In what is looking like a potential vacation for many, Cougar fans will head to the warm November weather of Hawaii after the 101st Apple Cup is in the books this year. Will it be a welcome change to dreary northwest weather on 11/29? Will the Cougs have anything left in the tank? Can they get up for one last game, playing a regular-season game after the Apple Cup for just the third time since '88?
For a season that is starting to look like a bowl game is going to be a long-shot, at best, at least we can pretend. Hey, UW did it last year, and along the way nearly ruined Hawaii's BCS chances. To a man, everyone thought UW would get steamrolled over there, what with Hawaii's Sugar Bowl bid on the line and UW licking it's wounds after the Apple Cup heartbreak. But they came to play, and nearly pulled the upset. And we did it in Jason Gesser's first season, where he rallied the troops as a frosh to a 22-14 win in '99 over a 9-win Hawaii team. That game was considered the defining moment to the start of Gesser's career. Don't take my word for it. Check out Washington State Magazine's look back to that game:
He sometimes seemed fragile, but he was always throwing his body at yard-markers, at safeties, at whatever got in his way. He and others recall his defining moments as late in that freshman season of 1999, when he had a bad thumb but led a team of meager capability to a victory at Hawaii.On one play, he dove for the chains and in his words, "got cleaned in the ribs." Wincing back to the huddle, he had established a tone. Safety Billy Newman told him that from that moment forward, everybody in the program knew that nothing less than a best effort would do.
So what the heck? The game is on the schedule. It's a chance for the players to bond, one last time, and to hopefully build for tomorrow. And who knows, maybe there will be a defining moment in the Wulff era that will come out of that game?
Moving on, let's look at how Hawaii is setting up, post spring Fish-Wrap style. And, sorry to say it Hawaii fans, but it ain't lookin' so good.
Head coach June Jones? Gone to SMU, finally getting off the island (and rumored to have flirted with WSU for a short time last December??). All-universe QB Colt Brennan? Gone to the NFL. Top four WR's, three of which had over 1,000 yards receiving? All gone. The defense? Seven starters, gone, including six of the top ten tacklers. This is a whole new era in Hawaii football in more ways than one.
With Jones out, Greg McMackin takes over as the head coach. McMackin was the d-coordinator under Jones and turned the Hawaii defense around in '07, where they went from the #93 ranked defense in '06 to #34 in '07. But being the head coach is a whole different deal, and the fan expectation will be to keep enjoying winning seasons and bowl games. But McMackin is 0-fer-0 as a D-1 head coach, and was an OK 24-14-1 as an NAIA coach at Oregon Tech in the late-80's. This whole head coach experience at this level is something entirely different. But who knows, maybe he's ready. He has to shed the "grandfather" image, according to these quotes from when he first took over for Jones. McMackin isn't a screamer, but when you do something he doesn't approve of, he'll let you know.
An interesting angle however are the new coordinators. Instead of going with an established D-1 guy, Hawaii turned to some local legends and are giving them a shot. St. Louis High School coach Ron Lee, a coach who ran the run-n-shoot offense at the Honolulu high school and coached them to 14 state titles, will run the offense here. And, yes, that's the same St. Louis High School in Honolulu where none other than Jason Gesser rewrote the record book, including a perfect 24-0 record as a starter over his last two seasons. But the defensive coordinator is Cal Lee, Ron Lee's brother. Cal has been with the Warriors for the last five years as linebackers coach, and this will be his first shot as the d-coordinator. But before that? Also a St. Louis high school coach, and also a coach Gesser played for. Interesting connection there, with Hawaii turning to the high school legends to fill the coordinator positions. That can only help Hawaii recruit the islands and try to keep the majority of the talent home. The Lee brothers will carry a lot of weight in living rooms all over Hawaii.
2007: What can you say? A dream season that ended with a thud, getting bulldozed out of the Super Dome by Georgia in a real man-vs-boys match-up. The SEC speed was on display and they absolutely ran outside, inside and right through the Warriors. Still, a 12-1 season is nothing to sneeze at, and the fact that they elbowed their way into the BCS party is a hat tip to them. I don't care what conference you are in or where you are located, getting to 12-0 and a BCS bowl is a major flippin' accomplishment.
Offensive Scheme: It will still be a run-n-shoot offense under Ron Lee, but with some variety mixed in. If you don't know, the run-n-shoot is basically throw the heck out of the ball, with one running back and four WR's, two of which are considered slot receivers. Think of it as ditching the fullback and tight-end for a couple of receivers. Sort of like the read-option rage that everyone is switching to today in college football, it's a quick-hitting offense designed to spread the field and exploit mismatches. But it is much more a passing offense than anything else, and you don't see many rushing yards out of the QB position. Colt Brennan only had 27 net rushing yards last year. But as Timmy Chang and then Colt Brennan have shown, you don't need a John Elway-style rocket arm to succeed in the offense. It's more based on a smart QB who can make the lightning-fast read and exploit the match-ups. Last year they were #1 in the nation in scoring at an impressive 43.4 points per game, #2 in passing offense at 439 yards per game, and #3 in total offense at just over 512 yards per game. It's pretty entertaining football and it produces yards, points and wins. Check it out:
Top Offensive Player: This is kind of a tough one. They lose just so much on offense, with Brennan's 4300+ yards and 38 TD passes. Plus their WR's lose Ryan Grice-Mullen, Davone Bess, Jason Rivers and CJ Hawthorne. All those four did were combine for over 4600 receiving yards and 44 TD's last year(!). Yikes. I wanted to go with the projected starter Tyler Graunke, a senior QB who came off the bench last year to start for Brennan due to some injuries and led them to some wins. Graunke threw for over 1200 yards last year and had 10 TD passes, including the only TD vs. Georgia in the Sugar Bowl once Brennan came out of the game. But Graunke didn't look all that great this spring and had some off-the-field issues to deal with, so the door is open for junior Inoke Funaki. Funaki barely played in '07, but looked decent this spring. And there are others in the mix as well, including a couple of JC transfers that will be in for fall camp. As of right now, no starting QB has been named by McMackin, so they will all battle it out for the job once camp begins.
