UH football program in shadow of doubts
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
In a season marked by travails physical (season-ending injuries to key players Greg Alexander, Rodney Bradley and Brashton Satele), psychological (last weekend's 54-9 thrashing by visiting Boise State) and spiritual (the mass exodus of fans at halftime of that same game), a reeling University of Hawaii football team is desperately seeking the only salve that matters in the world of collegiate athletics — their next win.
Yesterday's 31-21 loss to conference rival Nevada extended the Warriors' losing streak to six games. UH (2-6 overall, 0-5 Western Athletic Conference) has not won since its 38-20 victory over Pac-10 doormat Washington State on Sept. 12.
To be sure, the program has survived extended losing streaks before, none worse than the historically bad 0-18 skid that spanned the 1997 and 1998 seasons. The 1998 team's 0-12 season was the worst in NCAA history and led to the firing of controversial head coach Fred vonAppen.
The Warriors also stumbled in June Jones' second year, dropping seven of their first eight games en route to a 3-9 record.
Still, just two years removed from the program's first BCS bowl game appearance, the current losing streak has evoked dismay in and out of the program.
"It's rough with the number of guys who have gone down," said junior Bryant Moniz, who was thrust into the starting quarterback position when Alexander went down with a knee injury three games into the season. "Every loss hurts. We've got our backs up against the wall — maybe even behind the wall — but we've got to find a way to get a win and get our confidence back."
RASH OF INJURIES
Many Warrior faithful attribute the team's so-far underwhelming performance to the overall youth of the squad, a front-loaded schedule that kept the team on the road for four of its first six games, and the bizarre rash of injuries to starters on both sides of the ball.
Those less charitable have set airwave and broadband connections aflame with criticism of head coach Greg McMackin, his staff and their players. Some have even called for McMackin, currently in the second year of a five-year contract, to be fired.
Fueling the discontent is the perception by some that the team lacks direction and discipline. Critics point to the persistence of on-field mistakes that contributed to the Warriors being outscored 158-55 in consecutive losses to Louisiana Tech, Fresno State, Idaho and Boise State.
McMackin said this year's squad has dealt "amazingly well" with what has been a dispiriting first half of the season.
"The players and coaches are very close, even though we're going through as much adversity as a program probably can," he said. "But the world is a tough place and everybody is going through adversity right now. It's through adversity that your character is tested, and I see a lot of character on this team."
The Warriors opened the season with a close win over Div. II Central Arkansas and a solid victory over Washington State. But things started to unravel a week later when the visiting Warriors failed a two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, then gave up a touchdown with 34 seconds left to fall to UNLV, 34-33.
The following week, the team lost its starting quarterback Alexander in a 27-6 loss to Louisiana Tech.
With No. 2 quarterback Brent Rausch already sidelined with a broken finger, the starting job fell to Moniz, whose game effort wasn't enough to offset a porous run defense and erratic special teams play as UH fell to Fresno State, 42-17, before a rain-soaked crowd at Aloha Stadium.
The losses continued to mount on the road against Idaho — a setback made doubly painful by the loss of starting wideout Rodney Bradley to a broken leg — and at home against Boise State.
Given the circumstances, yesterday's loss to Nevada yielded something of a moral victory. The Warriors entered yesterday's game as a four-touchdown underdog to the high-scoring Wolf Pack but were able to remain near striking distance throughout the contest, an encouraging sign as the team prepares for less imposing matchups with the bottom half of the WAC this month.
THAT LOSING FEELING
Senior Inoke Funaki, whose time at UH has been marked by extreme highs and lows, said he and his teammates are doing their best to salvage the remainder of the season. Still, he said, the experience of the past six weeks weighs heavily on the players.
"We're trying to dig deep but you can just feel it," he said. "We're trying to plug away but there are a lot of things — the losses, the injuries — going on subconsciously. It can be mentally draining.
"Sometimes it's like watching yourself go downhill," he said. "Once one bad thing happens — like we turn the ball over or we give up a big play — it's like 'Not again!' Your heart drops."
Yet, Funaki said, where other teams may fracture, the Warriors have drawn closer.
Funaki said the team's unity was apparent in this past offseason when McMackin drew fire for using a homosexual slur in remarks to national media. McMackin publicly apologized for the incident and several team leaders attended his news conference in a show of support.
"As the main guy, he's the one who gets criticized the most, but he's always been there for us and we're definitely there for him," Funaki said. "There is a lot of frustration and discouragement right now, but we've come together to try and find solutions. Negativity is like bacteria, and we're trying not to let it infect us."
Funaki said the team's struggles could ultimately be a valuable learning experience, but only if they respond in the right way.
"If we can get through our personal struggles, if we can stay together and find a way to win, we'll be better because of the experience," he said. "The will is there, we're just looking for the way."
