HONOLULU – SMU coach June Jones felt and looked right at home when he walked into Aloha Stadium.
Dressed in slacks and flip flops, he strolled down a corridor where portraits of Hawaii’s biggest stars hung on the wall, most of them players that Jones coached during an eight-year tenure that made him so popular in paradise that some suggested he run for governor. When Jones left a news conference for the Hawaii Bowl, he flashed the “Hang Loose” symbol to faces he has seen for years.
Never mind that Fresno State knows this island and stadium from playing at Hawaii every other year in the Mountain West Conference. Or that the Bulldogs, who have won their last five games by an average of 26 points, are favored by nearly two touchdowns against SMU on Christmas Eve.
Jones has ample reason to feel the Hawaii Bowl is a home game.
“Coming into the stadium it sure does,” Jones said. “We’re in the same locker room. I know where everybody is. I recognize all the workers. From that standpoint, it does. But it all comes down to seeing friends. I try to teach my kids that you play the game and you want to win, but there’s more to it than that. It’s about the people around you and all the intangible things that make an ordinary team better.”
Jones will be coaching for the 75th time in Aloha Stadium when his Mustangs (6-6) face Fresno State (9-3) in the Hawaii Bowl at 8 p.m. on ESPN. He hasn’t lost in this stadium since Oregon State beat Hawaii Dec. 2, 2006. Hawaii had a perfect regular season in 2007, and then Jones bolted for SMU over what he felt were hollow promises about upgrading facilities.
SMU, which had gone 25 years without a bowl game dating to its NCAA penalty, ended that drought when Jones brought it to the Hawaii Bowl in 2009 and, despite being nearly a two-touchdown favorite to another MWC team, scored the first 38 points in a 45-10 win over Nevada.
Fresno State, however, presents a different kind of test.
Since losing to Boise State, the Bulldogs have averaged just over 47 points in winning their last five games. They swept all the conference awards this year – offensive player of the year (quarterback Derek Carr), defensive player (strong safety Phillip Thomas) and top freshman (Davante Adams).
“To a fan watching this game, they’ll see two spread offenses that can light up a scoreboard, and two defenses that can take it away,” Tim DeRuyter, who set a Fresno State record for most wins in his first season as head coach.
Jones has seen plenty of Fresno State from his day at Hawaii when it was part of the Western Athletic Conference, except these Bulldogs don’t look all that familiar. He is not used to seeing them spread the field with so many playmakers – Adams with 13 touchdown catches, Robbie Rouse, the 5-foot-7 running back who rushed for 1,498 yards, and Carr.
Jones tried to recruit Carr, who was living in Houston while his brother – David Carr – played for the Houston Texans. Carr said it came down to SMU and Fresno State, though he always wanted to get back to his roots in California’s central valley. Jones apparently knew what he was missing. During the press conference leading up the game, Jones raved so much about Carr that some clarification was in order.
“I think he’s the best quarterback we’ll face this year,” Jones said. “He throws the ball very accurately. He can run. He can move a little bit. I thought the quarterback from Central Florida (Blake Bortles) was probably the best one we played. I think Derek is ahead of him.”
Yes, but the Mustangs also played Texas A&M, whose quarterback had a pretty good season. Johnny Manziel, the first freshman to win the Heisman, ran for 124 yards and two TDs and threw for 294 yards and two scores in a 48-3 drubbing of SMU.
“He wasn’t playing ‘quarterback.’ He was running around making plays,” Jones said later. He said his reference to Carr was a dropback passer.
SMU linebacker Taylor Reed still has clear visions of that Texas A&M loss and said it was difficult to compare Manziel with Carr.
“I’m not taking anything away from Johnny Manziel. He made moves on the field that I have never seen in my career,” Reed said. “I can talk from experience. I thought I had him wrapped up in a sack and he got away and threw a touchdown. Derek Carr ... it’s apples and oranges. Derek has a much stronger and accurate arm, and he’s going to be a great player on the next level.”
Carr is motivated by having to sit on his couch a year ago as 35 bowl games were being played, Fresno State not in any of them for only the second time in the last 13 years. It’s his first time playing in a bowl game, and Fresno State has not won one since beating Georgia Tech five years ago in the Humanitarian Bowl.
“Being the only game on Monday night, on Christmas Eve, is awesome,” Carr said. “It’s cool for our program. And it’s a chance for people on the East Coast to see us play.”