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Hawaii's offensive line blossoms into tight unit


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POSTED: Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fans and writers don't have to heed the 48-hour rule — you know, the one that Hawaii football coach Greg McMackin has for his team. Especially after a tough loss, he says, it's time to move on after two days and look ahead to the next opponent.

But with 10 days off between games, I'll take the liberty of lingering on the last one a bit.

Don't worry, Kool-Aid konsumers. Instead of piling on with more about why the Warriors were left standing in the middle of the desert waiting for their ship to come in, I want to look a little closer at the biggest positive to come out of Saturday night's one-point loss at UNLV.

That would be the play of the Warriors' offensive line.

“;We were playing five tough guys the whole game, plus they were the wedge on the punt return,”; McMackin said at his weekly media meet-up yesterday. “;They're playing at a winning percentage.”;

From left to right it's Aaron Kia, Ray Hisatake, John Estes, Raphael Ieru and Laupepa Letuli. And they were excellent Saturday night. UH allowed just two sacks for 10 yards. For most of the game, quarterback Greg Alexander had plenty of time to find his receivers, even in routes that took lots of time to develop. Running backs Leon Wright-Jackson and Alex Green also succeeded picking up blitzers.

These are the same guys who couldn't block their defensive teammates in fall camp. It's the same group that had so much trouble with Central Arkansas that UH's most-used play in its season opener was the quarterback scramble.

Something has clicked for them. Five fingers have balled into a fist.

“;Their goal is one sack out of 20 passes,”; McMackin said. “;In three games they're at one out of 25.”;

Last year UH was sacked 57 times — the most in the nation. So the fact that three starters were coming back was not necessarily considered a good thing. Now it is.

New offensive line coach Gordy Shaw's teachings must be taking hold.

“;I'm real proud of them, and it starts with (center) John Estes,”; McMackin said.

UNLV, which had lost its last two meetings with UH, had a “;revenge look,”; he said. Early in Saturday's game, after a play, a Rebels player shoved UH receiver Kealoha Pilares and another hit Estes.

“;(The Hawaii players) both walked away, and UNLV got a penalty for a personal foul,”; McMackin said.

That scenario might not have played out that way last year, when the Warriors' offensive linemen were getting flagged almost as often as they yielded sacks. This is a more disciplined team than last year. Along those lines, McMackin said yesterday that defensive tackle Tuika Tufaga did not say anything when he was called for taunting Saturday.

Estes was thrust into a leadership role last year. He was a returning All-WAC center, and the only offensive player left who had started on the tremendous 2006 and 2007 teams. Now he's a two-time All-WAC center, and the only relevant link on the entire roster of players to those years when UH went 23-4.

If the offensive line remains injury-free and continues to play as well as it did Saturday, you know the rest of it. They give Alexander time to go through his progressions, the receivers to run their routes. They spring the running backs. And — if the defense gets better, too — UH will win more games than most expected.

“;We're better than we were at any other time last year,”; McMackin said of the offense overall.

The biggest reason is the vast improvement by the line.

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Reach Star-Bulletin sports columnist Dave Reardon at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), his “;Quick Reads”; blog at starbulletin.com, and twitter.com/davereardon.