Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, September 3, 2015

2015 CU vs Hawai'i Football Preview

Well, we've made it.  After a long offseason only lengthened by the basketball team's struggles with mediocrity (what, you think I'd get through the first football preview without a hoops mention?), we've come to the end of summer's road.  Football is back (with a vengeance), and ready to distract. Finally, some real-life action to discuss while sipping the kool-aid!

In preparation for tonight's festivities, I've looked across the internet for a hype track.  As a true child of the 80s, and with the game emanating from the 50th state, there was really only one choice:

Hell yeah!  Now I'm ready for some football!


Remember to set the timer on the coffee pot, as the 2015 Colorado Football season will eventually kick off from Aloha Stadium in downtown Honolulu at 11pm MT this evening.  Yes, 11pm; essentially fucking midnight.  Now, to be fair, that is a 7pm start out in the Islands, but, for those of us in the contiguous 48, that means the game will end some time in the early hours of Friday morning.  Hope you planned ahead, like me, and took tomorrow off...

Click below for the preview...

When last we met -

Last fall, under yet another cloudless September sky, the CU defense smothered the Rainbow Warriors, refusing to let their struggling offense shine through.  While Hawai'i would score on more possessions, they never once found the endzone, allowing the Buffs to coast home with a 21-12 win.
The fight song always sounds so much better when sung in victory. From: the BDC
Contrary to how the rest of the year would go, it was the defense which carried the load for Colorado in this one. Besides just keeping the Warriors from scoring touchdowns, the defense also limited the opponent to under 300 yards of total offense, and under four yards per play.  Much of that success can be attributed to lockdown pass defending.  The quintuplet of Ken Crawley, Greg Henderson, Kenneth Olugbode, Chidobe Awuzie, and John Walker continually frustrated the Hawai'i passing game, breaking up nine combined passes, holding three different quarterbacks to a combined 37% passing, and allowing only 155 total yards through the air.  It helped that Hawai'i's quarterback situation was a mess.  Jeremy Higgins, who spelled the starter Ikaika Woolsley, was particularly awful, and as good as the CU defense was, the QB disaster on the west sideline provided an asterisk. Sill, caveat applied, it was awesome to watch.

That defensive effort was sorely needed on an afternoon when the usually reliable offense was stuck in neutral. Coming off a game against Arizona State where they looked downright prolific, the Colorado offense struggled to even cross midfield in the second half.  All told, the Buffs still put up 405 yards of offense, but 202 yards of that came on the three consecutive scoring drives from the first half, were forced to punt nine times, and committed three turnovers (one on downs, two via interceptions).  Against a very pedestrian Hawai'i defense, that's just a lot of ugly.
The CU defense picked up the slumping 'O'.  From: the BDC
Much of the offensive struggle (which is always real) seemed to come from Sefo Liufau, who appeared to be out-of-sync with his teammates.  I saw his head droop a lot, and there were more than a few major errors in judgement.  While the usually accurate sophomore still racked up over 64% passing in the game, he looked incapable, if not a little scared, of stretching the defense past 15 yards. Even an exhilarating 71-yard bomb to Nelson Spruce was under-thrown -- Spruce just made a play, ripping the ball from the defender, before racing, untouched, into the endzone.

The simple fact is that Sefo and the rest of the offense will have to flip that performance on its head if they want to win this evening. As I'll get to in a bit, the Hawai'i QB disaster received a USC-stimulus package over the off-season, and could test the under-new-management Colorado defense.  A similar offense output from the Buffaloes - a few quick scores and the other 45 minutes stuck in neutral - could score an eye-opening defeat.

