HONOLULU — When we got our first look at the 2013 University of Hawaii football team during a 30-13 loss to the University of Southern California, the common impression was this:
Defense is surprisingly solid; offense surprisingly bad.
Seven weeks and five more losses later, the impression is this:
Offense has made tremendous strides … but the defense? It has disappointingly gotten worse.
The numbers tell a disturbing story: Total yards allowed to USC was 364; at Oregon State, 504; at Nevada, 304; vs. Fresno State, 530; vs. San Jose State, 534; at University of Nevada-Las Vegas, 579.
Even worse is the points allowed: 30 vs. USC, 33 at Oregon State, 31 at Nevada, 42 vs. Fresno State, 37 vs. San Jose State, 39 vs. UNLV.
When a team allows an average of 475.8 yards and 35.3 points per game, that goes a long way toward explaining an 0-6 start.
What is difficult to explain, is why a defense that looked so promising against then-24th-ranked USC has become so porous and vulnerable to the big play.
Granted, USC proved to be over-rated and did even worse the following week in a 10-7 home loss to Washington State. But Hawaii’s defensive front more than held its own against what was supposed to be a physically superior Trojans offensive line, and USC’s All-America receiver, Marqise Lee, was pretty much held in check (8 catches, 104 yards, 0 touchdowns).
The Rainbow Warriors defense showed promise again at Oregon State, limiting the Beavers to 1.7 yards per rushing attempt. UH did OK at Nevada, holding the Wolf Pack to 10 first downs and 340 total yards, but the offense committed six turnovers and put the defense in bad positions.
The offense’s inability to move the ball in the first 2 ½ quarters hurt against Fresno State, contributing to a 42-3 deficit, but the defense allowed 4.6 yards per rush. Three freshmen then helped San Jose State rush for a season-high 216 yards against the Rainbow Warriors.
Last Saturday, UNLV rushed for 194 yards, including 162 by Tim Cornett.
How is it that two Pac-12 teams, USC and Oregon State, rushed for fewer yards against UH than San Jose State and UNLV — two programs not known for physical superiority?
Hawaii’s personnel has not changed much: 10 of the 11 defensive starters at UNLV also started vs. USC, including the entire front four.
The offense has improved by leaps and bounds since then, putting drives together and giving the defense more time to rest.
Yet the numbers are stunning: UNLV gained 38 first downs, and was 8-for-20 (40 percent) on third-down conversions.
USC had 23 first downs, and was 3-of-14 on third down.
To be fair, UH’s defense did come up with a huge goal-line stand against UNLV, and a lost fumble resulted in a Rebels touchdown that really wasn’t the defense’s fault.
One of Fresno State’s TDs was a pick-6, and the Rainbow Warriors did shut out the Bulldogs in the final 20 minutes by coming up with key turnovers.
But the staunch run defense, consistently tight pass coverage and clutch third-down stops that gave us so much hope in the USC game are somehow now fewer and farther in between.
The team’s early identity of “strong defense, weak offense” has almost reversed itself seven weeks later.
Solving this mystery and fixing the problem — whatever it is — should be defensive coordinator Thom Kaumeyer’s primary assignment during this bye week.
If the defense we saw vs. USC could be combined with the new and improved offense, a sorely-needed victory vs. Colorado State on Oct. 26 will be that much more likely.