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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 22, 2003

Hawai'i Bowl could salvage UH season

Preseason hopes, hype never materialized as WAC favorites finished tied for fourth place

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

Officially, it is the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl, of course.

The season ended with Boise State, behind backup running back Andy Heck, bowling over UH, 45-28.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

But it turns out somebody might have missed an opportunity by not selling the title of the Christmas Day football game to a salvage company.

For where the University of Hawai'i is concerned, the Hawai'i Bowl is a chance to reclaim some of the luster the season was supposed to provide for a team that is 8-5.

A victory over Houston in the Hawai'i Bowl would give the Warriors their fourth nine-win — or better — season in five years under head coach June Jones.

Practically the kind of year that was almost taken for granted when the Warriors opened camp back in August amid barely tethered optimism.

Back then, the Warriors' self-stated goals entering four national cable appearances were to capture a Top 15 national ranking and win their first outright Western Athletic Conference championship. (Hawai'i shared titles in 1992 and '99.)

And why not? The WAC media had made Hawai'i the preseason favorite for the conference title, and several magazines picked UH to not only win the WAC, but flirt with a spot in the polls. The school mounted a "T.C. (Tim Chang) for Heisman" campaign, complete with DVD mail-out.

The highest response to an Advertiser on-line poll predicted an 11-2 finish with 10-3 second. Only six percent of respondents saw UH winning just eight regular-season games.

2003 started on such a positive note — a 40-17 victory over Appalachian State — that many thought UH could withstand the season-ending loss of receiver Nate Ilaoa.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

And a season-opening 40-17 win over Division I-AA Appalachian State, accomplished with quarterback Jason Whieldon at the controls and Chang on the sidelines due to NCAA suspension, did little to dampen the enthusiasm. Little, at the time, did UH or its fans know how much they would end up missing slotback Nate Ilaoa and his elusiveness after a knee injury ended his season against the Mountaineers..

Then, Hawai'i hit the road and, in what would become a painfully familiar tale, the road hit back, hard.

Four of UH's five losses would come away from home during the school's deepest road schedule.

A record six road games — and the 33,000 miles they traveled to get to and from them — took a toll.

What happened at then-No. 4 ranked Southern California, a 61-32 blowout, would set a disturbing early trend. UH hung with the Trojans into the second quarter when the roof, in the form of 42 unanswered points in two quarters, fell in.

Six days later at Nevada-Las Vegas, amid a season-high in turnovers (six) and penalties (12 for 129 yards), UH saw a 14-7 lead and the game disappear in 20 unanswered Rebel points, 33-23.

The Warriors picked themselves back up with a win over Rice at Aloha Stadium, but that one nearly got away from them, too, when the Owls rallied back from a 24-0 deficit with 21 consecutive second-quarter points. A 17-point fourth quarter helped the Warriors hold off Rice and disaster.

Yet, if there was a defining point for this season, it was at Tulsa, where UH entered as a 10-point favorite and left as a 27-16 upset victim at a place where it had traditionally fared well even on off-days.

The Warriors, who led 16-3 in the second quarter and seemed on the way to punching in a knockout score, proceeded to go the final 40 minutes without a score and lost, feeling the absence of slotback Chad Owens, who was sitting out the final game of a two-game suspension, and Jeremiah Cockheran, who was injured.

The Warriors, with Owens, their offensive MVP, back in action and form, found their stride to win four consecutive games, Fresno State, Louisiana Tech, Texas-El Paso and San Jose State.

The 55-28 win over Fresno State would be their most complete effort of the season. It would also stand as their only victory over a team that went on to have a winning season among the four (USC, Tulsa and Boise State were the others) they played.

Both Louisiana Tech and San Jose State would require stirring comebacks. At Ruston, La., UH drove 80 yards to score with less than four minutes left to win a 44-41 shootout.

At San Jose State, it was the defense that kept UH in the game until an 84-yard drive and pass from Chang to West Keli'ikipi with 1 minute, 45 seconds remaining — and a controversial ending that cost the game officials a week's suspension — allowed Hawai'i to pull out a 13-10 win.

But, then, the road exacted its final toll. A poor road performance, this time at Nevada, where they were again favorites and fell 24-14, would cost the Warriors a shot at double-digit wins for the season and even a share of the WAC championship before they met defending champion Boise State.

Whieldon's off-the-bench effort to pass for four touchdowns and run for another rallied the Warriors from a 14-0 deficit to a rousing 37-29 over Alabama. Despite the resulting 4-9 record, the Crimson Tide's marquee value would make the game the Warriors' season highlight and only victory in a national cable game this year.

Now, it is Houston (7-5) that this UH finds under its Christmas tree this bowl season. And with it an opportunity to salvage something more of this season.