Five keys to the Hawaii Bowl matchup

It's hardly déjà vu 25 years later, but the last time the SMU Mustangs played in a bowl game, it was also in Hawaii.

Thursday's long-awaited bowl return comes at the Hawaii Bowl, as second-year coach June Jones fulfilled a goal to bring his new team to his former state.

In 1984 at what was then the Aloha Bowl, SMU finished 10-2 after beating Notre Dame 27-20. The Irish won't be back in Hawaii, but SMU will have its hands full with the ground game of the Nevada Wolf Pack, the first team in NCAA history to produce three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.

This game shapes up as Jones' aerial attack -- although it's not quite up to the standards Hawaii fans became accustomed to -- against Nevada's ground game, which is rather depleted.

"We're going to have to attack that defense in their secondary," SMU freshman quarterback Kyle Padron said.

The good news for SMU's defense is that the Wolf Pack's ground attack has lost two-thirds of its firepower -- both star running backs -- to injury and academic ineligibility.

Here are five matchups to watch:

1. SMU defense versus Nevada rushers

The Mustangs weren't great against the run this season, allowing 169.2 yards a game, good for just seventh in Conference USA. So going up against the first team in NCAA history to boast three 1,000-yard rushers didn't seem like an attractive matchup.

But SMU's assignment has changed dramatically. Nevada will play without its two star running backs. Team rushing leader Vai Taua (1,345 yards) has been ruled academically ineligible, and Luke Lippincott (1,034) is out with a toe injury. That leaves the nation's No. 1 ground game (362.3 yards a game) with just one-third of its rushing prowess in quarterback Colin Kaepernick (1,160).

No other Nevada running back has rushed for more than Mark Lampford's 293 yards. Suddenly, this is a very different Wolf Pack offense.

2. SMU O-line versus Nevada DEs

The Mustangs' offensive line is led by senior center Mitch Enright, a two-time Rimington Trophy watch list selection. Around Enright are four sophomores. The line has given up 34 sacks on the season.

They'll need to be on their game against Nevada's stellar defensive ends. Junior Dontay Moch was voted WAC Defensive Player of the Year and led the Wolf Pack with 7.5 sacks. Right behind him is junior Kevin Basped, a second-team all-conference selection with 6.5 sacks.

If the line can protect Padron, the Mustangs should find success in a secondary that has had trouble all season long.

3. QB Kyle Padron versus Nevada secondary

Padron took over for injured starter Bo Levi Mitchell at the end of October and never relinquished the job, not bad for a true freshman. Padron has good size (6-foot-4, 201 pounds), poise and instincts. He completed 103 of 160 passes (64 percent) for 1,462 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

Nevada's secondary should have Padron plenty excited, like a surfer eyeing a killer wave on Hawaii's North Shore. The Wolf Pack ranked 119th in pass defense out of 120 FBS teams. They've allowed 31 touchdowns on the season.

Not helping Nevada's cause is the suspension of safety Duke Williams, who was eighth on the team in tackles. Also, backup linebacker Andre Davis, who played in 11 games, has been dismissed from the team. Both players engaged in behavior detrimental to the team.

4. WR Emmanuel Sanders versus Nevada secondary

As the playmaker in Nevada's defensive backfield with one interception and eight pass breakups, Jonathon Amaya certainly will provide plenty of help to the cornerbacks against the dangerous Sanders, who leads all active NCAA players with 33 career touchdowns.

Sanders has benefited from Jones' wide-open passing attack. He has 91 catches on the season for 1,215 yards. He holds SMU's all-time mark in receptions (278) and receiving yards (3,667) and has the school's single-game record for catches (18).

If Amaya and Nevada become overly concerned with Sanders, however, SMU will burn them with a trio of capable receivers. Junior Aldrick Robinson (5-10, 175) has 38 catches for 624 yards and five touchdowns. Terrance Wilkerson has four touchdowns among his 40 catches for 509 yards, and sophomore Cole Beasley (5-9, 170) has 37 catches for 405 yards and two touchdowns.

5. SMU balance versus Nevada scoring

The Mustangs' spread offense could work into the hands of the Wolf Pack if SMU can't achieve some balance. Quick three-and-out possessions by SMU would give explosive Nevada more chances to score. Of course, Nevada's injury situation in the backfield already could be too problematic too overcome.

Still, SMU will need to get junior running back Shawnbrey McNeal going. The transfer from Miami brought balance to the offense during the season, rushing for 1,125 yards and nine touchdowns on 224 carries.

Last year, when SMU went 1-11 in Jones' first season, the Mustangs rushed for 497 yards as a team. McNeal should help SMU hold on to the ball longer, and the more SMU's offense can keep Nevada's offense off the field, the more the Ponies have to like their chances.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.