Elimination game for Hawaii
Either Hawaii or Nevada will face the task of starting WAC play winless after two games
The road to the Western Athletic Conference football championship goes through Boise. It has for five years now.
But it ends for either Hawaii (2-2, 0-1 WAC) or Nevada (3-2, 0-1) tonight at Aloha Stadium.
Even the winner of tonight's game needs the four-time-champion Broncos to stumble somewhere along the line in order to claim a share of the WAC title, as the Wolf Pack did last season.
Tonight's losing team has to re-set its goals and hope to bounce back well enough to win enough games for a bowl bid.
Last year, the Wolf Pack beat a rebuilding Warriors team in Reno, 38-28. At the time, it knocked UH out of any possibility of a fifth consecutive winning season and a fourth straight Hawaii Bowl appearance.
And guess who represented the WAC in that postseason game.
"They came back and played in our home bowl. Some of us are taking it a little personal," UH sophomore slotback Davone Bess told the Associated Press.
Nevada had never won at Aloha Stadium until it beat Central Florida 49-48 in the overtime thriller on Christmas Eve while the Warriors had the holiday off.
Although the Wolf Pack might not feel as far from home as in previous visits, the Warriors are 12-point favorites tonight.
That's because UH has dominated its two home games (routs of UNLV and Eastern Illinois) and came close to monumental upsets on the road (one-possession losses at Alabama and Boise State).
Also, since they've been in the WAC, the home team in the Nevada-Hawaii series always wins. Always, as in all six times.
"This is going to be my third time playing in Hawaii," said Wolf Pack receiver Caleb Spencer, a Kamehameha graduate. "The last one (the Hawaii Bowl) was a lot of fun. We got our butts kicked the other time."
When it came to crunch-time in Reno last year, it was the other way around. UH allowed five sacks, committed untimely turnovers and wilted on defense in the fourth quarter.
"We weren't ourselves in that game," Warriors coach June Jones said.
Inside linebacker Adam Leonard, a true freshman then, got his first meaningful action. Since then, a knee he tore up in high school has become sturdier, and so has Leonard's play. He is the Warriors' leading tackler this fall.
"Our defense is capable of playing four quarters each game. It's just a matter of limiting mistakes, or when we make a mistake not let it hurt us for a big play or a touchdown," Leonard said. "I think we're slowly but surely building up to the point where we eliminate all our mistakes. We know our defense very extensively and we've got a lot of things up our sleeves that we haven't shown."
Leonard and the rest of the Warriors defense will have to disarm Nevada's unique "Pistol" offense.
Quarterback Jeff Rowe lines up 4 yards behind the center, with the running back another yard back.
Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault installed it last year, his second season since returning to the Nevada sideline.
"I had nightmares all through that first year," he said. "I knew I had to do something because we just weren't that good."
Ault said he thought about the alignment and its possibilities after retiring from coaching and becoming Nevada's athletic director.
"I wasn't planning on coming back to coaching, it was just a passing thought," he said.
Actually, it's as much a running thought. Balance is a hallmark of the scheme, which has generated 162 yards rushing and 178.2 passing this season.
"They like to run a lot of stuff, but the running backs are north to south," Leonard said. "They don't like to give you a lot of moves they just like to run hard."
Moving the chains is key tonight, Spencer said.
"We just have to be consistent and keep their offense off the field," he said. "They can go all the way down the field and score in 1 minute."
Hawaii's quick-strike attack has been especially effective at home so far this season, with quarterback Colt Brennan and most of the other starters done before the end of the third quarter.
The Warriors scored 107 points in Aloha Stadium wins against Nevada in 2002 and 2004, games that UH won by an average of 22 points.
Brennan has only the recent history of last year in Reno as personal experience.
One reason UH lost in 2005 was that it made two turnovers against the Wolf Pack while forcing none. That trend has continued this year with Nevada up 14-7 and Hawaii down 12-5 on fumbles and interceptions.
"You're going to see a similarity to Boise State on the Nevada football team. Maybe not the marquee athletes Boise has, but they have very sound football players," Brennan said. "They know how to play the game, they're very disciplined and they know how to do what they're coached. Very structured, very disciplined and we have to be ready to knock that down."