On a Friday night in Halawa in October of 2001, it was peak Hawaii-Fresno State.
“Magic” it would be described by no fewer than two sportswriters.
Of the 51 all-time meetings between the Rainbow Warriors and the Bulldogs going into tonight’s clash at Aloha Stadium, none may be better remembered on the Hawaii side than the Oct. 6, 2001 encounter (with apologies to the overtime clash in 1999 and the 2007 battle, among others).
Rolovich. Lelie. Jackson. Those were just a few of the names that are conjured up from UH’s 38-34 victory over the No. 18 Bulldogs.
Some 35,000 were on hand as Nick Rolovich found Ashley Lelie in the corner of the end zone for the improbable winning touchdown with 13 seconds left, on third-and-goal from the 14.
Rolovich shrugged off an injured shoulder from the previous drive, rolled to his right and lofted it up for Lelie, who was just barely able to get a foot down in the back of the end zone over Fresno’s Devon Banks.
“No matter how high it was, I was going to get it,” Lelie told the Honolulu Advertiser’s Stephen Tsai.
Said Rolovich, “I tried to make it a catchable ball. He’s an unbelievable player, and I knew if I gave him a chance, he would catch it.”
Said slotback Channon Harris, “I knew that was money. … He can fly, jump, do whatever he needs to do.”
It capped a 22-point fourth quarter (which featured three lead changes in the final 5:50) against the No. 18 Bulldogs.
Fresno led 27-13 in the third quarter, but UH drew within 27-24 on a Justin Ayat field goal and a 19-yard TD pass from Rolovich to Harris.
Then, with Fresno driving up to the UH 3, quarterback David Carr mishandled a snap and defensive back Nate Jackson — who was in a motorcycle accident earlier in the week and wasn’t expected to play — raced in for the fumble recovery to give the Warriors new life.
Rolovich hit Lelie with an 11-yarder to take a 31-27 lead.
Fresno took the lead for the last time, 34-31, on Carr’s 35-yard TD pass to Rodney Wright, the second of two scores caught that game by Wright.
UH then was forced to punt on its next drive, during which Rolovich’s shoulder popped out, and it looked like that might be that. But, with a little over three minutes left, Jackson gave the Warriors another chance with a strip-sack of Carr. Defensive end La‘anui Correa pounced on it at the Fresno 34.
“When I saw him before the game, I thought, ‘there’s no way he’s going to play,’ ” Correa said of the stitched-up Jackson. I didn’t think he could walk. But look what he did.”
The Star-Bulletin’s Dave Reardon described Jackson’s left leg looking “like a shark ate it up.”
Rolovich, who finished 30-for-53 for 357 yards, only had 160 yards going into the fourth quarter after two third-quarter interceptions, but guided his team down the field when it mattered — twice — setting up the dramatic finish to Lelie.
“There was no way I was going to not play,” Rolovich said of playing through his injury.
Of the possibility of setting up a tying field goal on the final drive, coach June Jones said, “I’ve never played for a tie.”
After stopping Fresno on a single play on their last-gasp drive, UH improved to 5-2 and 4-2 in the WAC, taking four straight WAC games for the first time since 1984.
A bad day for Fresno coach Pat Hill got worse; the team’s police escort to the stadium never showed up at their North Shore hotel. An Aloha Stadium attendant then tried to charge the Bulldogs for parking. Tsai wrote that Hill’s face “was as red as his hat” after the game.
Hill’s Bulldogs would go on to have a good season, but this loss proved costly to the WAC championship hopes as they finished runner-up to Louisiana Tech (7-1) at 6-2. They won their next five after the UH loss and finished 11-3 overall, with a 44-35 defeat to Michigan State in the Silicon Valley Football Classic bowl game.
UH, of course, did not have a bowl game to play in for that 2001 season. After topping Fresno, UH took four of its remaining five games (the only loss being 28-21 on homecoming against Boise State). Jones’ Warriors capped the memorable season with a 72-45 thumping of No. 9 BYU to finish 9-3 and 5-3 in the WAC.
Here’s what appeared in the next day’s newspapers.