The Warriors entering 2015 - 

Hawai'i football continues to sit at a crossroads.  The AD teased dropping the sport last fall, their facilities are trash and not getting any better with age, interest and attendance have fallen to CSUian levels, and the losses continue to mount (36 since their last bowl trip in 2010). There is a lot of civic pride wrapped up in the Rainbow Warriors and their nearly 100-year old program, but when I was in Honolulu this winter, I saw very little UH gear, and a whole lot of these:
The expats have overshadowed those still on the Islands in recent years
Judging by the last few seasons alone, they're still stuck in neutral.  Eight wins in three years, while one more than the Buffs have secured over the same time frame, is abysmal in the trout pond that is the Mountain West, and far from the heights they had secured in the previous decade. The program is very literally fighting for relevance and survival every time it takes the field, and need a bounce-back season in the worst way. Their 2015 schedule doesn't do them any favors, either, with trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin also on the docket for non-conference play. Essentially, this is a huge game for the Warriors, and one that could make or break hopes of a decent record in 2015.  They'll be very hungry for a victory on home soil.

To do so, not only against Colorado this evening, but also over the course of their 13-game slate this fall, they'll need to turn around some decidedly indifferent numbers from a year ago.  111th in overall F/+ (for those of you who like advanced metrics), 123rd in Sagarin, 108th in scoring offense, and 82nd in total defense.  With a pair of new coordinators, however, there is a hope for growth, and it should be easy to secure better returns once conference play rolls around.
New coordinators, like OC Don Bailey, could spell better production in 2015.
On offense, they have a lot of returners on the edge, a few new options in the backfield, and a former blue-chip QB under center (more on him later) sat around a mostly-young, sophomore-laden offensive line.  All told, they seem to be a good bet to improve in production, probably cracking the 400-yards per game platueau, which has become the average standard in the modern collegiate game.  On defense, it's all about the linebackers, who should be the focus of the action.  The only problem is that they are behind a tenuously thin defensive line (I know how that goes), and could get completely negated in games where they are losing the battle in the trenches.

Star Players - 

It all starts under center.  Hawai'i, in more recent years, has been a haven for quarterbacks and astonishing passing totals, which makes their 'Great QB Disaster of 2014' such a surprise.  Injuries mounted, and the unready Ikaika Woolsey was thrust into the action with disappointing results.  Should they harbor any hopes of putting together a solid season in '15, a change would need to be made. Enter: a fallen blue-chip idol. Former USC golden boy Max Wittek has transferred out to Honolulu, looking to make some noise in his redshirt-senior season.  While he never lived up to the promise of his Rivals ranking in Los Angeles, he promises to be an upgrade (possibly an All-Conference threat) for Hawai'i, who now boast a prototypical pro-style threat in their version of the spread.
Trojan QBs have had their way with Colorado in recent years...
Wittek will have some seductive attacking options to exploit, too.  Junior Marcus Kemp and senior Quinton Pedroza are legitimate targets, and freshman slot Dylan Collie, a BYU transfer aged by a redshirt year and a Mormon mission, could be a breakout star if camp reports prove true.  Maybe not explosive, but certainly a capable bunch.  Collie, particularly, seems like the type to annoy and frustrate.

Whether or not Wittek has enough time in the pocket to get these three the ball will depend on an offensive line anchored by a Centennial State expat. Senior tackle Ben Clarke from Littleton has nearly 40 collegiate starts under his belt entering 2015, and stands as a Preseason All-Mountain West selection.  Clarke may stand alone, however, as the rest of the line is a question mark. The running game should be less of a threat, as a result, although junior Steve Lakalaka returns having posted a solid game in Boulder last fall.
Clarke, now a tackle, is a stellar lineman
On defense, the questions are all up front where they lost five important contributors from a year ago, including three starters who posted a combined total of 102 tackles and 7.5 sacks.  What production they do get from the defensive line will be dependent on junior end Kennedy Tulimasealii, who recorded 40 tackles a year ago.  In addition to him, keep an eye out for former Buff Kory Rasmussen and mammoth tackle Penitito "Kiko" Faalologo (a 5-11, 300 lbs, Kai Maiava-sized bowling ball).

