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Nevada opponent preview: Hawaii's senior-laden talent will test Wolf Pack

Cole McDonald
Hawaii's Cole McDonald is expected to be one of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West this season. (AP file)

The Nevada football team’s season opens Aug. 30 when it hosts Purdue. Leading into the season opener, we will preview all 12 of Nevada’s games in 2019. Here is a look at the Wolf Pack’s game versus Hawaii.

Just the facts

Hawaii at Nevada

When: Sept. 28, TBD

Where: Mackay Stadium

TV: ESPN Networks

2018 recap

Hawaii had a weird season, starting 6-1 before nearly collapsing and missing a bowl. Wins over UNLV and San Diego State to close the regular season gave the Rainbow Warriors an 8-5 mark and 5-3 MW record entering the Hawaii Bowl, which the Rainbow Warriors lost to Louisiana Tech. All and all, it was a successful season as the preseason expectations were meager. Hawaii’s eight wins, however, came over an FCS team and seven FBS foes that went a combined 26-61, so there weren’t many quality victories (the SDSU win was the Rainbow Warriors’ best), but Nick Roloich got the program back on track after going 3-9 the year prior. With an upgraded 2019 schedule, including three Pac-12 games to start the season, Hawaii will be tested more in 2019.

The history

Nevada was the first team from the mainland to play at Hawaii, doing so in 1920, a 14-0 Wolf Pack win. The teams have played another 22 times since then, including every year since 2000 when the Wolf Pack joined the WAC. Prior to that, they hadn’t played since 1968. Nevada holds the overall edge, 14-9, with home field playing a large role. The Wolf Pack is 8-1 at home against Hawaii and 5-8 on the road, so Nevada will have the advantage from that perspective when the teams face off in their MW opener. The only time Nevada lost to Hawaii at home was 2007, a 28-26 defeat when the Rainbow Warriors were ranked 12th nationally.

Rainbow Warriors on offense

Hawaii almost always has a prolific quarterback and that should remain the case this season as Cole McDonald returns for his junior season after throwing for 3,875 yards, 36 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last year. He completed 58.9 percent of his passes, which was a little low, but he’s one of the Mountain West's two best returning quarterbacks along with Utah State’s Jordan Love. McDonald lost his top receiver, John Ursua (89/1,343/16 TDs), to the NFL, and that’s a big departure. But he returns two excellent pass-catchers in Cedric Byrd (79/970/9) and JoJo Ward (51/865/9). Cal transfer Melquise Stovall, brother of Nevada’s Melquan, also becomes eligible. Top backs Fred Holly III and Dayton Furuta return as do the keys pieces on the offensive line. Hawaii leaned heavily on the pass game last year and given its returning talent, should have one of the MW’s best offenses in 2019.

Rainbow Warriors on defense

Hawaii allowed 35.1 points per game last season, which ranked 109th nationally (but was only the fifth worst in the MW, which did not have a banner season defensively). The good news for the Rainbow Warriors is its defense was young last season, so progress should be expected despite the loss of LB Jahlani Tavai to the NFL (he was a second-round draft pick). The front six should be better than the secondary, which ranked 112th in pass efficiency defense in 2018. Hawaii also ranked 103rd in rushing yards allowed per game, so both facets of the defense need improvement for the Rainbow Warriors to reach the postseason for a second straight season.

Most likely outcome

Nevada will be favored in this game, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see either team pull out the win. Hawaii is a senior-laden team that returns more experience than any other MW program. The Rainbow Warriors open the year against Arizona, Oregon State and Washington, so it could be fairly beat up for this contest. Hawaii's offense will test Nevada’s defense, but the fact this game is at Mackay Stadium, where the Wolf Pack has dominated this series, is a big plus for the Wolf Pack, which should score the victory.

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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