In each of the past two years, Utah scored 20 points in its games with Hawaii, but was still outscored by a 115-40 margin.
Saturday night, 20 points would have been enough to beat the Rainbows, who could only manage 19 points against Utah's new and improved defense.Of course, seven points isn't enough to win many football games, especially in the Western Athletic Conference.
Hawaii Coach Bob Wagner, whose team set a record with 67 points against Utah last year, noticed the difference in the Utes defense.
"It's a credit to their defense that we weren't able to knock them out so to speak," he said. "Utah is better (than last year)."
Utah Coach Ron McBride wasn't complaining much about the defensive effort afterwards.
"I thought they played well," said Utah Coach Ron McBride of the defense. "We took away the dive and the pitch and force them to throw the ball which is what we wanted to do against an option team."
The Utes' problem was stopping the big play just as it was a week earlier against Fresno. And to veteran players like Sean Knox and LaVon Edwards it was a familiar refrain.
"We're improved this year, but what's hurting us is the big play," said Knox. "We're still giving up those big plays."
Edwards echoed his locker neighbor, saying, "We played pretty well at times, but still gave up some big plays. We're waiting for the offense to come around, but we have to rise up and play."
Hawaii's first score, a field goal was set up by a a 27-yard pass from Garrett Gabriel to Dane McArthur. Later in the first quarter, Gabriel hit Larry Kahn-Smith for 54 yards, but a Rainbow fumble stopped the threat.
A 16-yard pass to Jeff Sydner was the big play in the Rainbows' scoring drive in the second quarter. Then before the half, the Rainbows ran off consecutive pass plays covering 12, 14 and 13 yards to set up another field goal.
"You're going to give up the big plays when you play against an option team," said McBride. "Sooner or later they're going to break something on you."
Ute freshman defensive back Sharrieff Shah, who hasn't had to suffer through any of those ugly blowouts so common in recent years, felt the defense played well as a whole. But individual breakdowns made the difference.
The Rainbows' biggest play of the game came on the first play of the fourth quarter with the score still 13-7. It was a third and 13 situation from the Hawaii 27 and Gabriel hit Sydner with a long looping pass at the Utah 40. Sydner leaped above Shah, who fell down, and ran untouched the rest of the way for the clinching TD.
"The ball was underthrown and as I looked back, he stopped and already had it," said Shah. "I was on him, but unfortunately you sometimes make the best play and it doesn't work out."
Although it would be easy to get down on the offense for its lack of production, the defensive veterans aren't doing that.
"It's taken the offense a little longer to get things going," said Edwards. "I feel confident the offense is going to do a good job."
For years the Ute offense waited for the defense to come around. Ironically the shoe's on the other foot now.