Due to the uncertainty at QB, I'll go with Kealoha Pilares as the top returning offensive player.
He was the leading rusher last year, with 388 yards and 3 TD's, averaging 5.7 per carry as a true frosh. But Pilares also caught 26 balls last year, which makes him the #1 receiver coming back in '08 in terms of number of catches. Pilares will actually change positions this year, moving out to the slot WR position and will likely be the go-to-guy early on as the offense tries to get settled with all the new faces. Former Washington high school running back Leon Wright-Jackson will take over in the backfield for Pilares. Jackson, if you remember, was a big-time recruit from Washington who ended up heading to Nebraska, but had a falling out there and ended up transferring to Hawaii. Jackson played a little bit last year, rushing for 219 yards, but he averaged 6.6 yards per carry and should take on a lot more of the load this year.
Defensive Scheme: Hawaii's defense is a high energy, attacking unit that generally plays a 4-3. They play hard and hit hard, and generally play with a chip on their shoulder, especially at home. Even though Cal Lee is the new coordinator, he's been on the staff for the last five years, so it's not like they are totally starting over on that side of the ball. And McMackin is a defensive coach by nature, so his fingerprints will likely be heavy on the defensive game plan every Saturday.
Top Defensive Player: Hawaii's linebackers are stacked, with Adam Leonard and Solomon Elimimian both back this year. They combined for 246 tackles last season and 20 tackles for loss. They are both the emotional and physical leaders on a defense that flies to the football. But I'll go with Elimimian. Simply put, he's a tackling monster at linebacker, racking up an amazing 141 tackles and 10.5 for loss. He's not a huge guy for a middle linebacker, built more like a safety at 6-1, 220, but he is as quick as any middle linebacker we'll see next year. He can also lay the wood a little bit:
Top Spring Question: Have you SEEN THAT SCHEDULE??
Wow, it looks rough. There is no time for warm-ups here, no soft landings. Kick 'em out of the nest and see if the kids can fly, as game number 1? AT THE SWAMP in Florida on 8/30. With just eight total starters back for next year, you have to wonder how they will handle that environment. Not only will they be over-matched physically, as we sort of saw that when they played Georgia last year in terms of sheer size and speed, but opening up at Florida is just brutal. After a slight reprieve by hosting Weber State the following week, they come back to the mainland and play at Oregon State. Reser Stadium isn't exactly the Swamp, but it's a Pac-10 foe on the road, always a tough place for any opponent, and that will be tough as nails to come out of there with a win. Then after a bye they hit the WAC regular season, which will include road games at Fresno State and at the smurf turf, Boise State. Another interesting angle is that not only do we play there after their conference schedule is over on 11/29, but the following week, the Cincinnati Bearcats come to Hawaii to wrap up their season. Cincinnati was one of the surprise teams in the Big East last year, winning 10 games and their bowl game over S. Mississippi. Maybe it would have made more sense to have a schedule like this with Colt Brennan and all those starters back in '07, but this year looks like it could fall off the rails pretty quickly.
WSU Football Blog Bottom Line: Hawaii has to be one of the most unpredictable teams on the WSU schedule. With so few starters back and so many new faces at key spots, and with a brand new staff combined with a brutal schedule, who knows what they will look like by the time 11/29 comes around. But it's pretty obvious now that this team is looking like a shell of it's former self, and a repeat of last year is pretty much out of the question. I mean who the heck can predict what they are going to see out of this team with so many new things yet to be introduced for 2008? It's only natural to see a step back from the dizzying heights of '07.
That said, they still could be a bowl team if everything goes their way, and most off all, they take care of business at home where they are 50-16 over the last eight seasons, 15-1 over the last two. While the mobile, athletic junior QB Funaki might have more of an exciting upside than Graunke, at least Graunke has been there in big situations and done pretty well when called upon. If they want to try and win now and worry about the future, well, in the future, you would think that Graunke will get every chance to win that job outright by the time the season gets here. But who knows. This could be a major rebuilding job after all, and going younger at the most important position on the field might be a payoff for 2009, when all the young faces they see today are a year older and they have been through the battles of 2008.
Hawaii has only lost four games the last two years combined, but looking at that schedule, it's not hard to picture at least that many, if not more, in 2008.
Well, that's it for the '08 Spring Fish Wraps. We hope you enjoyed these early looks at the WSU opponents for the upcoming season. I think it will be somewhat interesting - if not amusing - to look back at the fish wraps once the season gets going, just to see how WAY OFF we were in some of this stuff! That's the beauty of it, really. You can read and watch video of these teams, but our view is really the view from 10,000 feet. And there are always surprises along the way. I mean really, if everything went according to plan, and the favorites won every week, wouldn't life be pretty damn boring? Why even watch if everything goes like the experts say they will? That's why we watch, because you just never know!
ENJOY YOUR TUESDAY, and most of all, enjoy your holiday weekend coming up. GO COUGS!