Win for Warriors means bowl berth
By Stephen Tsai
At the end of yesterday's walk-through practice, the Hawai'i football team gathered at midfield for one final team cheer.
For the past five weeks, the Warriors have walked on the edge of elimination, a loss away from an expiration date being stamped on their season.
The Warriors need to finish their 13-game regular season with a winning record — a seventh victory — to earn an accompanying berth in the Dec. 24 Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl.
It was a goal that appeared out of reach after a Halloween loss to Nevada dropped their record to 2-6.
After that, head coach Greg McMackin simplified the Warriors' goal to what he called a five-game playoff.
"Lose one and we're done," he had said.
And now, four victories later, "we're right where we want to be," McMackin said of his 6-6 Warriors.
There is a lot at stake when the Warriors host 8-3 Wisconsin in tonight's regular-season finale.
Center John Estes will clinch the NCAA Division record for career starts when he plays in his 54th consecutive game.
Left slotback Greg Salas is six catches and 155 yards from setting the school's single-season record for receptions and receiving yards.
But, most important, a victory tonight means "we can keep playing football," UH linebacker Blaze Soares said.
McMackin said: "The guys have worked hard to put themselves in this position. It was 'win or you're out.' Every week there was pressure."
During the surge, the Warriors underwent a makeover. They constructed a running game to complement their four-wide passing attack.
They implemented new defensive schemes — a 4-4, with the safeties playing outside linebacker; a "dollar" formation featuring seven defensive backs and defensive end Fetaiagogo Fonoti at nose tackle — while simplifying the assignments.
"Now," linebacker R.J. Kiesel-Kauhane said, "we just react."
And they overcame setbacks. In chilly San Jose, Shane Austin, who was the No. 4 quarterback at the start of the season, led the Warriors to an overtime victory.
Salas withstood a sprained right foot and a sore shoulder. Running back Alex Green played despite a sprained shoulder. Running back Chizzy Dimude endured a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Starting quarterback Bryant Moniz still is troubled by bruised ribs. Kiesel-Kauhane has played despite a fracture in his left hand.
"We don't even let it bother us anymore," said McMackin, who earlier had lost his No. 1 quarterback (Greg Alexander), left wideout (Rodney Bradley), right tackle (Laupepa Letuli) and middle linebacker (Brashton Satele) to season-ending injuries. "We just move on."
And while their support has ebbed and flowed, a crowd of more than 40,000 is expected for tonight.
"We're not here to win people over, we're here to win games," left tackle Aaron Kia said. "It's about sticking together as a team. We don't need everybody's criticism or hate to dictate our season. ... If people want to jump off (the bandwagon), they can jump off. If people want to jump on board, that's fine, too. We welcome them."
Soares said: "You have to love the situation we're in. We win one game, we play our old coach (SMU's June Jones in the Hawai'i Bowl). The way our season started and the way we're trying to finish it, it's a very pleasing feeling. We have to take care of business. We want to go out there, scramble some eggs."