Notre Dame will have to deal with a number of pleasant distractions when they arrive in Honolulu for the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl, but the Irish say that they understand that this is a business trip.
In early preparations for the Warriors, the Irish have seen a very formidable opponent. Hawai'i runs the run ‘n shoot on offense and although their production has naturally dropped down a bit in the post-Colt Brennan, post-June Jones era, they do have the ability to put up points.
The Warriors' offense is similar to the spreads that Notre Dame faced early in the season against San Diego State, Michigan and Purdue.
"We've just got to be fundamentally sound like in every game," sophomore linebacker Brian Smith says. "If you're fundamentally sound you raise your chance of winning. If we just do what we're supposed to do, we'll be all right."
Hawai'i is averaging 245.5 passing yards, 99.3 rushing yards and 24.9 points per game. After starting four quarterbacks in the first six games of the season, Greg Alexander was named the starter for the rest of the way and averaged almost 295 passing yards in the last four games along with nine touchdown passes.
But Smith stresses that it will be nothing new for Notre Dame.
"They're just a basic offense. They're not as complex as they were when they had Colt Brennan there a year ago," he says. "They've got a new head coach and new offensive coordinator. They do kind of the same things like a Purdue and a Michigan mixed in one, so it's nothing that we haven't seen before. We'll be ready."
The aggressive defense that Notre Dame implemented with the arrival of linebackers coach Jon Tenuta did not result in astounding sack numbers, but the Irish may have a chance to do just that against Hawai'i. The Warriors are 118th out of 119 teams when it comes to protecting the quarterback, having allowed 41 sacks on the season.
The Warriors could slow the Irish pass rush if they are able to develop a running game. Hawai'i's rushing attack is more like the Boilermakers' and Wolverines' than what Notre Dame saw against teams like Michigan State or Navy.
"They're not going to run it down your throat with the fullback and run Power O, but they like the O play a lot, a kind of version of the power in the spread," says Smith. "They do a lot of things well. Like I said, if we're fundamentally sound we'll be all right."
Hawai'i coach Greg McMackin was the defensive coordinator before he took over for Jones. The linebackers lead McMackin's defense that is ranked 59th in total defense and 72nd in scoring defense.
"They're a good defense," quarterback Jimmy Clausen says. "They're big up front, linebackers can run and the secondary flies around to the ball."
Hawai'i expects to get a boost with the return of a healthy Ryan Mouton at defensive back. McMackin called Mouton his best defender and Mouton has certainly shown the ability to make big plays when at full speed, returning an interception 91 yards for a score and a kickoff 90 yards for another.
Expect Hawai'i to use the same defensive approach as Notre Dame's second-half opponents and play Cover-2 and force the Irish to run the ball. But Notre Dame receiver Golden Tate is hoping that the return of Michael Floyd opposite him will make a difference.
"They run a lot of Cover-2 and Cover-8," says Tate. "I think it's going to force them to try different things because we've got Michael on the other side."
Any problems that the Irish could have in preparing for Hawai'i should be eliminated considering that the game will be played in the Warriors' home stadium.
"They're pretty good at home," Clausen says.
Indeed, Hawai'i has a 5-2 record at home versus a 2-4 mark away from Aloha Stadium. The Warriors are averaging over 30 points per game at home and the two games that they did lose there were decided by a total of eight points.
"It's a very hostile environment, different from anywhere we've ever played," Patrick Kuntz says. "It's going to be a tough game because they play tough at home. I don't know if it's something in the water over there, but they always bring their game when they're at home and they have a different intensity."
Hawai'i Bowl ticket sales surged when the Irish were announced as the Warriors' opponent.
"I understand they can't wait for us to get out there," Smith says. "Coach Weis was telling us that as soon as they found out that we were going to be playing (ticket) sales went through the roof. They're excited for us to get out there as we are excited to get there."
Clausen admits that the game could be considered a Hawai'i home game, but says that does not change much.
"In some ways you can look at that because they are Hawai'i and we're playing in Hawai'i," he says. "But it's a bowl game for us and just another game."
Notre Dame faced a similar situation when it took on LSU in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans following the 2006 season, but Kuntz says there are differences.
"It'll be a little different. I'm not 265 pounds anymore going against Herman Johnson," Kuntz joked about going against LSU's 6-foot-7, 375-pound offensive lineman. "It's their home crowd they're going to have there and we've got to come in there like we know it's going to be a battle and not overlook them."