Dick Harmon: BYU football: Is Hawaii capable of toppling BYU?

Published: Friday, Dec. 2 2011 8:34 p.m. MST

Hawaii offensive linesman London Sapolu (61) recovers a Hawaii fumble and runs with the football in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, in Honolulu.

Associated Press

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Is this Hawaii team capable of bringing down the Cougars?

Is Hawaii the type of squad that can stop a recovering Riley Nelson and run and pass effectively on the Cougar defense?

Is today's BYU-vs.-Hawaii game capable of creating the type of emotion in Honolulu and Aloha Stadium as in years gone by, knowing the two teams have not played in almost a decade?

On paper, BYU should be able to defend Hawaii and move the ball with Riley Nelson or Jake Heaps, and the experts pick BYU by eight.

If BYU turns the ball over, of course, anything can happen and usually does in Aloha Stadium.

Hawaii is capable of launching a barrage of passes all over the field. Hawaii will spread out BYU's defense from sideline to sideline, pick on mismatches, attack BYU inside and out, and go deep. The Warriors can and will score.

But if BYU is improved, as Bronco Mendenhall has asserted, the Cougars will not lose today.

While this trip was difficult for BYU in the Bob Wagner and June Jones years, it remains to be seen if Greg McMackin can take advantage of Hawaii's traditional "It's BYU week" furor since he's had a ton of other issues to battle this season. Turning cheerleader and amping up his players — even with bowl eligibility on the line — is the least of his worries.

Hawaii is a team that has faced an onslaught of late-season injuries, including the loss of starting quarterback Bryant Moinz the second week of November. There are point-shaving allegations against unidentified players by a nameless accuser that made national headlines and prompted NCAA involvement. McMackin is in the fourth year of a five-year contract and members of the Honolulu media have floated the idea if he does not win today, he may lose his job after going 29-24.

Still, it is BYU vs. Hawaii. And in Honolulu, there is no bigger football game for their fans.

Other than the injury to Moinz, there are indications Hawaii's staff has its work cut out for it today. The Warriors have won just one of their last four, the latest victory coming over Tulane, 35-23, a team that is 2-10 and had lost 10 in a row.

The Rainbows struggled to protect their famous home turf in November, losing to Utah State 35-31 and Fresno State 24-21. In both games, Hawaii could not finish in the fourth quarter.

Hawaii's greatest weapon against BYU over the years in Aloha Stadium has been emotion that's created turnovers and huge plays on offense and special teams. BYU's Bronco Mendenhall might be familiar with his team being everybody's rival in the region, but he's never ridden this pony before.

Today's game comes down to whether Hawaii, which ranks 10th in the nation in passing offense, can take it to the air on the Cougars. I don't think Hawaii can run the ball on Hebron Fangupo, Eathyn Manumaleuna, Matt Putnam and the Cougar linebacker corps.

So, it will fall to BYU coverage, pressure by Kyle Van Noy and Co. and whether or not Riley Nelson is truly a healed Riley Nelson, which, offensively, has been good enough for the Cougars to beat WAC teams.

The Rainbows rank 56th in total defense, 72nd in scoring defense and 72nd in pass efficiency defense.

BYU ranks 6th in pass deflections and is No. 9 in red zone defense.

"We don't take them lightly," said BYU safety Joe Sampson.

And the rivalry with Hawaii? Sampson, new to BYU's program this season, said he has no idea what that's all about.

"I take every game the same way. I take it every team doesn't like us, so I just play as hard as I can."

This week's predictions:

Utah State 27, New Mexico State 24: The Aggies need to avoid a letdown in all that post-bowl invitation glow. Gary Andersen should have no issues getting his team to finish this time, although the other Aggies are potent on offense.

LSU 28, Georgia 17: The Tigers are smelling a national championship, something the BCS created just for SEC teams, as undefeated Houston is trying to figure out how much more undefeated they can be today.

Virginia Tech 34, Clemson 28: The Hokies finish it in style.

Wisconsin 28, Michigan State 27: I like the Badger run game, ball control, and general smash-mouth capability in taking the energy out of the home crowd.

BYU 27, Hawaii 21: The story is the return of Nelson and if he can sustain a hit and hold off Jake Heaps. Somewhere in there, he'll have to hope his defense holds off Hawaii's O.

Overall: 68-30 (.693)

email: dharmon@desnews.com

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