POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 09, 2010
FRESNO, Calif. » It is harvest time in the center of America's breadbasket, the vast agricultural area between the Coastal and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges that forms California's fertile San Joaquin Valley.
Amid the grapes, cotton, olives, figs, walnuts, green beans and so much more being gathered here, there are two football teams, the University of Hawaii and Fresno State, about to get their first Western Athletic Conference indication if this will be a truly bountiful season or one of modest pickings.
A victory here today at Bulldog Stadium, on Ag Day, where they are 11-point underdogs, would be a significant step in several directions for the Warriors, who are 3-2 (1-0 WAC). Apart from setting up a showdown with nationally ranked Nevada next week in Aloha Stadium, a win would be a major move toward the seven victories required for bowl eligibility, the Warriors' avowed goal after a year's absence from the postseason.
For the Warriors' Greg McMackin, this is a return to the scene of his biggest victory as head coach at UH, a 32-29 overtime triumph in 2008 over then-No. 22 Fresno State, which was a 22-point favorite. It was UH's first road victory over a nationally ranked team, and one that proved pivotal in what became a 7-5 regular season that earned UH its most recent Sheraton Hawaii Bowl appearance.
The Bulldogs have turned out to be a pretty good indicator of Hawaii's postseason chances in the past decade. Since the Hawaii Bowl was established in 2002, never have the Warriors beaten Fresno State and failed to go on to a bowl.
Knock off the Bulldogs this year, and UH puts itself in a position to do more than just meet the minimum seven-victory standard for the postseason. Potentially, much more. With a victory, they would be 4-2 with seven games, and four of them at home, remaining. And, except for unbeatens Nevada (5-0) and Boise State (4-0), UH might not be an underdog the rest of the way in this 13-game season.
But come home 3-3 and while a bowl will still be in reach, the margin for error gets slimmer. So, too, would the opportunity for the kind of a breakthrough that an eight- or nine-win finish would provide.
Then, there are the 3-1 (1-0 WAC) Bulldogs with soaring aspirations of their own. If they can get past UH, they have a promising run at what should be a 7-1 record by the time they hit Nevada on Nov. 13 at Bulldog Stadium. With just New Mexico State, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech -- a combined 2-12 -- in between, UH looms as the most formidable obstacle in Fresno State's path for a month.
At the halfway point in this season, there is still room for growth in both these teams as recent results attest. And, for the Warriors especially, an opportunity to make strides on defense and in the kicking game that augment what the offense has been doing.
Jim Sweeney, a former Fresno State coach, liked to say "the games you remember are the games in November" and Pat Hill, his former assistant and current Bulldogs head coach, has taken to quoting it regularly this week.
"The schedule sets up that way," said Hill, who could have been describing the Warriors or his own team.
But, Hill adds, "you've got to win in October first."
For both the Warriors and Bulldogs, that's a large part of what today is all about.