HONOLULU — If and when the University of Hawaii football program reaches the level of “chasing championships” that head coach Norm Chow promised upon his hiring, we may look back at Saturday’s 42-37 loss to No. 25-ranked Fresno State as the first major milestone.
Right now it goes into the books simply as another “L,” dropping the Rainbow Warriors to 0-4 in Year 2 of Chow’s tenure, 3-13 overall.
But for those who braved the heavy raindrops and stayed at Aloha Stadium despite a mass exodus when the score became 42-3 with 6:15 remaining the third quarter, what was witnessed and tangibly felt afterward was long-awaited affirmation that things are headed in the right direction.
In a span of 21 minutes on the clock and about an hour of real time, doubts about UH’s offensive potential suddenly disappeared, frustration from countless three-and-outs evaporated, and belief that this program can truly rebound magically materialized.
It took a stunningly impressive relief appearance by senior Sean Schroeder — an almost forgotten man — to get things started.
Schroeder, whose number was called after a pick-6 thrown by freshman Ikaika Woolsey put the Bulldogs up 42-3, played like a guy who was getting one last opportunity to prove his worth.
And he delivered.
On his first snap, Schroeder unleashed a 60-yard completion to Chris Gant to give the Rainbow Warriors first-and-goal at the 3. Freshman fullback Steven Lakalaka then ran it in for his first career touchdown.
After both plays, the cheering from Hawaii fans was more about relief than jubilation, as it had been more than four long quarters — since early in the Sept. 21 Nevada game — without hitting pay dirt.
Following an Art Laurel interception off a deflection at the line of scrimmage, Schroeder quickly went to work again: a 20-yard completion to Gant, then a 23-yard perfect spiral to Gant again in the end zone.
It’s now 42-17.
After Marrel Jackson’s fumble recovery halted Fresno State’s next possession, Schroeder connected with Gant for 49 yards, then found Vasquez Haynes on a 16-yard TD pass to close it to 42-24 with 14:16 left in the game.
At this point, the offensive production and big-play potential was not just a sign of relief — it started fans thinking that victory is still possible.
That really became the case just two minutes later, when Schroeder threaded a swing pass to Billy Ray Stutzmann, who quickly spun around a cornerback and raced 35 yards to the end zone to make it 42-30 with 11:59 remaining.
When Lakalaka scored again on a 1-yard plunge and it became 42-37 with 7:51 left, the stadium was buzzing: “Could this be happening?” “Who is this gun-slinging, sharp-shooting quarterback? And what did he do with Sean Schroeder?”
And, “Is this the same UH offense that scored 36 points — total — in the first three losses?”
All of a sudden, the stadium, and the Rainbow Warrior program, had the feeling of UH’s glory days under Dick Tomey, Bob Wagner and June Jones.
The feeling that despite being underfunded, under-recruited, under-dogged, Hawaii can compete with and even beat Top 25 teams.
It’s been a while — at least a couple of years — since we’ve felt that.
Alas, hopes for an upset Saturday finally got dashed with a Hail Mary interception on the game’s final play.
But the fact that the game even got to that point is a credit to the Rainbow Warrior players and coaches, and a strong signal that things are finally coming together.
There may still be lingering questions about the program’s future under Chow, but what is now clear is that this team has bought into his lessons of never giving up, of always working hard and fighting to the finish.
That usually results in wins, eventually.
Chow, who maintains he does not believe in “moral victories,” said on TV on Sunday: “I feel good about the effort of our guys. Hopefully this will be the beginning of something very positive.”
If completed, Saturday’s rally would have gone down as the greatest comeback victory in college football history.
It wasn’t, but it can still be historic: It may be the first real step toward ultimately chasing championships.
Wes Nakama is a Honolulu-based freelance reporter and former sports editor of Ka Leo, the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s student newspaper. He also is a former sports reporter for ScoringLive.com, The Honolulu Advertiser, Contra Costa (Calif.) Times, Boca Raton (Fla.) News and Sun Press (Kaneohe, Oahu) Newspapers. He will periodically write a column for Stephens Media Hawaii. He can be reached at email@example.com.