That's why a relatively calm second half was all a crowd of just over 35,000 wanted—and needed—as Hawaii outlasted a spunky Rice squad 41-21 Saturday night at Aloha Stadium.
Tim Chang's record-breaking night—he went 40-of-72 for 397 yards, setting new marks for completions and attempts in a single game—played second fiddle to Hawaii's defense. The Warriors overcame critical errors by the UH offense and special teams, shutting out the option-based Owls in the second half.
That was a major reason Hawaii is now 1-0 in Western Athletic Conference play. Psychologically, the Warriors needed to reverse the negative momentum of back-to-back losses at USC and UNLV.
Rice's young squad, meanwhile, dropped to 0-4 (0-1 WAC).
A schizophrenic first half had fans wondering which Hawaii team would show up for the second half. The Warriors waltzed to a 24-0 lead before surrendering 21 unanswered points.
From that point on, however, the Warriors regained composure and the better team—Hawaii was favored by 22 points—settled down to win without two huge contributors in Isaac Sopoaga and Jeremiah Cockheran. Both sustained injuries and sat out most or all of the second half. That gave other Warriors a chance to step up.
Lui Fuga, the man with two years of medical hardships behind him, came up with a key fumble recovery. A myriad of receivers filled in when Cockheran was sidelined, including Gerald Welch, who had two scoring catches. "Gerald had a great game, and Jeremiah had some unbelievable catches," head coach June Jones said. "Jason Rivers is growing, becoming a player and a competitor. It's what I like to see."
For Rice, which was within three points for much of the second half, it was another close-but-no-cigar loss to Hawaii. "Hawaii made adjustments at halftime. They came out and stopped us," Rice quarterback Greg Henderson said. "That's why they're the top defense in the WAC. They've got a good defense and they shut us down."
Henderson helped spark the Rice offense, but in the end, he was disappointed in himself. "I played all right, but the turnovers were costly. That happens sometimes and it's part of the game. We've just got to learn from it and move on."
Hawaii's offense was intriguing to watch often times just for the mix of formations, including a few wrinkles. The Warriors used plenty of tight receiver formations with slots in tight—almost like tight ends—as well as bunch sets. The way Hawaii came through offensively without Cockheran, who reinjured an ankle—the origin of which was a moped accident during the summer—and the ill-fated Nate Ilaoa, who is likely out for the season after an injury against USC two weeks ago.
Cockheran had six receptions for 122 yards in just one half of work. "I rolled (the ankle) on a screen play," the senior said. "But we got people who can step up. Like I said all season, all of us can do the job. I'm proud of our guys, especially Jason Rivers. All the receivers, too, like Michael Miyashiro, but especially Jason."
Rivers, the true freshman from Saint Louis High School, had seven receptions for 45 yards without a drop. Gerald Welch caught two touchdown passes from his old high school classmate, Chang, and finished with 71 yards on six catches.
Welch, a former state wrestling champion, overcame weight gain and a knee injury to return to prime shape this season. "It feels great. I've been waiting for this a long time," said Welch, who began as a target of Chang when they were seventh graders. "It's fun, actually."
Ross Dickerson, yet another Saint Louis graduate, had five receptions for 42 yards, and Britton Komine—who hails from another ILH school, Pac-Five, had five catches for 30 yards.
In all, Chang found 11 different receivers as Hawaii dominated the clock and moved the chains all night (29 first downs). Hawaii had 97 plays from scrimmage, 72 percent of them through the air. Rice had just 56 plays from scrimmage, rushing for 206 yards and passing for 173.
Hawaii amassed 562 total yards, including 165 on the ground (4.4 per attempt). Chang's record night, however, wasn't forgotten. "I can't give enough credit to the guys around me. They stayed positive and fought through adversity," Chang said. "I'm very happy for Gerald, and I'm glad Jeremiah tracked down my inaccurate passes at times."
It was a crucial week for Hawaii, which still has ample time to turn this into a very successful season. "I think a lot of guys took it upon themselves to study more video this week," Chang said. "Battles like this, our true character comes out."
Hawaii sputtered on its first drive with a three-and-out series. The Warriors went to work on their second possession, marching from their own 10-yard line to the Rice 3. Hawaii stayed in the air, however, and Chang was incomplete on second, third and fourth downs to end the drive.
The scoring drought ended one possession later. The Warriors drove 58 yards in 2 minutes, 42 seconds. Chang's scrambling 33-yard strike to Cockheran—who adjusted from a post route to an opening along the sideline—gave Hawaii first down at the 1. West Keli'ikipi scored on a 1-yard burst to give Hawaii a 7-0 lead with 3:54 to play in the opening quarter.
Middle linebacker Chad Kalilimoku stripped Rice fullback Ed Bailey at midfield, and safety David Gilmore recovered at the Hawaii 42. A moment later, Chang launched a 54-yard pass to Cockheran on the fly. Cockheran's full extension and diving catch gave Hawaii first down at the Rice 3-yard line. Two plays later, after an illegal procedure penalty, Chang found Welch open on an 8-yard post pattern in the end zone. Justin Ayat's PAT kick gave Hawaii a 14-0 lead with 1:03 remaining in the first quarter.
"I just had to get open. It was just like when we practice," Welch said.
