The Nevada Wolf Pack football team was nearly headed back to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco later this month.
"The Kraft Bowl was in the conversation up until the last minute on Sunday," Nevada athletic director Cary Groth said Monday. "It really came down to the wire."
The Wolf Pack, which beat Boston College, 20-13, in the Kraft Bowl last Jan. 9 to cap off a 13-1 season, will meet Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24 (5 p.m., PST).
"I'm not surprised by anything that happens with the bowls," Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault said. "All kinds of things go on at the last minute. There were a lot of unsettled things going on the last few days. But we're very happy to be going back to Hawaii. They do a great job with that bowl."
This will be the Wolf Pack's third trip to the Hawaii Bowl and Southern Mississippi's first.
The Pack beat Central Florida 49-48 in overtime in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl and lost 45-10 to SMU in 2009. That loss to SMU left a bitter taste in Ault's mouth and was a motivating force throughout the 13-1 season in 2010.
"I played in that SMU game," said Wolf Pack junior offensive lineman Chris Barker. "We don't want that to happen again."
Groth made no secret of the fact that she would have preferred for the Wolf Pack to return to San Francisco for the Dec. 31 Kraft Bowl.
"Don't get me wrong, we're very happy to be going to Hawaii," Groth said. "That is a great bowl and the people there do a great job. But, thinking of our fans and our community, it would have been real nice to go back to the Kraft Bowl. We would have had a lot more fans come see our football team play if we were in San Francisco."
Groth said she doesn't expect the Wolf Pack to sell more than a couple hundred tickets to the Hawaii Bowl. The Pack sold around 30,000 tickets last year for the Kraft Bowl and, Groth said, under 200 for the Hawaii Bowl the year before.
"It's tough," Groth said. "It's expensive to go to Hawaii. I imagine we'll get some (players') parents and a few fans but it won't be many."
Groth said she wouldn't have expected the Pack to sell 30,000 tickets to the Kraft Bowl this year. The 2010 Pack team, after all, was coming off a thrilling victory over Boise State at Mackay Stadium and a Western Athletic Conference championship. This Pack team, after all, finished in a tie with Utah State for second place in the WAC, is just 7-5 and drew just 10,027 fans to Mackay Stadium for the 56-3 victory over Idaho that closed out the regular season on Saturday.
"But we might have sold 20,000 (to the Kraft Bowl)," Groth said. "People in this area love San Francisco. It would have been a great New Year's Eve weekend for everyone to go to San Francisco again to see us play a Pac-12 (UCLA) team."
UCLA's opponent in this year's Kraft Bowl will be Illinois of the Big Ten. The Pac-12 was contractually obligated to send a team to the Kraft Bowl so UCLA's ticket to San Francisco is not surprising, The other Kraft Bowl spot opened up when Army, which is also under contract to play in the Kraft Bowl, failed to become bowl eligible. The Kraft Bowl then settled on Illinois, one of 10 Big Ten teams (the conference has a dozen teams this year) that will play in a bowl this year.
"The great thing about all of this is we know the Kraft people would have loved to have us back," Groth said. "We made great friends with that bowl last year. They thought of us and our community again."
The Hawaii Bowl spot opened up for the Wolf Pack because of Hawaii's loss to BYU on Saturday. A Hawaii victory would have given the Warriors a Hawaii Bowl berth and the Pack would have been left scrambling to find a bowl home.
"We would have gone somewhere," Ault said.
"Once Hawaii lost, ESPN really wanted Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl," Groth said.
The WAC will also send conference champion Louisiana Tech to the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 21 in San Diego against TCU and Utah State to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise on Dec. 17 against Ohio.
"I really didn't care where we went," Barker said. "The only thing that matters to me is that we win our last game."
"For me as a senior, I don't want to go out a loser," defensive tackle Brett Roy said. "I am going to do all I can to go out a winner."
The Wolf Pack has lost its last four games in Hawaii dating back to the 2005 Hawaii Bowl win over Central Florida. They've lost three WAC games (2006, 2008, 2010) to Hawaii in Honolulu and the 2009 Hawaii Bowl to SMU.
"That's still not a bad place to spend four or five days," smiled Barker. "But we want to win. When you lose, that plane ride home is a lot longer."
Ault said the Wolf Pack will return to practice on Friday and will leave for Hawaii on either Dec. 19 or 20.
"A challenge we are facing this year is that (the student's final exams) are a week later than normal," Ault said. "So we have to juggle some things in order to get everyone taken care of before we go. Right now we are planning on leaving on the 19th but it might be in the morning on the 20th.
This will be the Wolf Pack's seventh season in a row that has ended in a bowl game. They are 2-4 in the previous six. This will also be the Pack's 12th bowl, dating back to the Jan. 1, 1948 Salad Bowl in Phoenix.
Southern Mississippi is 11-2 and ranked 22nd by the Associated Press. The Golden Eagles, which won the Conference USA championship by upsetting Houston 49-28 in Houston last week, will be going to its 10th consecutive bowl and 14th in its last 15 seasons. The Golden Eagles are led by quarterback Austin Davis who has passed for 3,331 yards and 28 touchdowns this year.
"Southern Miss is an outstanding football team," Ault said. "Offensively they are very explosive with a terrific quarterback and defensively they are very aggressive. There's no question that to beat them we'll have to be at our best."