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Wednesday, August 27, 2014         

FURTHER REVIEW


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Ball-hungry D made the difference in Warriors' surprising season

By Dave Reardon

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Over the past decade or so, we've become accustomed to Hawaii perched atop or near the top of NCAA offensive statistics lists — usually passing, total offense and/or receiving ... sometimes it's the team, sometimes individuals, sometimes both.

Just like June Jones said it would happen when he started his nine-year run as UH head coach in 1999.

After a two-year adjustment period with a new defensive-minded head coach in Greg McMackin, this year the Warriors climbed back to the top of the charts. And they have a fine 10-3 record to show for it, as well as a share of the WAC championship.

UH quarterback Bryant Moniz leads the nation in a few categories, including total offense, passing yardage and touchdown passes, with the regular season just about wrapped up.

Two receivers are in the top five; Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares both with more than a hundred yards per game.

CRITICS ARE quick to decry the numbers as a product of UH's four-wide, pass-first offense, considered a gimmick scheme by much of college football's self-anointed aristocracy.

Sure, big passing numbers are easier to come by in an attack where the ball is thrown as often as it is in the run-and-shoot. But then how do you explain Alex Green's 327-yard rushing game two weeks ago that came without the benefit of a tight end or a blocking back?

Actually, it's not that difficult (to explain, not to do). The threat of the pass makes the run harder to defend. Linebackers are replaced by defensive backs, or are used to double-cover slippery slots like Salas and Pilares. That leaves a lot of open territory for a talented back like Green or Nate Ilaoa to chew up.

It's the opposite of traditional football, when teams would keep running the ball to eventually set up a long play-action pass after the linebackers and safeties cheat up to the line of scrimmage too much.

Of course, another factor in UH's big overall numbers is weak competition; Hawaii had more New Mexico States, San Jose States and UNLVs on the schedule than defenses the caliber of Boise State.

Still, the Warriors offense deserves plenty of credit for steady and spectacular performance for most of the season, which included winning nine of their last 10 games. New offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich has grown nicely into his role, with the assistance of run-and-shoot guru Mouse Davis, who also coaches the receivers. Moniz keeps getting better and better, and the offensive line is much better than expected.

BUT THE aspect that really sets this team apart is the defense, especially its penchant for creating turnovers.

The Warriors lead the nation with 23 interceptions. That's interceptions by their defense, not the pass-happy offense.

"The really incredible thing is we had no interceptions the first three games," defensive backs coach Rich Miano said. "We went from last in the nation to first in the nation."

UH is No. 1 nationally among 120 Division I teams with 36 turnovers gained and No. 2 in turnover margin.

You know what the top four teams in turnover margin have in common? Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Ohio State and Stanford all finished the regular season with at least 10 wins. You have to go all the way down to No. 24 on this list to come across a team without a winning record (Rutgers).

These turnover stats are a lot harder to poo-poo for being the result of a gimmick scheme. For that matter, a closer look validates them. A good chunk of the turnovers came against some of UH's better competition:

» UH safety Mana Silva accounted for 40 percent of the five interceptions Boise State's Kellen Moore threw all season.

» Army is fourth in the nation with just 12 lost turnovers. One of them came against UH when Kamalu Umu forced a Black Knights fumble in the waning minutes, setting up a game-winning score for Hawaii.

» Nevada's Colin Kaepernick threw two of his seven interceptions against Hawaii. He also fumbled twice.

HAWAII HAS forced 31 turnovers in its last 10 games, intercepting at least two passes in every one of them.

A lot of football stats don't mean a thing. But you find a team with a turnover margin like Hawaii's and you find a winner.

Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at dreardon@staradvertiser.com, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com/davereardon.






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