The 2019 Hawaii football season ended over a month ago, but for six Rainbow Warriors seniors, Sunday night’s Hula Bowl represented one last chance to play under the Aloha Stadium lights.
“So thankful, so thankful,” running back Dayton Furuta said of playing at Aloha Stadium one more time. “I look back to my first championship game in Pop Warner football that was here. Now I get to finish my collegiate career here too.”
The game finished in a 23-7 victory for Team Kai, represented by five out of the six Rainbow Warriors present. But more important than the final score, the Hula Bowl represented a final chance for players to impress NFL, CFL, XFL, and even WWE scouts.
“It was a big blessing to get, to be around so many different guys from different backgrounds, to be able to perform and practice in front of scouts every day, to compete with other guys with goals to get to the NFL. To be able to do that here in Hawaii, it was the biggest blessing I could have had,” defensive back Ikem Okeke said.
Whether the ‘Bows’ performances will be enough to impress those scouts remains to be seen. In the meantime, here’s a rundown of their performances in the game:
>> JoJo Ward, one of the team’s three 1,000-yard receivers this season, was tasked with fielding punt returns to open the game. Team ‘Aina punted to Ward twice, who had no trouble corralling the ball on either occasion. Punts were deemed automatic fair catches according to Hula Bowl rules, so Ward didn’t have a chance to return any punts.
Late in the first quarter, a quarterback change finally sent Ward onto the field for his first offensive snaps. Ward fell victim to a stagnant offensive slugfest that saw the two teams combine for less than 200 yards, but he made the most of opportunity. Ward promptly caught a pass on his very first snap, before showing off his elusiveness and ability to fight for extra yards by breaking a tackle and scooting for a 9-yard pickup. The drive eventually led to a 51-yard field goal for Team Kai, the first and only points in the first quarter.
Ward, who lined up at outside receiver on all his offensive snaps, continued to rotate in on offense throughout the game, but despite managing to get separation on several occasions, he wouldn’t be targeted again until the fourth quarter. On the opening play of the final period, Ward pulled away from the defensive back on a deep go route. With nothing but green in front of him, Hampton (and former Florida State) quarterback Deondre Francois launched a bomb that found its way into Ward’s arms for an explosive 43-yard connection. Unfortunately, the play would not stand, as a holding penalty across the offensive line wiped away Ward’s highlight moment. Officially, Ward would finish with just 9 yards on one reception and one target.
>> It wasn’t any more productive for the other Hawaii receiver on Team Kai. Senior Jason-Matthew Sharsh, who fell just short of being the Rainbow Warriors’ fourth 1,000-yard receiver, got the starting nod at his familiar slot position. But like Ward, Sharsh’s performance was impacted by the game’s lack of offense, one where the teams combined to convert just four of a possible 23 third-down conversions. He was not targeted during the game.
>> Hawaii’s third offensive player in the Hula Bowl, Furuta, managed to have a more productive day, despite never touching the football. Unlike Ward and Sharsh, who played in largely similar roles to the ones they held at UH, Furuta was asked to learn a whole new position: fullback. Hawaii’s run-and-shoot offense did not utilize the fullback position. But Team Kai head coach Rex Ryan’s traditional offense did, as does most teams throughout the NFL. Furuta, despite his size, was employed as a power-running back for the Rainbow Warriors. But perhaps Furuta was better suited to be a bruising blocker after all. He finally saw his first offensive snap on Team Kai’s second drive of the second quarter. He immediately displayed his proficiency in his new role. He delivered a crushing block on ‘Aina linebacker Nate Evans, springing Colorado Mines running back Cameron Mayberry free for a 9-yard rumble.
“These kinds of games, you never know when opportunities will present itself. So whatever the coaches wanted of me, I just did it with a positive attitude, and to the best of my ability,” Furuta said of learning the fullback position. “I had a lot of fun. If you’ve followed my career here at UH, you know I like hitting. This position is just another opportunity to get some hits in.”
There appears to be a way to go for Furuta the fullback however, as Team Kai ultimately turned the ball over on downs after getting stuffed on four straight plays on the goal line. Furuta’s second chance came quickly, as Kai’s defense soon gifted the ball back to the offense on an interception. Situated on the 7-yard line, the team needed just one play to drive down to the goal line. Furuta was once again called upon to clear up the logjam as a lead blocker. This time, Furuta provided the key block, sealing the edge to open the way for Mayberry to walk into the end zone. The touchdown ultimately proved to be Kai’s only offensive score of the game.
>> When talking about a team’s offensive struggles, the defensive performance naturally comes to mind. Leading the charge for the ‘Bows on that front was senior linebacker Solomon Matautia. The Ewa Beach product’s day started early, as he got the start for Team Kai. He provided pressure as a pass rusher early, but his first registered stat came later in the opening quarter. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. With SJSU quarterback Josh Love taking over for Team ‘Aina, the defensive logjam had finally begun to clear. In just three plays, ‘Aina picked up the first and second first downs for either team in the game. With ‘Aina appearing to be surfing a wave of momentum, Matautia stepped up to reverse the tide, with a big hit on an open field tackle to halt the drive in its tracks.
“I’m happy with the way I performed,” Mautautia said. “I think I showcased being a team player. As a team, for the blue squad, in the short time that we had, we played together, and we grew a brotherhood. It allowed us to play together, and play better. Coach Rex is a great coach. He was talking about the style of defense that I like to play, and the whole defense bought into that style, and we really came out to play today.”
Mautautia would go on to pick up two more tackles, finishing fourth on the team with three solo tackles along with a quarterback hurry late in the fourth quarter. He also accounted for one of Kai’s four turnovers, diving on a loose football after a seemingly unforced ‘Aina fumble. Team Kai’s other defensive ‘Bow, Ikem Okeke, also had plenty of playing time. Playing out of his safety position, Okeke racked up three tackles, all of which came in the second half. His lone blemish of the game came while providing help coverage. After Kai linebacker Dominic Cizaukas was beaten deep, Okeko couldn’t rotate over fast enough, resulting in ‘Aina’s only touchdown of the day, a 28-yard completion from Broc Rutter to Michael Dean.
The sixth and final ‘Bow, Kaimana Padello, continues to sit out from a lateral meniscus injury he suffered late in Hawaii’s season.