UH football team is home for the holidays
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By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Stephen Tsai
LOGAN, Utah — How to win a bowl berth in nine games?
The University of Hawai'i football team found the answer in yesterday's 63-10 smacking of Utah State at Romney Stadium.
In winning their sixth in a row, the Warriors (7-2 overall, 5-1 Western Athletic Conference) are assured a winning regular season, the requirement for their participation in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl.
After the game, the Warriors accepted the invitation to the Christmas Eve bowl at Aloha Stadium. It will be the Warriors' fourth bowl appearance in the past five years, and fifth in June Jones' eight seasons as UH head coach.
The latest RSVP was signed, sealed and delivered by Colt Brennan, who threw for 413 yards and six touchdowns; running back Nate Ilaoa, who caught six passes for 155 yards and scored three touchdowns, including a 60-yard mad dash off a shovel pass; inside linebacker Adam Leonard, who made 11 tackles despite playing with a fracture in his left wrist, and a knockout defense that created four turnovers (three fumbles, one interception).
The Warriors resolved other questions, such as:
Q: Who is Tim Chang?
A: He is now UH's former record-holder for touchdown passes in a season and consecutive passes without an interception. Brennan surpassed both marks in the third quarter — first, when he completed a 17-yarder to Malcolm Lane for his 179th interception-free pass in a row and then, on the next play, an 18-yarder to Ryan Grice-Mullins for his 39th TD pass of the season.
"Colt is playing as good as I've seen him play," Utah State coach Brent Guy said.
The Aggies tried a different defensive approach from most other UH opponents, aligning nine players near the line of scrimmage.
"We wanted to try and do something they probably hadn't worked on," Guy said. "We tried to press, bring some pressure, play man. But we could never get to Colt before he released the ball. Sometimes we had guys free — unblocked — and we couldn't get to him. And when you can't get to him, he can make things happen."
Brennan was not sacked, but he was intercepted on the possession following his record-setting drive after being struck on the chest while throwing.
"I had to wait to get the wind back in me," said Brennan, who lay on the ground after taking the hit. "I'm fine."
As for the records, Brennan said, "It's not about me. It's about the other guys. On four of my touchdown passes, I don't think I threw the ball longer than 5 yards. It was two shovel plays, two quick blitz breaks for touchdowns.
"I don't know how you can be a college football analyst and not look at our O-line, our receivers, and our running backs, and not say, 'These guys are some of the best in the nation.' I'm having a lot of success, but if you watch our film, and watch those guys play, it's just jaw-dropping. The whole nation needs to wake up and take a look at those three squads on offense."
Q: How do you hide a 250-pound running back?
A: Behind an efficient offensive line on shovel-pass plays.
Brennan and Ilaoa collaborated on three shovel passes — their 19th, 20th and 21st of the season — with two each spanning 60 yards.
"They do a good job hiding it," Guy said.
Guy said he ordered two linebackers to crash the backfield to contain Ilaoa on shovel plays. The thing is, Brennan is a master at disguising the play.
"Colt sucks the pass rush to him," UH offensive line coach Dennis McKnight said.
When the defensive linemen pursue Brennan, he will flip the football ahead to 5-foot-9, 250-pound Ilaoa, who is camouflaged behind the offensive linemen.
"It's hard to hide Nate," UH left guard Hercules Satele said. "Nate's a big guy."
After catching the shovel pass, Ilaoa would run around the perimeter. The offensive tackle would then "pin" — block inside — the linebacker assigned to Ilaoa.
"People are watching the front, and Nate is going out the back door," UH right guard John Estes said.
UH center Samson Satele said: "When Nate has the ball, he's invisible. You can't see him."
Asked how he hides from view, Ilaoa said: "Frodo gave me this ring ... "
Q: How does a 250-pound running back run so fast?
A: "If I have a chance to score," Ilaoa said of his 60-yard scoring play off the shovel pass, "I can't take my time."
Jones had been concerned that Ilaoa might have difficulty playing in cool temperatures and the thin air. Logan is 4,400 feet above sea level.
But on his scoring play, Ilaoa appeared to be accelerating as he raced away from Aggie defenders on the sprint along the left sideline.
"Sometimes you get into this cold wind, and it kind of tightens the joints up and you're able to really get into it," Brennan said. "He saw the goal line, and he wasn't going to to stop. He just did a great job of being 'Nasti' Nate."
Samson Satele said of his cousin: "He's 'Fasty Nasti.' "
Ilaoa said the Aggies' decision to cram the line of scrimmage, left open the secondary.
"They put nine guys in the (tackle) box," Ilaoa said. "We knew we could hit 'em. Once you break the linebackers, there are no safeties, or anything."
Brennan said Ilaoa, who also rushed for 55 yards, including a long of 33, on six carries, keeps defenses from focusing too much on the passing phase of the four-wide offense.
"I told everybody before the year started, he would be the straw that stirs the drink," Brennan recalled. "He's the reason we're having so much success right now. The drink is pretty tasty, isn't it? We've got a great concoction."
Q: Why is UH leading the nation in total offense?
A: "A year ago," Guy said of what he learned scouting UH, "it was like, 'OK, I'm going to get my catches and get my yards and get my yards.' Now what you see on film, they get the catches and you see guys down field blocking. Those other receivers are blocking for each other. They're executing."
McKnight, who coaches UH's blockers, said he is relaying Jones' message of "never giving up until the whistle blows."
Estes, the right guard, said: "We never give up on a play. Coach McKnight always says: 'Block the play longer than the opponent.' That's what we try to do."
Q: What were they thinking?
A: "We like to try different things," UH defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville said of his strategy against the Aggies' ball-control offense.
The Warriors aligned in a 5-2, with the outside linebackers bracketing defensive ends Melila Purcell III and Ikaika Alama-Francis and nose tackle Michael Lafaele. The ends and outside linebackers were supposed to clog the gaps, leaving inside linebackers Solomon Elimimian and Leonard to blitz or play the run. That also meant that the 300-pound Lafaele was responsible for defending the screen passes.
On third-and-9 at the UH 32 in the first quarter, Riley Nelson threw a screen pass to speedy Marcus Cross on the left side. Lafaele chased down Cross after a gain of 3 yards.
The Aggies settled for their first field goal of the season. They never threw another screen when Lafaele was in the game.
"We practiced it all week," Lafaele said. "I knew it was coming. I trust what coach (Glanville) tells me."
Glanville said: "Whatever you coach Michael to do, he does. That's the fun of coaching this team."
Asked why he would assign a nose tackle to cover a running back in the open field, Glanville said, smiling, "That's us. We're crazy."
Q: How will the Warriors celebrate being invited to a bowl?
A: "Not very long," Leonard said. "We don't want to celebrate and say, 'That's the end of our season.' We have four more games. We want to win out."
Well, maybe sophomore Grice-Mullins can enjoy it a little longer.
"My last winning season was when I was a sophomore in high school," Grice-Mullins said. "My junior year, we were 1-9. My senior year, we were 0-10. Last year, 5-7. It's sweet to go to a bowl, but I'm so happy to have a winning season."
Reach Stephen Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.