HONOLULU — A college football adage asserts that a team’s biggest improvement usually is apparent between its first and second games.
After last Saturday’s 17-16 home loss to No. 25-ranked Washington, many University of Hawaii football fans came away impressed and optimistic for the remainder of the 2014 season. And rightfully so — the Rainbow Warriors were outstanding on defense (except for two big touchdown plays) and played a solid, nearly mistake-free game on offense and special teams.
In short, they looked much improved from last season.
The scary part is, we felt pretty much the same way this time last year, after a spirited 30-13 home loss to then-No. 24 Southern California. Hawaii’s defense was impressive in that game, too, holding the Trojans to 172 passing yards overall and allowing only a field goal through much of the first half.
The difference this time is that the Rainbow Warriors shut out the Huskies in the second half, the UH offense did not turn the ball over and was much more productive (26 first downs, 217 yards rushing, 207 yards passing) than it was against USC. That certainly is cause for hope.
There was hope last year, too, in the second game at Oregon State when the Rainbow Warriors rallied from a 14-0 deficit to make it 14-14 at halftime. But the Beavers responded with 19 unanswered points in the second half to win, 33-14, and send Hawaii on a downward spiral it never really recovered from until the season-ending victory over Army.
A year later, here we are again: Facing Oregon State, this time at home, coming off a spirited home loss vs. a ranked Pac-12 Conference opponent.
The main concerns this week are the health of starting center Kody Afusia and improvement of the receiving corps. Afusia suffered a fractured right (snapping) hand in the first quarter last Saturday and was held out the remainder of the game, though he is expected to play against Oregon State.
The offensive line did a good job protecting quarterback Ikaika Woolsey, allowing only three sacks in 50 passing situations, and creating holes for fullback Joey Iosefa, who rushed for 143 yards on 30 carries. But it scored its only touchdown when Afusia was in the game.
Woolsey was 23 of 47 for 207 yards, with a few misfires but no interceptions. Junior receiver Quinton Pedroza, a transfer from Utah, made nine catches for 90 yards but also dropped a couple passes, as did the other wideout, Marcus Kemp (four catches, 31 yards). Slotback Scott Harding had five catches for 45 yards, but as a unit, the receivers appeared to have trouble getting separation, especially on deep routes.
The longest pass play went for 29 yards, to redshirt freshman Ammon Barker. It was his only catch.
So the early scouting report on UH’s offense is this: Key on Iosefa, and play tight coverage on the receivers.
The challenge for the Rainbow Warriors is to create separation and complete at least one deep pass (30 yards or more) early in the game, if for no other reason than to keep the Beavers honest and not be able to stack the line against Iosefa. Another thing we could see more of is having Woolsey roll out, using his running ability as a threat to help keep the secondary guessing.
Also, maybe more play-action passes to the tight end?
Whatever goes into this week’s game plan, it was clear from last Saturday that Hawaii needs to find the end zone more than once — strong defensive efforts and good field position should result in touchdowns as much as 3-pointers.
The other key factor will be the crowd: Last Saturday a surprising 32,197 fans went through the turnstiles, though a few thousand were in UW purple and gold. The skeptics and pessimists stayed away as usual, but the Rainbow Warriors played well enough to hopefully attract the curious to Aloha Stadium this Saturday.
Another showing of 32,000 or so — with less in orange and black — would help pad the home-field advantage.
Beating Oregon State now seems much more possible than it did a week ago, especially after the Beavers’ unimpressive opener last Saturday (Portland State led, 14-13, at halftime).
Heck, even a five, six or seven-win bowl-eligible season seems more possible now.
But those things will only happen if Hawaii shows improvement from Week 1 to Week 2.