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Big Game, Big History

It can be argued that this Saturday’s game between the University of Hawaii and San Diego State is the biggest and most important game for the Rainbow Warriors since the 2008 BCS Sugar Bowl. Saturday’s winner will be crowned the Mountain West Conference’s West Division champion and will go on to face Boise State for the league title.

The Aztecs are currently 5-2 in the conference, while Hawaii is just one game behind, with a 4-3 conference record. If Hawaii beats the Aztecs on Saturday, however, both teams will finish the MW season at 5-3, and UH would emerge as the champion via head-to-head tiebreaker.

This won’t be Hawaii’s first important matchup with San Diego State, however. The two schools have had high-stakes battles in the past.

On November 1992, Bob Wagner’s Rainbow Warrior team traveled to San Diego with a lofty 5-1 conference record. A win over the Aztecs would have secured the Western Athletic Conference crown and a berth in the Holiday Bowl. That 1992 team, which featured players such as Jason Elam, Michael Carter, Travis Sims, Darrick Branch, Maa Tanuvasa and Taase Faumui, came into the game riding a four-game winning streak.

The Aztecs had some guy named Marshall Faulk.

The game was close in the first half. Both teams traded scores throughout the first stanza, with the Aztecs pulling ahead, 24-31, at the intermission. But Hawaii surrendered 28 points in the second half and ran away with a 52-28 victory.

Faulk ran wild against the Rainbow Warriors. He carried the ball 43 times for 300 yards and 4 touchdowns. Even more remarkably, he wasn’t playing at full strength.

“I’m still not 100 percent yet,” he told the Honolulu Advertiser’s Ferd Lewis after the game. “I felt [my strained left quadricep] every time I carried the ball. Hurt or not, I made up my mind that I was going whatever I had for as long as we had to have it.” (Faulk, of course, would go on to star in the NFL, winning Super Bowl XXXIV with the St. Louis Rams. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, his first year of eligibility.)

Said Wagner, “We’re still 7-2 [overall] and have a shot at a bowl game, but this hurts. It hurts all of us. We wanted to wrap it up ourselves right here, tonight, and we didn’t get it done.”

The loss created a logjam in the WAC standings, with the Rainbow Warriors, Aztecs and BYU all tied at the top and Fresno State just a half-game behind. For Hawaii to claim the title, they would need to beat Wyoming the following week and have Fresno State beat San Diego State.

The good news, of course, is that scenario became a reality. Hawaii would go on to beat Illinois in the Holiday Bowl, 27-17.

Then there was the 2018 game. Although the Rainbow Warriors had already clinched a bowl berth with a win over UNLV, it suddenly seemed that an invite to the Hawaii Bowl wasn’t a certainty.

During the week of Hawaii’s regular-season finale at San Diego State, Aztecs athletic director John David Wicker was quoted as saying, “The league always wants Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, and ESPN wants Hawaii there for ticket sales. But if it came down to it and there was no other bowl spot, I would fight to say we beat Hawaii and we finished ahead of them. We should be in Hawaii ahead of them, or Boise or Fresno or whoever.”

Fighting words, indeed.

UH head coach Nick Rolovich shot back on Twitter, “You tell that AD we’re still coming, and hell’s coming with us.”

History was not on Hawaii’s side. The Rainbow Warriors had last the previous six games against the Aztecs, including a 55-0 pasting in San Diego during Rolovich’s first season as head coach.

Nov. 24, 2018: UH QB Cole McDonald threw for a career-high 452 yards and 3 TDs to lead Hawaii to victory. He also added a rushing TD. The game was decided in overtime. McDonald fired a 10-yard strike to receiver JoJo Ward in the extra period to put UH in front, followed by Ryan Meskell’s extra point. The Aztecs followed with a TD of their own, but decided to go for two and win the game. The conversion failed, and so did the Aztecs attempt to bump UH from the Hawaii Bowl.

The rivalry continues this week. ESPN Honolulu will provide full coverage throughout the week. On Saturday, join us for “Countdown to Kickoff” at 4:00 p.m. Kickoff is set for 6:00, with Bobby Curran and John Veneri calling the action.

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