While the season-ending injuries to Alexander and Bradley received the most attention, the Warriors — who entered the season already shorthanded due to the season-ending injury to Satele and the decisions by wideout Malcolm Lane and offensive lineman Brysen Ginlack to redshirt the season — have been hamstrung by injuries to several other key players, including right tackle Laupepa Letuli, linebacker/nickelback Aaron Brown, defensive tackle Vaughn Meatoga, defensive ends Fetaiagogo and Paipai Falemalu, right guard Raphael Ieru, wide receivers Royce Pollard and Jovonte Taylor, outside linebacker R.J. Kiesel-Kauhane and cornerback Jeramy Bryant.
"There has been a rash of injuries such as I've never been around before," McMackin said. "And these injuries are to guys who are outstanding players and leaders on this team.
"The thing is, when somebody gets injured, nobody sits around and complains," he said. "They get up and play. If a starter goes down, the next guy stands up and takes responsibility. That's what we do."
McMackin said the injuries only exacerbate existing problems that began with a lack of recruiting during the Warriors' Sugar Bowl run in 2007 and the subsequent departure of head coach June Jones to Southern Methodist.
In McMackin's first year as head coach, the Warriors struggled to replace the nigh-irreplaceable offensive contributions of quarterback Colt Brennan and wide receivers Jason Rivers, Davone Bess, Ryan Grice-Mullins and C.J. Hawthorne. The team finished a respectable 7-7 and earned a spot in the Hawaii Bowl, thanks in large part to the development of Alexander and the leadership of defensive holdovers Adam Leonard, Solomon Elimimian and Keala Watson.
"We scrambled to get to the bowl game," McMackin said. "I don't think people realize what we had to do to get to a bowl game last year."
The graduation of Leonard, Elimimian, Watson and other defensive starters left UH with a promising but inexperienced defense to go along with a still-rebuilding offense.
"The 2007 Sugar Bowl team was a good team, but everyone from that team is gone and they weren't replaced," McMackin said. "Last year, we lost all of our offense. This year, we lost almost all of our defense. You can't win consistently without consistent players, and we didn't have a stockpile of players because we didn't recruit that year."
The Warriors have 44 first-year players, including seven freshmen who have seen time as starters. McMackin said the sheer number of young players has required his staff to do more teaching than normal.
"At Washington State, three-fourths of the team had never been on a (game) trip, so we had to teach them how to travel," he said. "In Vegas, a lot of them had never stayed away that long, so they had to learn how to handle that."
While critics have faulted McMackin and his staff for focusing their recruiting efforts on skill positions at the expense of the offensive and defensive lines, McMackin said he is happy with the limited recruiting he was able to do after he was named head coach in 2008 and with the class he assembled this past year. Still, he said, it will take two more years of solid recruiting to restore an adequate balance of new and experienced talent.
Mitigations aside, McMackin said he is well aware of what is expected of him and his team from the athletic department and the community at large, expectations heightened by the 2007 Sugar Bowl run and publicly embraced by both himself and UH athletic director Jim Donovan.
Both McMackin and Donovan have stated that their goals for the program each season include a conference championship and a bowl game appearance.
With last night's loss to Nevada, the last-place Warriors are mathematically eliminated from WAC championship contention. To qualify for the Hawaii Bowl, the team would need to win each of its remaining five games — a scenario those in and around the program concede is an extreme long shot.
The Warriors will be considerable underdogs in their season-ending matchups with Navy and Wisconsin, but will be expected to compete evenly against Utah State, New Mexico State and San Jose State, all of which are in the lower half of the conference standings. How the Warriors fare against those teams could be a significant factor in how the 2009 season is ultimately assessed by the athletic department administration.
Following the loss to Idaho, Donovan admitted to Advertiser columnist Ferd Lewis that he was "frustrated" by the Warriors' start.
On Thursday, Donovan stressed that he would reserve judgement on McMackin's performance until after the season.
"I'll make an evaluation when all of the information is in at the end of the season, just as I do for every coach," he said.
McMackin said the only pressure he feels is his own desire to win for the program, the school and Warriors fans.
"In our profession, you get evaluated every weekend," said McMackin, who has coached both in college and in the NFL. "In my career, I've been evaluated every Saturday and Sunday, so I'm used to it."
While the Warriors' disappointing start may have lowered expectations for the rest of the schedule, coaches and players said they aren't about to concede the season.
"We don't want to be telling (players) about bowl games, but it is possible if we get a win and get on a roll," said quarterbacks coach Nick Rolovich, a member of the 2000 Warriors squad that finished 3-9 and rebounded for a 9-3 record the following season.
"As coaches and players, we all feel it could still happen," he said. "Mack believes in us. He doesn't enjoy losing and I know he's trying to win. He's not looking the other way, and as a staff we know it's unacceptable the way we've been losing."