Behind the line, the picture brightens a bit.  A heavy infusion of talent via the transfer wire has paid dividends, as players like Jeremy Castro (UCLA), Makani Kema-Kaleiwahea (UofA), and Russell Williams (JuCo) should provide an impact alongside returning senior Lance Williams. The star of the show, however, figures to be junior inside linebacker Jerrol Garcia-Williams, who returns to the roster after an ACL tear cost him the majority of 2014.  He's big, fast, and could have a professional future ahead of him.
Garcia-Williams will get his named called a bunch this evening.
In the defensive backfield, they return three starters; junior safety Trayvon Henderson, sophomore corner Nick Nelson, and senior CB Ne'Quan Phillips.  All can make plays if any production is to be had from the line.

Coaching - 

What can you say about Norm Chow, other then... well, he's still the head coach.  After a two-decade run as a star coordinator in both the collegiate and professional ranks, the football lifer finally got his chance at a head job.  Unfortunately for the 69-year old Hawai'i native, it hasn't gone well, as an 8-29 record would attest.  It's not all his fault - there a ton of systemic issues with the UH program that he inherited - but results speak in the football world, and a sub-22% win rate is hardly the stuff of legends.  Despite strong efforts in their final three games a year ago (W @ San Jose St, W vs UNLV, close L @ Fresno St), there wasn't the development shown that you would expect in the third year of a coaching tenure, either.
Chow looks to get the ship righted in a hurry in 2015.
It makes since, then, that he would flush his coordinators.  OC Don Bailey (formerly of Idaho State) and DC Tom Mason (formerly of SMU) are good infusions, and represent improvements on the headsets. Bailey,'s 2014 FCS Coordinator of the Year, had his Bengals 2nd in the country last year in yards per game, and Mason brings with him a history of generating turnovers at the mid-major level. Both seemingly good hires that speak to a brighter future.
Mason seems like a savvy hire for the cash-strapped Warriors program.
Accordingly, I think the Warriors will be better this year, though it may not show in the W/L column.  That's the trick, though. The body-bag games against Bucky and the Buckeyes will make for nice paydays for the program, but carry with them a projected toll.  With that stacked non-conference schedule, Hawai'i could be stuck way below the Mendoza line before they ever get their bearings about them.  If they roll into conference play with only one win, and attendance continues to lag, it could get ugly for the native son Chow.  As SBNation pointed out in their team preview, with a diminishing buyout and a less-than-sterling record, his seat could get very hot very quickly. 

Prediction - 

My 2014 record: 10-2. Against the spread: 6-6. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +3.9 pts/gm
Line as of Wednesday @ 6pm - CU -7 1/2, O/U 58

So, let's talk about hurricanes.  They kind of suck, if you hadn't heard.  There was a point last week that it looked like this game could be played in the middle of one, if not two, that were headed towards Honolulu. Luckily, the Hawai'ian Islands seemed to have dodged a bullet here, as Ignacio slipped northwards, and Jimena spun itself out.  At least for now, all is well.  Specifically to tonight's action, though, it probably means a little rain, as the systems remain active in the region. The forecast looks to clear up a bit as the evening proceeds, but probably not enough before the final whistle. A shame for all involved; season openers are trouble enough without the worry of inclement weather.

I'm not among those who have gotten drunk off the kool-aid (just mildly tipsy), so I can still see the danger posed by the Rainbow Warriors.  They need this game, and it's on home soil.  With the new coordinators in play, it's tough to have too good of a read on this Hawai'i team before kickoff, but I'm expecting something better than what we saw a year ago in Boulder.  Add in the typical travel issues to the Islands - especially CU's history with road trips - and I'm nervous.

Luckily, the crowd implications appear to be light for this evening, especially with the weather, which could turn Aloha Stadium into a more demure atmosphere from the one experienced in 2011.  Throw in better talent and/or depth at a number of positions, and I think the Buffs matchup well in most phases on the field. Accordingly, Colorado should have just enough to sneak back to the continent with a win... though not a cover. Due to the potential for bad weather, I'll also take the under.

CU 31 - UH 26


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