RENO, Nev. – Hawaii's unlikely hero capped one of the most memorable evenings of his life by issuing a warning to the rest of the nation.
"It's not about the quarterback," backup quarterback Tyler Graunke said Friday after rallying the unbeaten Warriors to a 28-26 victory over Nevada. "It's not about the Heisman Trophy candidate. We can win with anybody. We've got a total team here."
Graunke didn't even have to say the words. His performance already had spoken loud and clear.
Hawaii may boast one of the most prolific quarterbacks in college football history, but the Warriors are more than just a one-man show.
Hawaii (10-0, 8-0 Western Athletic Conference) proved as much by passing its toughest road test of the season, even without getting much of a contribution from record-setting quarterback Colt Brennan.
One week after sustaining a concussion in the closing minutes of a 37-30 victory over Fresno State, Brennan played just two snaps against Nevada. That forced the Warriors to rest their hopes of earning a BCS invitation on the right shoulder of Graunke.
The junior backup quarterback responded by throwing for 358 yards and leading a masterful two-minute drill that resulted in Daniel Kelly's game-winning 45-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining.
Graunke's big performance allowed Hawaii to remain in the hunt for a BCS appearance.
Hawaii was 16th in the most recent Bowl Championship Series standings. The Warriors earn an automatic BCS bid if they finish in the top 12, or if they're in the top 16 and are ranked higher than any BCS conference champion.
"Finally everyone sees how good this team – team – really is," Brennan said. "It seems with all the success we've had, the only thing people do is say, 'Hey, they've got a great quarterback and don't have a great team.' ''
There's a pretty good reason Brennan has earned the majority of the attention that has surrounded Hawaii during its run at a perfect season.
NO. 13 HAWAII 28, NEVADA 26
Offensive player of the game
Hawaii QB Tyler Graunke made sure the Warriors didn't miss injured Heisman Trophy candidate Colt Brennan, who was in the game for just two snaps one week after suffering a concussion. Graunke went 33 of 46 for two touchdowns and directed an outstanding two-minute drill that resulted in Daniel Kelly's game-winning 45-yard field goal.
Offensive player of the game (Honorable mention)
Nevada RB Luke Lippincott ran for 140 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries for his fifth consecutive 100-yard game. Lippincott also caught two passes for 28 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown.
Defensive players of the game
Their team may not have won the game, but Nevada DE Kevin Basped and LB Ezra Butler deserve credit for their hard-hitting performances. Basped collected 1.5 sacks and had a spectacular fourth-quarter play in which he knocked the ball loose from Graunke and recovered the fumble. Butler made nine tackles – one for a loss – and recorded half a sack. Hawaii DE David Veikune stopped Brandon Fragger on a third-down play to prevent Nevada from running out the clock.
Twice as nice
Kelly actually ended up making the game-winning field goal twice. Nevada coach Chris Ault continued the popular national trend of calling a timeout just as the opposing team is about to snap the ball on a potential game-winning field goal. Ault's late timeout nullified Kelly's first attempt at the 45-yard field goal, which barely cleared the crossbar. Kelly's second try probably would have been good from 55 yards out. "You can't think about getting iced," Kelly said. "You go through your progressions and make your kick. I don't believe God puts you in any position that he thinks you can fail. He only puts you in positions you can thrive in. That's the position I got put in today."
Turning point number one
Nevada owned a 20-19 lead in the third quarter when Wolf Pack cornerback Paul Pratt appeared to strip the ball from Davone Bess at the end of a 20-yard completion. Although replays indicated Bess had lost the ball before hitting the ground, he was ruled down by contact. Hawaii went on to score a touchdown later in that drive.
Turning point number two
Lippincott's 14-yard run late in the fourth quarter gave Nevada a first down at Hawaii's 40-yard line with a chance to extend its 26-25 lead or run out the clock. Nevada then ran the ball three straight times and gained only six yards, giving Hawaii enough time to drive for the winning field goal.
Hawaii isn't known for its defense, but the Warriors did a nice job of shutting down celebrated Nevada redshirt freshman quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who went 9-for-20 for 134 yards through the air and rushed for only 23 yards on 11 carries. Kaepernick had delivered Tim Tebow-like numbers earlier this season against Fresno State (384 passing yards, 60 rushing yards, five total touchdowns), Boise State (243 passing yards, 177 rushing yards, five total touchdowns) and New Mexico State (237 passing yards, 136 rushing yards, five total touchdowns).
What this means for Hawaii
The Warriors and Kansas remain the nation's only two unbeaten teams. Hawaii has an excellent chance of earning a BCS bid if it beats Boise State and Washington in its final two regular-season games.
