Provo • Although BYU didn’t have to wait until the selection show on Sunday to learn its bowl fate, the Cougars did have to wait to find out who their opponent would be — Hawaii.
There were speculations and hunches in the days leading up to the bowl announcements, but the players didn’t focus on who they might be playing. Instead, they used the practice time to work on themselves before figuring out who they have to face.
After all, there were plenty of improvements that were needed after falling flat in the regular-season finale at San Diego State.
“It was a lot more just focused on us — how can we improve as a team, as players,” defensive lineman Trajan Pili said. “We didn’t really know who we were playing, so it’s hard to prep for that.”
Even though the team wasn't specifically working on a game plan, linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi described last week's practices as intense. Coach Kalani Sitake sat them down for a team meeting to discuss their No. 1 goal: winning the bowl game.
As a redshirt junior, Kaufusi has seen teammates get lost in the motions before going into bowl season, especially with finals right around the corner.
“(Some players) just kind of are really lackadaisical about it, but Kalani was really adamant about us knowing this game was a game to win,” Kaufusi said. “This last week was, it was a work week for sure. We got after it.”
The practices weren't as physical as Kaufusi had gotten used to, but the redshirt junior said everyone was fully mentally checked in.
Then the team found out it would have to face Hawaii.
Although the Cougars are fairly familiar with the former WAC rival Rainbow Warriors, having played them the last two years, Sitake believes this year’s Hawaii squad is different from the one they faced even just a year ago, when BYU beat Hawaii 49-23 in Provo.
The Rainbow Warriors won their Mountain West conference division and played in the conference championship game against Boise State on Saturday.
BYU will have to study up on Hawaii’s quarterback Cole McDonald — who has thrown for more than 3,600 yards this season — and running back Miles Reed, who’s rushed for 891 yards and 8 touchdowns on 164 carries.
The Rainbow Warriors are also deep at the receiver position. Four different players have tallied more than 800 receiving yards each. Cedric Byrd II leads the pack with 1,068 yards and 10 touchdowns on 95 receptions.
“Looking at the way they play football, I think they execute really well on all three phases and they’re a sound team,” Sitake said. “I think (Hawaii coach Nick) Rolovich has done an amazing job of getting that team to play the way that they’re playing. They have an opportunity to get 10 wins and we have an opportunity to build off our season from last year and continue our bowl win streak.”
While BYU is looking for a positive note to send the seniors out on and gain momentum to use in the offseason, the trip to Honolulu has added meaning for Kaufusi.
The Cougar linebacker was a baby when he made his first trip to Hawaii. His father, Jeff Kaufusi, a 6-foot-6 defensive end on the Utah football team in 1994-96, accepted an invitation to play in the the Hula Bowl — then hosted in Aloha Stadium.
Now, the linebacker will make his return to Aloha Stadium with his own wife and son when the Cougars take on the Rainbow Warriors in the Hawaii Bowl, Dec. 24.
“That’s kind of cool — it was my first bowl and now it’s my son’s first bowl,” Kaufusi said. “So, that’s fun.”