Thursday, October 27, 2005

Hawaii Game Preview

as posted on the Barkboard

What is it about the Island of Oahu and 50,000 seat Aloha Stadium? Fresno State has had the worst luck playing the Hawaii Warriors in that venue. Is it some kind of island voodoo? In fact, the Bulldogs have won only once there, and that was back in 1994. The 1994 team led by sophomore quarterback Richie Donati was one of the worst to ever play in Aloha Stadium.

How did Donati pull out a win when such great Bulldog quarterbacks Kevin Sweeney, Trent Dilfer, Billy Volek, David Carr, and Paul Pinegar have all failed?

In 1984 sophomore sensation Kevin Sweeney led Fresno State into Aloha Stadium. The Bulldogs had won at Arizona to open the season, 27-22, and were 5-0 heading into the game against the Rainbow Warriors. It was the first Bulldog team to play Hawaii at their new home, and the hometown ‘Bows were a dismal 1-3. Hawaii won the game and went on to finish 7-5, while Fresno State won only once more and finished a disappointing 6-6.

Fast forward to 1986, Sweeney’s senior year, and the outcome was not much different. This time Fresno State was 8-1 and on the verge of Freedom Bowl berth, if they could finish out the season 10-1. Sweeney was in striking distance of Doug Flutie’s NCAA career passing record that November day, but he would not break the record nor win the game. The Bulldogs lost, 24-13, despite having one of the most talented teams in Bulldog history.

Fresno State would not make another trip to Hawaii until 1992, as a first year member of the Western Athletic Conference. Trent Dilfer and the Bulldogs were 3-3 and 1-1 in conference. The 47-45 loss dropped Fresno State below .500 for the first time since the 1987 season. The Bulldogs went on to win their last six games including a share of the WAC title, but the two point loss cost them an outright conference title.

Following the 31-16 win in 1994, Fresno State made a second straight trip across the Pacific in 1995. Donati lost his starting job to hot shot junior college transfer Jim Arellanes that year, but Arellanes could not duplicate Donati’s success, losing a close 42-37 shootout. The loss kept the Bulldogs below .500 for the second straight year.

Former head coach Jim Sweeney had a horrible 1-4 record in his five appearances at Aloha Stadium. Pat Hill has not faired much better.

Hill has never won at Hawaii. He is 0-4 as head coach and in three of his four trips there; he has walked into Aloha Stadium with the better team, but came away a loser. The last trip to the Island is forgettable. Paul Pinegar was making his first start of 2003 after suffering a pectoral muscle in preseason practice. The Warriors pummeled Pinegar and the Bulldogs, 55-28.

Getting blown out was not the case in 1997, 1999, and 2001. There was much on the line in those years, and all three were tough losses for the more talented Bulldogs.

The 28-16 loss in 1997 to eventual 3-9 Hawaii was sandwiched in between huge wins over conference favorite Utah and undefeated 17th ranked Air Force. What happened at Aloha Stadium that Saturday? Was it island voodoo? Whatever it was, it kept Hill from a having a winning season in his first year as head coach.

In 1999, with an outright WAC title on the line, but Jeff Hanna missed a 57 yard field goal at the end of regulation. The game went into overtime, and both teams made a field goal in the first overtime. But Fresno State failed to score in the second overtime and Hawaii pulled out a 31-24 win.

The most heartbreaking game was the 38-34 loss in 2001. Nick Rolovich went nuts and outshined Heisman hopeful David Carr despite a career high 400 yards and 4 touchdowns. All-American Ashley Lelie caught the game winner with 13 seconds left in the game. Hawaii’s improbable fourth quarter comeback was aided by two Fresno State fumbles; they were only the second and third lost fumbles of the season for the Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs are not only playing against Hawaii this Saturday, but are playing against history, as well. Since the 2001 game the rivalry has grown into a brutal hate fest. It just might be the most underrated rivalry in the entire country. What other rivalry has tales of island voodoo, trashed planes, and thrown screwdrivers?

Fresno State is a -13 point favorite for this weekend’s contest. The 18th ranked Bulldogs of 2001 were only -6.5 point favorites. Is Fresno State that much better than Hawaii this year or are the Warriors just not as good as in years past? Fresno State is that good, and Hawaii is not.

The Bulldogs annihilated Hawaii last year 70-14 and it was not even that close. The blow out win ended a three game winning streak by the Warriors. Hawaii had NCAA career passing leader Timmy Chang last year, but this year junior college transfer Colt Brennan is behind center. That may not be such a bad thing, considering how awful Chang played last year.

“He's [Brennan] where I thought he would be with the offense,” Hawaii coach June Jones said.

“He's more accurate than I thought he was coming in. He has the ability to avoid which you can't coach. We have everything in the playbook, so he just needs to execute it. But he will as he keeps doing things over and over everyday. He's a fun one to coach."

With Brennan leading the way, Hawaii is second in the nation in passing offense averaging a staggering 382.3 yards per game. He was named WAC Offensive Player of the Week after the 49-28 win over New Mexico State, and last week connected on 36-48 passes for 457 yards and three scores against San Jose State.

For the second week in a row Hawaii had three different receivers with at least 100 yards. Jones’ offense dictates those types of numbers, but the ground game is what suffers. The Warriors average only 73 yards a game on the ground, and rank 115th out of 119 teams.

Defensively, Hawaii is giving up 430.1 yards and 37.7 points per game. Hawaii will load up to try to stop the Fresno State ground game, but Pinegar should be able to pick apart a pass defense that is allowing 251.9 yards per game.

“Fresno State wants to pound you and I'm sure they will come in here and do that so we're going to have to stop the run,” said Jones.

“If they beat us passing, then they beat us passing, that's the way it goes, but they're going to want to run the ball and they're not going to change their mentality for this game. We just need to do our assignments and do what we're supposed to do and make the tackles when you're the guy in the hole.”

The outcome of Saturday’s game is going to come down to the performance of the Fresno State offense. The defense and special teams have been so dominant the last four games. The offense has not had to do much in the blow out wins. Eventually, the defense and special teams are going to have an off day. With the bad history on the Island, that day could be this Saturday.

This year’s Bulldogs appear to be mentally stronger than any team in the Hill era. The mystery of the Island should not faze them. Defensively, the Bulldogs have few peers; they rank in top 20 in rushing and scoring defense. Since the loss at Oregon, Fresno State has shut down every team’s respective offense with ease.

“It's going to be a real test for us, especially on offense because, to me, it will be the best defense we've played against, and that includes USC,” Jones said.

“They are very good, very physical and they can all run.”

Hawaii’s offense will be a huge test for the Bulldogs, as well. This game is the springboard for the rest of the season. A win will give Fresno State an unblemished October for the first time in the Hill era. As well, it will give the Bulldogs an unprecedented 4-0 start in WAC play.

A loss, however, will certainly have a negative effect on the rest of the season. Not only will the Bulldogs fall from the national rankings, but late season games against Boise State and USC could become lackluster affairs.

In any other year I would say the game could go either way, but this team is unlike any other in the Pat Hill era. Pinegar duplicates Donati’s success of 11 years ago, and the Bulldogs pull out the huge win. With the stories of island voodoo, trashed planes and thrown screwdrivers aside, my fearless prediction is, Fresno State 44, Hawaii 24.

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