Threat(s): Greg Alexander and the Hawaii passing attack.
If you don't count last year's win over Stanford in a meaningless game of bad football teams to end a season, it's been a long while since the Notre Dame program has ended a campaign without a sour taste in its mouth.
The last Irish bowl win dates back to the 1993 season, a New Year's Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M, but as head coach Charlie Weis stated at the team's banquet in early December, it's time to get this bowl thing taken care of.
Notre Dame certainly has a chance.
After being dismantled in their last two bowl appearances by LSU and Ohio State, to bring the postseason losing streak to nine, the Irish should not be overwhelmed like that in this Christmas Eve contest. Hawaii doesn't have the near the fire power as those two teams did, and are barely an image of last year's potent Warriors squad that was led by quarterback Colt Brennan and head coach June Jones.
Brennan, one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history, has graduated, and his top four receivers from last year's Sugar Bowl team are also gone. Jones also left to take the head coaching job at SMU, and it took awhile for the Warriors offense to gel this fall.
Things came together offensively when Greg Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup.
After starting the season 3-4, first-year head coach Greg McMackin made the change to Alexander at the quarterback position. The junior has been outstanding, completing 131-of-206 passes, for 1,634 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has been intercepted just four times, and Hawaii is 4-2 with Alexander as the starter.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Alexander nearly led the Warriors to a huge upset over Cincinnati to end the season, and his only other setback as the starter is a tough loss to Utah State. Other than that game, Hawaii has done a good job of winning the games they're supposed to.
Alexander's top receiving threats are Greg Salas (50 catches, 755 yards, 3 TDS), Michael Washington (56 catches, 693 yards, 5TDS) and Malcolm Lane (31 catches, 584 yards, 6 TDS). Lane is the big-play guy the Irish secondary will have to keep an eye on, on every snap. Aaron Bane has 44 receptions for 448 yards, and four scores, as Alexander does a good job of spreading the ball around. Thirteen different players have a reception this season, including seven with at least 10 or more.
Achilles Heal(s): Pass protection and lack of a running game.
Alexander has been exceptional since taking over at quarterback, but just think how good he'd be if he wasn't constantly picking himself up off the ground. The Warriors rank second to last nationally in sacks allowed per game, at nearly four per contest. Notre Dame's defense has to be licking its chops.
Not being able to protect the passer, and lack of a running game, go hand in hand in college football, as sacks go towards negative rush yardage. Hawaii is one of the few opponents the Irish play this season with a worse rushing offense than themselves.
Hawaii ranks 107th nationally in rushing yardage. Daniel Libre is the featured back, and he has ran for just 431 yards and six scores this fall. The Warriors try and mix in just enough running to keep the defense honest against the pass.
Miscellaneous: Hawaii has converted on just 36 percent of its third downs this season. They are only 37-of-51 in the red zone (73 percent), including 29 touchdowns. Kicker Dan Kelly is 10-of-20 on field goal opportunities, and has really struggled beyond 40 yards, going just 2-of-8. His long for the year is 41 yards. Ryan Mouton and Lane are both threats in the return game. Mouton has a return for a 90-yard score, and Lane has a long of 91 yards. Like the Irish, Hawaii is a horrendous minus-5 in turnover margin.
Keao Monteilh, who leads the team with five interceptions.
Hawaii's defense has forced 30 turnovers this season, and they rank 19th nationally in tackles for loss per game.
Achilles Heal(s):If the defense isn't making plays and forcing turnovers, offenses have been able to move the ball against Hawaii .
As noted Hawaii is good at taking the ball away, and they've sacked the quarterback 34 times this season. It's a defense that takes chances, but if they're not making plays, the offense is normally moving the chains.
Opponents are averaging four yards per rush and nearly 150 yards rushing per game against Hawaii. Look for Notre Dame to really try and generate its ground game early in the contest.
Teams have also had success throwing the ball against Hawaii, averaging over 200 yards per game. It's been awhile since Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen has played a good game, but like his team, he will have a chance to close the season out on a high note.
Miscellaneous: Teams are converting on 34 percent of their third-down opportunities against Hawaii. Opponents are 35-of-46 in the red zone, including 23 touchdowns. Hawaii is dead last in the nation in punt return. Punter Tim Grasso is averaging 40.7 yards per punt, with 18 of his 62 boots being downed inside the opposition's 20-yard line.
Game Notes: This is the 3rd-ever meeting between Notre Dame and Hawaii. The Irish lead the series with a 2-0 record. Charlie Weis' record against Hawaii is 0-0. Greg McMackin's record against Notre Dame is 0-0. Hawaii is 3-1 in this bowl game, scoring over 40 points in each win. Aloha Stadium is the home venue for the Warriors, and seats 50,000 people.
Prediction: Notre Dame 24, Hawaii 14: The Irish arrived in Honolulu early, getting to the island on Dec. 19th. They've had plenty of time to adjust to the new time zone, and won't look jet lagged when the game kicks off. James Aldridge will have one of his best games in a Notre Dame uniform, rushing for over 100 yards and two scores, as the Irish finally get the bowl monkey off their backs. Michael Floyd returns to the lineup to catch a touchdown pass, and the defense forces three turnovers and racks up five sacks in the win including two by freshman Darius Fleming.
Game Forecast: Sheraton Hawaii Bowl
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