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November 21, 2007
Hawaii hopes to prove it belongs in BCS
RENO, Nev. – There's little reason to believe Hawaii would win a BCS game.
The Warriors probably don't have a good-enough defense to survive against a big-time opponent. Their high-powered offense likely wouldn't operate as effectively against a BCS-caliber defense.
Then again, most of the nation said the same things about Boise State this time last season.
Argue all you want about Hawaii's allegedly soft defense or softer schedule. The Warriors still deserve a chance to measure themselves in a BCS bowl if they beat Boise State and Washington in their two remaining regular-season games.
They'll probably get that shot as long as they remain unbeaten.
Hawaii is ranked 15th in this week's BCS standings. The Warriors earn an automatic BCS bid if they finish in the top 12. They also would earn an automatic invitation if they're in the top 16 and are ranked higher than any BCS conference champion.
"We wanted this to be the season of firsts," junior linebacker Adam Leonard said Friday after the Warriors completed their road schedule with a 28-26 victory at Nevada. "The first team to go undefeated. The first team to win the WAC outright. The first team to win in Reno. This could be a big season, and we've got the players and coaches to accomplish those goals."
Hawaii has moved closer to attaining those goals by bucking the stereotypes that typically have accompanied this program.
1. They're a one-man team
Hawaii's Colt Brennan has broken or tied 27 NCAA records and has been responsible for 135 touchdowns during his college career, but the Warriors have proved this season that he's not their only weapon. Backup quarterback Tyler Graunke rallied the Warriors to the victory over Nevada while making his second start in place of an injured Brennan.
Hawaii coach June Jones' system is a quarterback's dream, particularly when he's throwing to a receiving corps that features three guys with over 200 career catches and 3,000 career receiving yards: Ryan Grice-Mullen, Davone Bess and Jason Rivers.
"This year, with all the success we've had, the only thing people do is say, 'Oh, they've got a great quarterback but don't have a great team,' '' Brennan said. "If you've watched me this year, I've struggled at times. And this team has been there so many times and has done so many good things as a team."
Brennan threw five interceptions in a 48-20 victory over Idaho and was picked off four times in a 48-45 overtime win over San Jose State, so the Warriors know how to win when their quarterback isn't on top of his game.
2. They can't win away from home
Hawaii is 54-20 at home and 20-20 on the road in Jones' nine-year tenure, but the Warriors have changed that trend recently by winning a school-record eight consecutive road games.
"I feel like before, that's been our biggest downfall," Leonard said. "The weakest point of teams in the past is they didn't win all the time on the road. This year we (went) undefeated on the road."
It hasn't been easy.
The Warriors escaped Louisiana Tech 45-44 in its road opener only after cornerback Gerard Lewis deflected a two-point conversion attempt in overtime. Five weeks later, Hawaii erased a 14-point deficit in the final four minutes of regulation and rallied to beat San Jose State in overtime. Hawaii won at Nevada for the first time in school history when Dan Kelly made a game-winning 45-yard field goal with 11 seconds left. And 10 of Brennan's 12 interceptions have come on the road.
By contrast, Hawaii has won its five home games by an average margin of 23 points.
But the Warriors' ability to find ways to win away from home indicates they wouldn't feel out of their element if they spent the holidays in Arizona or New Orleans.
Hawaii is never going to be known for its defense as long as it throws the ball 50 times a game, but the Warriors have proved this season they can make big plays on both sides of the ball.
The Warriors have allowed only 23.5 points per game and are ranked fourth in the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. They did an outstanding job last week of containing versatile Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had accounted for five touchdowns in three separate games this season.
Leonard said the resurgence started with the arrival of former defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville, who gave the defense more of an attitude before taking over as Portland State's coach prior to this season. The Warriors have continued their steady progress under new defensive coordinator Greg McMackin.
"(Glanville) changed the mentality from a team that if you don't score 40 it's going to be a tough win to a team now that can play games that are in their 20s or 30s and still have an opportunity to win," Leonard said.
Hawaii has gained respectability on defense, but the Warriors are still far from elite on that side of the ball. They must do a much better of stopping the run.
The Warriors have given up 4.3 yards per carry in their past two games and allowed Nevada's Luke Lippincott to rush for 140 yards last week. Georgia's Knowshon Moreno could run wild against this team in a potential Sugar Bowl matchup.
4. They're capitalizing on a lightweight schedule
This is the knock on Hawaii that carries the most merit.
Boise State gained some legitimacy last year with a 42-14 thrashing of an Oregon State team that went on to win 10 games. Hawaii's résumé includes a 63-6 thrashing of Northern Colorado (a Division I-AA team with a 1-11 record) and a 66-10 rout of Charleston Southern (a I-AA program with a 5-6 mark). The Warriors won't face a BCS team until they play host to Washington in their Dec. 1 regular-season finale.
Hawaii officials have responded to criticism of the light schedule by pointing out the difficulty in getting big-time programs to leave the mainland. The Warriors' schedule was lighter than usual this year in part because Michigan State backed out of a scheduled game.
The lack of quality opponents makes it impossible to measure this team's strength, though Boise State and Washington could help answer many of those questions. The Warriors aren't as battle-tested as last season's Boise State team. They may not even be as strong as this season's Boise State squad, which also has BCS aspirations.
Hawaii hasn't faced many quality teams, but the Warriors still have encountered plenty of adversity. They've played two full games without Brennan. They've come from behind in the last two minutes of regulation three times. They might not know how to schedule, but they certainly know how to win.
"Hopefully everyone will realize how special this team is," Brennan said.
How special are they? Brennan would love to answer that question in the same way Boise State did last season.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.