By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
The football rivalry between the University of Hawaii and Fresno State continues this Saturday at the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex. This will be the 53rd meeting between the two schools, with the Bulldogs leading the series, 29-23-1.
Perhaps the greatest UH-FSU game, at least for Rainbow Warrior fans, occurred 20 years ago.
Oct. 26, 2001. It was a nationally televised Friday night contest, and 35,074 rabid fans filled Aloha Stadium to watch the Warriors host the No. 18-ranked Bulldogs. Fresno State entered the game with a 6-1 record and was led by QB David Carr, who would become a Heisman Trophy finalist and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. Hawaii, meanwhile, was 4-2 and riding a three-game winning streak having beaten SMU, UTEP and Tulsa in successive weeks.
It was expected to be a competitive game. It turned out to be exactly that, and so much more
Fresno State struck first, with Carr firing an 7-yard scoring strike to Charles Smith early in the opening quarter. The Bulldogs increased their lead to 10-0 before Hawaii’s Justin Ayat put the Warriors on the board with a 23-yard FG.
The second quarter was more of the same, with another Ayat FG and another Carr-to-Smith scoring connection. Hawaii finally got in the end zone with just under six minutes left in the half. From the Bulldogs’ 3-yard line, Chad Kapanui took a pitch from QB Nick Rolovich and lobbed a pass to a leaping Ashley Lelie for the TD.
The Bulldogs led at halftime, 20-13.
The momentum seemed to go Fresno State’s way in the third quarter. Rolovich was intercepted on consecutive possessions, one of which led to Carr’s third scoring pass of the game. Hawaii’s lone score in that stanza was Ayat’s third FG, this time from 27 yards out.
Trailing 27-16 at the start of the final quarter, Hawaii went to work. First, Rolovich found WR Channon Harris in the middle of the end zone for a 19-yard score. RB Thero Mitchell punched in a two-point conversion to pull Hawaii within a field goal, 27-24. The Bulldogs drove the ball down the field and had a first-and-goal opportunity, but Carr fumbled the snap and UH safety Nate Jackson pounced on the ball. Then, with 5:50 left in the game, Rolovich connected with Lelie on an 11-yard TD, giving the Rainbow Warriors their first lead of the game.
The lead didn’t last long. In fact, it took less than a minute for the Bulldogs to strike back. The drive culminated in a 35-yard TD pass from Carr to Rodney Wright. Just like that, Fresno State retook the advantage, 34-31.
Hawaii could not move the ball in the ensuing possession and was forced to punt. With time winding down, it seemed the home team needed a miracle. It got one in the form of Nate Jackson.
Jackson, who earlier in the week suffered serious lacerations in an off-campus motorcycle accident, was doubtful to even play in the game. But he suited up and made what turned out to be the defensive play of the game. With just over three minutes left in regulation and the Bulldogs in a 2nd-and-10 situation, the Waianae native blitzed from the right side and launched into Carr, jarring the ball loose. The ball bounced off the turf and into the waiting arms of defensive end La.‘anui Correa.
The UH offense had one last opportunity, and it came down to one play.
Hawaii had the ball on Fresno State’s 14-yard line. It was third and goal. Eight seconds left. With more than 30,000 fans on their feet, Rolovich took the snap, took a few steps back and fired an arching rainbow deep into the right corner of the end zone. Lelie leaped over two Bulldog defenders, stretched out his arms and secured the pass with both hands. His left foot touched the inside corner of the end zone before he fell out of bounds.
You could almost hear Bobby Curran screaming, “TOUCHDOWN, HAWAII!”
Final: Hawaii 38, Fresno State 34.
Rolovich, making his fourth start of the season after replacing an injured Timmy Chang, finished the game with 347 passing yards (completing 30 of 53 pass attempts), 3 TDs and 2 INTs. Lelie had 9 receptions for 122 yards and 3 TDs. For Fresno State, Carr finished with 400 yards passing, 4 TDs and 1 INT.
“We fought and fought and fought, and finally won,” UH LB Chris Brown told the Honolulu Advertiser’s Stephen Tsai after the game. “It felt like we won a heavyweight championship. After 15 rounds, we were the ones left standing.”
For third-year Hawaii head coach June Jones, the victory was a testament to the team’s unity.
“Even though we’re probably not as good as Fresno physically across the board – the togetherness, the building relationships, those things mean more,” Jones told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s Dave Reardon. “Fresno State played as good a game as they did this year.
“We beat them. That’s the bottom line.”