Gilmore's fun first stanza got even, well, funner. He intercepted a pass by Rice's Greg Henderson—it ricocheted off the hands of wide receiver John Brock—to give Hawaii first down at the Rice 32. Four plays later, Chang found Welch open for a 10-yard touchdown pass. Ayat's kick pushed Hawaii's lead to 21-0 with 14:10 remaining in the first half.
Hawaii's defense dominated much of the first half. After another Rice punt, the Warriors drove 45 yards as Chang found four different targets—Mike Bass, Keli'ikipi, Komine and 29-year-old Michael Miyashiro. The drive stalled at the 16 after a drop by Se'e Poumele, a drop by Komine, and a miss by Chang to Komine on a wide-open post route at the goal line. Ayat's 34-yard field goal increased the lead to 24-0 with 8:32 to go in the half.
The Owl offense got aerial after that. Henderson, who finished 6-of-12 for 131 yards, connected with fleet-footed Marcus Battle on a third-and-4 from the Rice 26-yard line. Henderson's loft down the left sideline found Battle, who beat two defenders before being chased down at the Hawaii 5-yard line. Two plays later, the Owls went to Battle again. Henderson handed off a reverse to the sophomore, and he sped around the right side and barely got across the goal line for Rice's first touchdown.
Brandon Skeen's PAT made it 24-7 with exactly 6 minutes to play in the half.
Hawaii answered with another long drive. The Warriors drove from their own 35 to the Owl 13-yard line. On third-and-5, the snap scooted out of Chang's grasp and sailed near the sideline. Brandon Boyd scooped up the pigskin and ran 85 yards untouched into the end zone, silencing Hawaii's robust fans. Skeen's extra-point kick cut the lead to 24-14 with 2:08 left in the half.
Generosity became a fault for Hawaii moments later. Long snapper Tanuvasa Moe sent the ball sailing over punter Kurt Milne's head. Milne raced back to get the ball, but he was swarmed under by a host of Owls. Terry Holley recovered the loose ball in the end zone, and Rice trailed 24-21 with 1:05 left.
Ayat missed a 52-yard field-goal attempt as the half ended, and fans had to ask, will the real Warriors please stand up?
Jones wasn't overly concerned. "We had to put it in perspective. It was 24-21; we won the first half," he said.
Welch agreed. "We just had to keep calm, go out there and have fun," he said.
Indeed, Hawaii's defense came to work, and the Warriors did it without their All-America candidate at defensive tackle, Isaac Sopoaga. The senior sustained a sprained knee on Rice's second possession of the third quarter, but the Warriors continued to stifle the Owls. Abraham Eliminian blocked a 37-yard field-goal attempt by Skeen—and the ball was recovered by Kalilimoku near the line of scrimmage.
Hawaii finally ended the second-half stalemate with a 12-play 64-yard drive. During the drive, Chang broke the single-game completion on a 6-yard toss to Rivers.
John West's 3-yard jaunt around right end capped the drive, and Hawaii led 31-21 with 11:05 to play in the game.
This time, it was Rice's turn to let opportunity slip away. The normally sure-handed Henderson coughed up the pigskin at snap, and defensive tackle Lui Fuga recovered for Hawaii at the Rice 27. Three plays later, Ayat drilled his second field goal, a 35-yarder that gave Hawaii a 34-21 lead with 8:29 remaining.
Eliminian, who struggled in the first half while covering Battle 1-on-1, was in zone coverage when he dropped back and intercepted a long pass by Henderson. Eliminian leaped and came down with the ball at the Hawaii 42. Along with the blocked field goal, his night finished on a good note.
"I didn't play a good first half, and not many people were on my side but my teammates. I wouldn't have been able to sleep tonight if I didn't make a play," Eliminian said. "Our D-line, without those guys, it would've been a long night."
Rice forced a Hawaii punt with just over five minutes left, but Henderson committed his third turnover in as many possessions just two plays into the Owls' drive. His pass deep down the right side was overthrown and easily picked off by Kevin Millhouse.
Hawaii closed out its scoring with a 70-yard drive—which began with yet another heady scramble by Chang. His 9-yard gain sparked the drive, which ended with a 6-yard race to the left pylon by running back Bass. Chang's ability to run at the perfect time—he finished with 40 yards on seven attempts—including a loss of six yards on a sack—surprised anyone who doesn't remember that he was a quick combo guard during his high school days. "He picked some good spots to run," Jones said. "I knew in time he'd do it better."
Welch was surprised, but not shocked. "He did a great job running for us. He's the fastest Chinese I ever saw in my life," he said.
Chang was realistic. "I'd rather throw, but sometimes you do what you gotta do," he said.
The Warrior Run & Shoot was plagued much of the night with a case of the dropsies. "We dropped way too many balls. You only get so many opportunities," Jones said. "Rice didn't play us any different. You gotta make ‘em when you have ‘em."
Jones wanted a strong performance from his special teams, and it was a mixed bag. Eliminian's blocked field goal helped turn the tide back in Hawaii's favor, but the botched punt snap in the first half had UH fans rolling their eyes in wake of other special teams struggles recently.
"I'm not really worried. I dunno. T.J. (Moe) is perfect every day. He's done it a thousand times," Jones said.
Eliminian put it in perspective. "You guys haven't seen what we're capable of with guys like Isaac and Travis (LaBoy). We gotta get a couple things squared away and we'll be all right," he said. "We all know Timmy is the heart and soul of this team."