 SK, 5 FF, 1 FR, 7.0 SK, 1 INT, 4 PD, 1 TD) led the MWC in both solo tackles (65) and total tackles (108) this season, while wreaking havoc with fourteen tackles for loss, seven sacks, and five forced fumbles. These two have been insanely productive for a unit that has otherwise struggled to stop the opposition, yielding an average of 31.4 points per game (98th in FBS) on 446.0 total yards. Tonight’s postseason appearances marks Hawai’i’s fifteenth bowl and fifth in the last six years, owning a record of 8-6 in such contests including a 6-5 record in bowls played on Hawai’ian soil. Graham in turn is in his tenth bowl with his fourth different school, wearing a 6-4 record in the postseason.