Warriors staying loose in Utah
Hawaii has the confidence that comes with trotting out the hottest offense in the country
HYRUM, Utah » You've heard of walk-throughs the day before games. A lot of what Hawaii did yesterday at Mountain Crest High School could be called a sit-through.
Most of the Warriors' 60-player travel squad sat through the last part of practice, joking and trying to stay warm, bundled up in sweats. The coaches dressed to retain body heat, too -- except for Dennis McKnight, who braved 40-degrees-and-dropping in a sleeveless T-shirt.
Jerry Glanville -- playing on otherwise-fearless safety Leonard Peters' distaste for the turbulence on the flight in -- told tall tales of NFL charters falling from the sky at unsafe speeds.
There was some activity, as the offense and defense went through a few final preparations.
On one pass play, quarterback Colt Brennan heaved a pretty spiral high into the cold, gray sky. The ball fell right into the hands of a striding Jason Rivers, 50 yards downfield.
It looked like perfection.
But coach June Jones saw something less.
"Jason! One step!" Jones yelled, finding fault with Rivers' alignment.
On the very next play, Brennan did the same thing on the other side, to Ian Sample.
Jones seemed satisfied with this one.
That's how it is for the Warriors (6-2, 4-1 Western Athletic Conference) as they hope to clinch a winning season and Hawaii Bowl berth tomorrow. They play Utah State (1-7, 1-3) at Romney Stadium in the mid-autumn chill of the Wasatch Mountains.
They are perfecting the little things. They are loose. They are the No. 1 offensive team in the nation. They've won five games in a row.
But they know they can be better.
"We have fun at practice. And we're focused on what we do and we do it," Jones said. "That's the way it's supposed to be."
And they still have things to prove. A victory today means UH completes its road schedule with a winning record of 3-2 and the Warriors move a step closer to a national ranking, their first since 2002, when they won 10 games.
Jones appears to have the kind of team he's been trying to put together since he came to Hawaii in 1999. He's had five winning teams in his first seven years, but this one looks like it could be the best, and getting better as the season goes along.
The offense is led by Brennan. His name is beginning to be written in the same paragraph, if not sentence, with Heisman more and more with each passing day. Pundits are picking up on things like his five games of five touchdown passes and ongoing streak of 158 throws without an interception.
UH has led the nation this late in the season in passing and total offense as it does now, but never before in scoring. Hawaii averages 45.4 points a game. The Warriors put up 68 in two of the last three games, blowouts of Idaho and Fresno State.
They've punted three times and are plus-six in turnovers (8-2) in the past three games and they show no signs of slowing down.
"I think you have to pick your poison when you play us," Jones said. "If you want to sit back there and rush three guys and give (Brennan) all day ... he'll find somebody to throw to. If you want to blitz he finds somebody to throw to."
Or, he'll hand it off to Nate Ilaoa, who averages 7.1 yards per rush. Brennan can scramble, too -- he led the Warriors in rushing last week with five carries for 63 yards.
Today, the Aggies try to stop this machine with a defense that gives up 417.4 yards per game, which is just seventh from the bottom of the pile nationally.
Coach Brent Guy is a realist.
"We're not gonna stop them from throwing and catching the football," he said. "Yards after the catch is what we have to stop."
But achieving even that is questionable, since the Aggies haven't stopped anyone since they beat Fresno State, 13-12, a month ago for their only win.
USU has a talented true freshman hometown quarterback making some positive noise in Riley Allen. But Jones can tell Guy about that. Talented true freshman hometown quarterback Tim Chang started in 2000, and the Warriors won three games, their fewest under Jones.
On offense, the Aggies want to "shorten the game and take away possessions," Guy said. "We have to not allow too many possessions. Like you'd say in tennis, you gotta break serve."
A good theory, but lately the Warriors defenders have been breaking wills.
They wear down opponents with hard hitting, forcing turnovers and knocking quarterbacks and running backs out of games.
"I know from their standpoint, they think it won't happen to them," UH linebacker Adam Leonard said. "The first six plays mean a lot. If we get after them the first couple plays and let them know what kind of ballgame they're in, then it sets in their mind, like, 'They're coming and hitting.'"
The Hawaii special teams have stepped up, as Ross Dickerson opened the Idaho win with a 100-yard kickoff return for a score.
That used to be USU's strength. The Aggies returned three kicks for touchdowns last year, but none this fall. They don't even have a field goal yet.
So Utah State is left with two intangible pluses: altitude and weather. Two factors that might or might not have a bearing on the score.
"Hawaii's a really good team. We're hoping we can beat them. It's getting cold up here, and I don't think they'll like that," said USU defensive end and Punahou graduate Jon Overton.
It will definitely be colder than what the Warriors are used to -- but probably nowhere near cold enough to slow down the hottest offense in the country.