Whether it was the gods or fate or just an underrated Hawaii football team, everything seemed to be conspiring to spoil Utah's perfect football season Saturday afternoon.
With the offense sputtering and the fans muttering, the Utes needed to find something to help them improve to 6-0 for the first time since 1953.Can you spell D-E-F-E-N-S-E?
Yep, thanks to their vaunted D, the Utes were finally able to pull out a 14-3 victory over the Rainbows on a cold, rainy afternoon at Rice Stadium.
"Thank God for the defense," said Ute coach Ron McBride. "The defense kept coming up with play after play after play. The defense is what kept gave us the opportunity to win this game."
For more than three quarters, the Utes, who came into the game as the 4th-best scoring offense in the country, kept a big goose egg on the scoreboard. But thanks to the U. defense, which was also 4th-best in the country, so did the Rainbows.
Finally the Ute offense stopped shooting itself in the foot long enough to break through for a couple of fourth-quarter scores and send 30,120 fans home
happy. With the victory, Utah can now start thinking about next week's huge matchup with No. 13-ranked, 7-0 Colorado State at Fort Collins that could determine the Western Athletic Conference champion and Holiday Bowl representative. Perhaps the Utes will look at Saturday's close encounter as a wake-up call.
"We're going to have to come out and work a lot harder," said Sylvester Cooperwood, who scored the Utes' breakthrough touchdown. "Fourteen to three against Hawaii is not a good game, but we'll take it. It's a win."
That was the attitude of most Utes afterward. They won, even though it wasn't pretty.
"We just wanted to accomplish one thing - win," said defensive tackle Henry Kaufusi, who came up with one sack and two tackles for losses.
The defense was simply outstanding. It allowed only 208 total yards, with 115 of those coming on three big plays covering 31, 40 and 44 yards.
Never was the defense better than at the start of the third quarter when it came out fired up after a halftime talking-to by McBride.
First Clint Kuboyama was stopped for a 6-yard loss. Then quarterback John Hoa was sacked for a 9-yard loss by Henry Kaufusi. Finally Tipu Aluala was dropped for a 2-yard loss by Jeff Kaufusi.
The next two series netted minus-one yard and minus-nine yards, respectively, as Luther Elliss and Nate Kia made key tackles for losses. If they hadn't kept running into fourth downs, before long the Rainbows would have found themselves out on 5th South.
Unfortunately, the Ute offense blew a pair of good scoring opportunities, including a miss from the one-foot line for the second week in a row.
"Our offense was just not very good today," McBride acknowledged. "We didn't take advantage of things we had to. When you get down to the half-yard line, you need to get it in. When you're set up for field goals you have to kick them."
On six of their first eight possessions, the Utes moved into Hawaii territory but came up empty every time. Twice in the second quarter Dan Pulsipher missed field goals, from 47 and 37 yards, both wide right. A fumble stopped another drive at the Hawaii 25.
Late in the third quarter, Utah moved to the 9-yard line on a 32-yard pass to Cooperwood. But on 4th and inches, Hawaii's George Noga, stopped Robert Hamilton for a loss.
Although McBride criticized his offense for not making the TD, he also kicked himself for not trying for a field goal in the scoreless contest.
"I probably made a mistake by not going for a field goal," said McBride. "If you're on the half-yard line, you've got to score."
The next time the Utes got the ball, they moved 49 yards in six plays with Cooperwood going the final six yards off the left side with 13:54 left. Cooperwood, who had his best game as a Ute, bounced off a Hawaii defender at the five and rambled around the left side. The rain-soaked crowd exploded after suffering through 46 minutes of scoreless football.
Then the Ute defense let down briefly. After holding Hawaii to negative 10 yards in the third quarter, it gave a 40-yard pass from Hao to Branser Kennedy, which put the Rainbows in Ute territory for one of the few times all
day. The Utes snuffed out a fake field goal play, but were called for a facemask penalty. With a reprieve, Hawaii tried a pass that was complete, except the receiver was a step out of the end zone.
The Utes dodged a bullet there and another a minute later when Mike McCoy was tackled in the end zone for an apparent safety. The official generously gave McCoy forward progress at the 1-yard line on what looked like an obvious
safety. From there, punter Jason Jones, who had a an excellent game for Utah, got off a tough punt from the end zone to the Ute 41. Then a stupid Ute penalty, tackling out of bounds, set up the Rainbows for their only score a 37-yarder by Carlton Oswalt with 8:08 left.
Utah came right back as Cooperwood turned a short pass from McCoy into a 46-yard completion as he traveled across the grain from left sideline to right. Then on third and 10, McCoy hit Curtis Marsh in the right corner of the end zone to clinch the game for Utah.
McCoy, No. 4 in the nation in both total offense and passing efficiency, finished with decent numbers - 19 of 29 completions for 250 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. However he was abysmal at times - throwing short into the wet astroturf or over his open receivers heads - and he knew it. Afterward, McCoy made a quick exit, refusing any media interviews.
McBride had a few reasons for Utah's offensive "problems."
"It was a series of things," he said. "Mike was not as sharp, the ball was wet, we made key penalties, we missed (injured center) Lance Scott . . . we have to be more consistent."
He was also adamant that the Utes weren't looking past Hawaii to Colorado
State. "We were absolutely up for this game," he said. "If we hadn't been, we would have lost. They played extremely well."
With the loss, Hawaii stayed winless in the WAC at 0-5 and 2-5 overall.
"We played solid football and were pretty damn competitive," said Hawaii coach Bob Wagner. "We had a lot of chances but didn't get it done."