What this means for Nevada
The Wolf Pack fall to 5-5 and probably need to win their final two regular-season games against San Jose State and Louisiana Tech to have any shot at a bowl bid.
By playing for only two snaps, Brennan ended his string of 34 consecutive games in which he'd thrown at least one touchdown pass. Brennan was one game shy of the NCAA record held by former Brigham Young star Ty Detmer. … Hawaii has won eight consecutive road games for the first time in school history. … Hawaii WR Jason Rivers has caught at least one pass in 47 consecutive games. No other receiver in the nation has a streak that long.
Brennan has thrown 135 career touchdown passes to tie the NCAA Division I record set by 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer of Brigham Young. Brennan is the biggest reason why Hawaii entered the night having averaged an NCAA-leading 50.2 points per game.
As soon as Brennan got hurt last week, the following two questions dominated water-cooler discussions around Hawaii.
Would Brennan be healthy enough to play against Nevada? Could the Warriors win without him?
Brennan did make a couple of cameo appearances Saturday. He threw a 7-yard pass to Davone Bess on the game's second play from scrimmage as Hawaii alternated three quarterbacks on its opening possession. He also tossed a 14-yard completion to Bess on the opening play of Hawaii's third series.
But he would spend the rest of the game on the sideline.
"I just wanted to get him in and throw a couple of passes," Hawaii coach June Jones said. "The type of passes he was going to throw, he wouldn't have to risk any injury."
Brennan didn't have a problem with his coach's decision, no matter how much he wanted to stay in the game.
"There's a good chance I'd have gotten another concussion if I'd taken a good enough shot," Brennan said. "Next week I'll be 100 percent and won't have to worry about getting hit or anything."
Next week's showdown with Boise State wouldn't have meant nearly as much if Brennan's understudy had failed to deliver a strong performance.
Graunke knew earlier in the week that he'd be playing the majority of the game. He only slept two hours Thursday night in nervous anticipation for his long-awaited opportunity.
After all, Graunke had signed with Hawaii in 2004 assuming he'd redshirt a year before replacing Timmy Chang, who owned most of the Warriors' school passing records before Brennan's arrival. Brennan showed up on campus as a transfer the following year and forced Graunke to wait patiently for a few more seasons.
"It's taught me a lot of valuable life lessons," Graunke said. "I knew it would pay off for me, if not this year, then next year."
That wasn't the first time Graunke had run into adversity.
Even though he set Arizona's single-season high school passing record by throwing for 3,372 yards at Salpoint Catholic High in Tucson, Ariz., Graunke didn't have many Division I recruiters from the mainland knocking on his door. That's why he ended up at Hawaii.
"I didn't get any Pac-10 offers," Graunke said. "I don't care. They can look at me and look at Colt and just wish and say, 'What if?' ''
Brennan's injury finally gave Graunke a chance to show those schools what they're missing.
He completed 13 of his first 14 attempts and threw a pair of touchdown passes without getting intercepted all night. Graunke connected with seven different receivers and rewarded his teammates' faith in him.
"We take as much reps in practice with Tyler as we do with Colt," said wide receiver Jason Rivers, who caught four passes for 26 yards and a touchdown. "When he comes into the game, it's no different. We expect him to be as good as Colt. We expect him to have the ball where we need it."
As well as Graunke played for most of the night, it looked as though his outstanding performance would have a disappointing conclusion.
Hawaii's inability to stop Nevada's running attack allowed the Wolf Pack to turn a 19-7 deficit into a 26-25 lead. Graunke said he "blacked out for a second" after absorbing a hard hit in the fourth quarter. He fumbled the ball away after getting sacked midway through the final period and failed to convert a fourth-and-3 pass on Hawaii's second-to-last possession.
By the time the Warriors got the ball back at their 12-yard line, they had 3:02 remaining with no timeouts. That's when Graunke got a pep talk from his more celebrated teammate.
"I owe it to (Brennan), man," Graunke said. "On that last drive, he was just telling me, 'Everything's cool. Just stay calm and we're going to pull it off.' You've got to believe. That's our motto this season. You've got to believe."
Graunke proceeded to give his teammates reason to believe.
His first three completions of that final drive all came close enough to the sideline to allow his receivers to run out of bounds and stop the clock. Graunke later made a critical 13-yard completion to Ryan Grice-Mullen on a third-and-6 play that brought Hawaii into field-goal range.
Nevada knew Graunke had to move the ball through the air because Hawaii was out of timeouts, but the Wolf Pack still couldn't stop him.
"He's a good QB," Nevada cornerback Paul Pratt said. "He is definitely the future for Hawaii."
Graunke proved Friday that he's also a big part of Hawaii's present.