DOUG FERGUSON, Associated Press
HONOLULU (AP) – Rice and Fresno State were winless after three games in September, two teams going nowhere.
Somehow, they found their way to paradise.
Even with a few pineapple showers forcing their press conference to be moved to shelter, it was hard for Rice coach David Bailiff and Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter not to gaze out at the shores of Waikiki Beach and wonder what they were doing there.
Dating to 1980, there have been 496 FBS teams that started a season at 0-3. Only 21 of them made it to a bowl game. That small group includes Rice and Fresno State, who face each other on Christmas Eve in the Hawaii Bowl.
It might as well be called the “Turnaround Bowl.”
“There are benefits,” Bailiff said about the slow start by his Owls (7-5, 5-3 C-USA). “Nobody likes to lose. You go into those games thinking you’re going to win. But as we lost, we said we were a good football team. We had good seniors. They continued to believe. As hard as it was, it was never to a point where we were giving up. As long as you’re improving, and you get into conference play healthy, those games help you.”
Rice opened with blowout losses to Notre Dame and Texas A&M, and then saw a late rally fall short when Old Dominion kicked a game-winning field goal with no time left.
The Fresno State Bulldogs (6-7, 5-3 Mountain West), the only bowl team this year with a losing record, gave up a combined 166 points in losses to Southern California, Utah and Nebraska. They endured another three-game losing streak in conference play, but rallied to get into the conference title game before losing to Boise State.
“This is the first Fresno State team that started 0-3 and had an opportunity to win a bowl game,” DeRuyter said. “You find out right away these kids can get knocked down and get right back up. I don’t want to have to start 0-3 next year. But the fact they did, I take tremendous pride in what they’ve done. Hopefully, we finish the right way.”
Rice is playing in a bowl game for a school-record third straight year. Fresno State is playing for the 14th time in the last 16 years, though the Bulldogs have lost their last five bowl games. That includes the Hawaii Bowl two years ago against SMU.
“As great as the last trip was, the last three hours were pretty miserable for us,” DeRuyter said. “Our kids are determined to change that.”
Here’s what to anticipate when Rice and Fresno State play at Aloha Stadium:
THE SERIES: Rice is the only team Fresno State has played at least three times without ever winning. They used to be in the Western Athletic Conference, and the Bulldogs won all six of their games. The last time they played was 10 years ago.
THE STREAK: The Houston academic powerhouse known as “Harvard of the Southwest” is showing some football prowess. Rice is playing in its fourth bowl since Bailiff arrived as the head coach in 2007.
THE DEBUT: Even though the Bulldogs are playing in their third straight bowl game, this will be the first bowl game for senior receiver Josh Harper. He was a redshirt when Fresno played in the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl, and he was injured and did not play in bowl games the last two years. Harper has 86 receptions for 1,072 yards this year.
ALOHA ADVANTAGE: A trip to paradise is old hat for the Bulldogs, who are making their fourth straight trip to Aloha Stadium. They played at Hawaii every other year in the Mountain West Conference and have beaten the Warriors the last three times. The Bulldogs are 12-14 overall in Honolulu, including a loss to SMU in the Hawaii Bowl two years ago. Rice is 2-1 at Aloha Stadium. The Owls’ last trip produced a 41-21 loss to Hawaii in a WAC game in 2003.
THE PLAYMAKER: Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson has thrown two touchdown passes of at least 80 yards this year. He has 2,884 yards of total offense and needs 116 yards in the Hawaii Bowl to become only the third Rice quarterback to over 3,000 yards for a season. The others were Chase Clement and Tommy Kramer.