The key ingredients to a victory for the Rainbow Warriors football team are clear. Coach Chow said, “One - play great defense, two - take care of the ball, three - play winning special teams, and four - we’re gonna win the fourth quarter.” Chow’s team cooked up 3 out of 4 of these ingredients in Thursday night’s home opener in Aloha Stadium against Pac-12 foe Colorado, coming away with a 28-20 victory.
As the clock struck 0:00, Colorado Buffaloes’ junior quarterback Sefo Liufau and his offensive unit ran out of time to mount any comeback. The Buffaloes’ drive was thwarted at Hawaii’s 6 yard line and defensive coordinator Tom Mason’s new-look 3-4 defense had preserved the Rainbow Warriors’ 28-20 home opening win, along with avenging last years 21-12 loss in Boulder. With both coaches expecting the 2015 season to boost their programs in the right direction, it was fourth year coach Norm Chow’s team who celebrated the much needed 1-0 start.
“It’s not about me," Chow said. “These young guys worked hard all camp, they stayed together and had a belief system, coaches have done a great job and they deserve all the credit.”
Luke Shawley, a senior defensive lineman, reaped the fruits of his offseason labor as he spearheaded the Rainbow Warrior defense - leading the team with 11 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Shawley credited the unit’s success to, “first our amazing coaches who have instilled amazing technique in us that we’re able to fall back on, as well as our conditioning and everyone’s desire to learn.”
Coach Mason’s defense held Liufau in check as he finished just 23-of-40 for 158 yards, no touchdowns and threw one key red zone interception at the start of the 2nd quarter to senior linebacker Julian Gener, the 2nd of his career.
Liufau, who broke numerous school passing records for the Buffs just a year ago, was under constant duress the entire night. The Rainbow Warriors accumulated four sacks, eight tackles for loss, and four QB hurries. The entire defensive effort resulted in keeping highly accomplished senior receiver Nelson Spruce at bay as he only finished with 69 yards on 8 receptions with no touchdowns. Junior tailback Michael Adkins II paced the Buff’s rushing attack with 90 yards on 22 carries along with 2 touchdowns.
Hurricane Ignacio was not the only entity providing thunder to the Hawaiian Islands on Thursday. Fortunately the storm cleared up prior to kickoff, allowing first year special team’s coordinator Jake Cookus’ unit the opportunity to provide some thunder of its own within the first 2 minutes of Thursday night’s home opener. After the Rainbow Warriors revamped 3-4 scheme forced an opening drive three-and-out, the Buffs were pinned deep in their own territory only to have their punt blocked and recovered by sophomore wide receiver Keelan Ewaliko.
The short field position gave the highly anticipated arrival of fifth year senior USC transfer quarterback Max Wittek the perfect opportunity to capitalize in his first drive in a real college football game since the 2013 season. On third-and-five from the 11-yard line, Wittek threw a perfect strike to senior wide receiver Quentin Pedroza for the first score of the game. The Rainbow Warriors decided not to settle for the extra point. Coach Chow said that this had been the game plan all along only “if we had scored first.” Wittek again connected with Pedroza who broke free in the flats off of a motion for the 2-point conversion gaining the early momentum.
After a back and forth first half, Wittek connected with junior wide receiver Marcus Kemp for an explosive 79-yard hook up in the 2nd quarter with 8:07 left to play, the longest passing touchdown since 2011 when David Graves connected with Trevor Davis. The UH offense struggled with the ground game as junior running back Paul Harris led the way with 68 yards on 17 attempts.
Kemp, who flashed his vertical speed along with a few highlight reel grabs displayed his tremendous catch radius and proved why him being named 1 of 48 receivers to the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list is no fluke. Kemps’ performance compensated for the anemic rushing attack as he provided Wittek with a downfield threat.
“For me to sing that song after the win to start the season just sets the tone for the games at home or any game we play,” Kemp said. “For people who haven’t been here in this program, it feels good to sing that song with pride and joy after a win to start the season.”
Kemp finished the game with 6 receptions for 116 yards and 1 touchdown, helping Wittek throw for 202 yards on 19-38 passing with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Although Wittek seemed shaky at times he was able to bounce back from early mistakes. Coach Chow was able to comfort Wittek during these hectic moments of the game by telling his 5th year senior captain, “to just stay with it and do the things he knows how to do.”
Wittek himself was just happy to be back on the gridiron.
“It’s been awhile since it's been go-time for me,” Wittek said. “To be able to go out there and take a few hits, gets those under my belt, start fast and come out firing and go for 2 and get that, it felt great to feel that atmosphere again, to feel the fans and energy and having fun with my teammates.”
Next week the Rainbow Warriors look to carry their momentum to Columbus, Ohio where they will face the #1 team in all of the land, and defending national champions Ohio State Buckeyes. Coach Chow was asked how the offensive unit will contain Preseason All-American and future top 10 draft pick in junior defensive end Joey Bosa, he sufficed to say, “well he’s suspended so maybe they’ll suspend him again.”
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