HONOLULU — With an 0-5 start and three of its next four games on the road, the University of Hawaii football team’s immediate future may not look so bright.
And if you are to believe the growing number of people already pushing the panic button, UH football’s long-term future looks even worse.
Try not to believe them.
Beneath the surface of the five losses is a team that has shown clear signs of improvement — just not quite enough to result in a victory.
And that has as much to do with the opponents, schedule and injuries as it does the state of the Rainbow Warriors program.
It was a concern even last summer that UH may indeed be improved, but the record may not reflect it because of the brutal schedule.
USC is 3-2, Oregon State is 4-1 … both are Pac-12 schools with much larger budgets, more resources and superior facilities compared to Hawaii’s. Nevada is 3-3, coming off a bowl-eligible season and was at home vs. UH in 51-degree weather. Fresno State is 5-0 and ranked No. 21 in the latest AP Top 25.
San Jose State is 2-3, but those three losses were to No. 5 Stanford, Minnesota (4-2) and Utah State (3-3, 2-0 Mountain West Conference). The Spartans are coming off an 11-2 season with many returnees, including a potential first-round NFL pick at quarterback.
Doing the math: Hawaii opponents are a combined 17-9.
Yet against each of them, the Rainbow Warriors have shown clear signs of improvement:
• vs. USC, the defense held the Trojans to 3 of 14 on third-down conversions;
• at Oregon State, UH overcame a 14-0 deficit to tie it at 14-14 by halftime;
• at Nevada, the offense finally showed consistency moving the ball (376 total yards, 20 first downs);
• vs. Fresno State, 34 unanswered points in the final 21 minutes;
• vs. San Jose State, more consistency on offense (473 total yards, 386 yards passing, 22 first downs — all season highs).
And just like the week before, the Rainbow Warriors really were just a few plays — inches — away from a different outcome:
• Early in the second quarter, Hawaii stalls a Spartans drive at its own 34, but Austin Lopez’s career-best 51-yard field goal bounces on the crossbar and falls over, giving San Jose State a 20-14 lead.
• Late in the second quarter, trailing 20-14, UH faced fourth-and-1 at midfield. Steven Lakalaka gets stopped for a 1-yard loss, and the Spartans score three plays later to make it 27-14. Who knows what happens if Lakalaka gets that yard?
• Late in the third quarter, on third-and-7 from the San Jose State 9, Sean Schroeder throws a pass that is deflected by a Spartans defender and falls into the hands of Chris Gant for an apparent touchdown. But the pass is ruled incomplete because Gant bobbled it and did not maintain possession before tumbling out of bounds. Tyler Hadden then misses a 27-yard field goal, and the Rainbow Warriors come up empty despite a 74-yard drive.
The most disturbing part of this loss was the 534 yards allowed, including 216 rushing to a team that entered the game ranked 117th in the nation (out of 123 teams) in ground attack.
But that appears to be the result of mental lapses opposed to physical inferiority or lack of talent. San Jose State quarterback David Fales, who led the nation in pass efficiency in 2012, only completed 16 of 35 passes, but three of those completions were TD throws of 61, 35 and 27 yards.
“Right now, it’s too easy for (opponents) to score, and if we’re gonna win, we gotta stop that,” said UH defensive coordinator Thom Kaumeyer. “We gotta keep making plays and eliminate the mistakes.”
It’s fixable stuff, and the defense has already shown (vs. USC, in the fourth quarter vs. Fresno State) it is capable of fixing it.
This is much different from a team that lacks any kind of talent, is getting physically dominated and incapable of executing.
On the contrary, this team has some talent, can compete physically and has shown long stretches of execution.
In other words: things are not quite as bad as they may seem.
“Our young guys are still playing, they’re still trying, I’m proud of them,” coach Norm Chow said Sunday. “We just cannot keep making mistakes against good teams. I love our players, love their attitude … we haven’t lost them. They’re good young people — they just need to play smarter.”
This team has not given up yet … so neither should their fans.
Wes Nakama is a Honolulu-based freelance reporter who periodically writes a column for Stephens Media Hawaii. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org