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Hawaii Bowl pits Fighting Irish against Warriors

Honolulu, HI (Sports Network) - For the fifth time in the seven-year history of the Hawaii Bowl, the locals get a chance to keep the trophy out on the island as the Hawaii Warriors clash with the once-mighty Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Honolulu on Christmas Eve.

Hawaii, which won this contest in 2003, 2004 and 2006, took a break from sticking around Aloha Stadium last season to confront the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl, but the Warriors were slammed in their first and only appearance in a BCS bowl, losing a 41-10 decision as quarterback Colt Brennan and head coach June Jones took part in their final game for the program. This season Hawaii, which is 5-3 in bowl games dating back to the 1989 Aloha Bowl, began with three losses in four tries to kick off the campaign, but down the stretch got it together and finished 5-3 in conference and 7-6 overall after letting a sizeable lead in the fourth quarter against 13th-ranked Cincinnati slip away in the regular-season finale.

As for the Fighting Irish and embattled head coach Charlie Weis who, at the moment, is reportedly coming back for another season in South Bend, they began 2008 much like they closed out 2007 when they won back-to-back games, winning four of the first five decisions. However, after the victory against Stanford at home by a score of 28-21 on October 4th, the Irish nearly fell apart with just two more victories the rest of the way. One of those wins came against winless Washington, the other a 27-21 decision versus Navy. In a sense, Notre Dame backed into the postseason after losing two straight and four of five down the stretch to finish with a mediocre 6-6 mark.

A storied program with a bowl history that dates back to the 1925 Rose Bowl victory against Stanford (27-10), Notre Dame has a record of 13-15 in the postseason and has not hoisted a trophy in one of these events since claiming a 24-21 win over Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl. Since then, the team has lost nine straight postseason bouts, including a 41-14 defeat at the hands of LSU in the 2007 Sugar Bowl.

In terms of the all-time series between these two programs, the Irish have won both previous meetings, but by a total of only seven points. The most recent of those games took place in 1997 with Notre Dame knocking through a late field goal to capture a 23-22 win.

Far from the power offense that mowed down opponents the previous few seasons under June Jones and Colt Brennan, the Greg McMackin version of the Hawaii offense took some time to find out who the leader was in 2008. Several players tried to fit into the quarterback mold between Tyler Graunke and Inoke Funaki, but eventually the team turned to Greg Alexander and found a diamond in the rough. Alexander started a total of six games for the squad, converting 63.6 percent of his pass attempts for 12 touchdowns, but more importantly, he tossed just four interceptions which meant he gave the UH defense a chance to rest.

Excited to be playing in the postseason, Alexander gives Notre Dame quite a bit of credit. "Obviously, they've had great teams in the past and they are still a great team this year even if their record doesn't show it. But watching them on film defensively, they are like a Cincinnati or a Florida level. We're going to have our hands full with them, but it's going to be a lot of fun to get out there and play against a team like Notre Dame."

The offensive line didn't help matters much this season however, leaving QBs hanging out to dry as the group gave up 3.8 sacks per game, second-most in the nation. The rushing offense was again a weak link for the Warriors as they placed seventh in the conference and 107th in the nation with just 99.3 ypg, but late in the season Daniel Libre emerged as someone to watch with his 431 yards and six TDs.

Take away the 56 points allowed to Florida in the season opener and the 45 points posted by Oregon State in the middle of September and the defense for the Warriors was not all that bad. Granted, the group did allow 27.3 ppg to rank fourth in the WAC and 72nd in the nation, but there were some moments when the squad appeared to have things under control. The unit was decent against the run, permitting 148 ypg and average versus the pass with 203.9 ypg surrendered. What helped in both cases was a front line defense that was more active in the opponent's backfield with 2.6 sacks per game (21st in the nation) and 6.9 tackles for loss (19th nationally).

Carrying much of the weight for the group was Solomon Elimimian who led the team with 112 tackles and was second in TFLs with nine and a half. For his efforts, Elimimian was selected to the All-WAC First Team and shared WAC Defensive Player of the Year honors as well. "It's an honor to be here and we're excited because we are playing a top tier program in Notre Dame," Elimimian said of the impending meeting during a news conference.

Also putting up strong numbers for the group was David Veikune with 16 TFLs, nine sacks and four forced fumbles, all of which paced the team.

In 2007, the Fighting Irish were last in the nation in total offense and 116th in terms of points scored, so the team could only get better. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen seemed to survive severe growing pains a year ago when his offensive line allowed him to be thrown around like a rag doll, permitting a painfully high 4.8 sacks per game to rank last in the nation. This time around it has been much better for Clausen with just 1.67 sacks per game against the ND signal-callers. Clausen managed to complete close to 60 percent of his pass attempts for 230.9 ypg and 20 touchdowns, but he also suffered quite a number of setbacks with 17 interceptions.

Giving the passer a solid outlet down the field was Golden Tate who posted team-highs with 52 catches for 903 yards and seven touchdowns, the latter number tying him with Michael Floyd who logged 46 receptions for 702 yards.

Three times in 2008 the team was held to seven points or less, partly because the rushing attack was limited to just 113.4 ypg, ranking the Irish 98th in the nation.

A year ago, the Irish held only three opponents to fewer than 27 points, they being UCLA, Duke and Stanford, which is why the squad's scoring defense was rather weak with 28.8 ppg allowed. This time around they cut the figure down by almost a full touchdown (22.3 ppg), but still the group had issues against the more talented opponents on the schedule.

The pressure at the line of scrimmage was only slightly better, averaging 1.58 sacks and 4.33 tackles for loss per game, but those numbers still had the group ranked 81st and 112th in the country, respectively. However, the pass efficiency defense looked rather impressive at times, putting up a rating of 105.79 which ranked the program 18th in the country. Unfortunately, the stats show that the Irish tended to get weaker as the halves wore on, giving up more than twice the number of points in the second quarter (82) than they did in the first (36) and watching opponents roll up 87 points in the fourth frame alone.

Kyle McCarthy tallied a team-best 103 tackles for the group, but other than two interceptions there wasn't much more remarkable about his performance.

"We're very excited about heading out west to play in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl," responded coach Weis about his team's first trip to Honolulu in 11 years. "This is a great opportunity for our team to face a quality opponent in their backyard and we'll need to be ready."

12/20 12:00:57 ET