By WES NAKAMA
Stephens Media Hawaii
HONOLULU — In competitive athletics, which generally means high school age and up, success usually boils down to three basic elements: effort, coaching and personnel.
This year’s University of Hawaii football team certainly has displayed great effort, despite being winless and often trailing by big second-half margins.
The personnel no doubt is improved from last season, with players like receiver Chris Gant and defensive back Ne’Quan Phillips emerging as legitimate talents. For sure, the Rainbow Warriors could use more of that kind of talent, but there’s not much they can do immediately to improve this year’s lineup.
So where does that leave UH, facing a dangerous Navy team on Saturday in Annapolis, Md.?
With the effort already there and the 64-man travel roster being what it is, the only thing left to change is strategy.
It starts with defense: The Rainbow Warriors rank 75th out of 123 NCAA Division I-A teams in rushing defense at 174.6 yards per game, and each of their past three opponents (Utah State, Colorado State and Utah State) have had a runner exceed the 100-yard mark, with San Jose State (93 yards) just missing.
Navy is ranked ninth in the nation in rushing at 297 ypg.
Even worse, the Midshipmen employ a triple-option spread attack, which is difficult to simulate and prepare for in one week.
Navy, however, is 121st (third from the bottom) in passing offense. So hey, what better week to experiment and shore up the run defense with a new twist? Eight men in the box, assignment football and dare the Midshipmen to do what they do an average of only 13 times a game anyway — pass.
On offense, Hawaii’s biggest problems stem from rushing offense (73.3 ypg, 120th), third-down conversions (28.1 percent, 118th) and turnover margin (minus-10, tied for 117th), all of which contribute to the problem of time of possession (24:47 per game, 121st).
That, in turn, leads to the problems with red zone defense (91.4 percent, tied for 110th), scoring defense (36.8 points per game, tied for 107th) and total defense (474.5 ypg, 111th).
Going back to personnel: The running backs and offensive line are not going to improve much talent-wise from last week to this week, although a healthy Joey Iosefa at running back would be a big boost.
The effort, as mentioned, is there. So what kind of change in offensive strategy might help?
Navy’s defensive line is smaller (by Division I standards) but probably quicker than the Rainbow Warriors’ other opponents to date, so line superiority should not be assumed.
If traditional blocking schemes have so far been ineffective, maybe throw in some trap plays, misdirection? How about shovel passes — they worked for June Jones — or more option packages with Ikaika Woolsey?
Head coach Norm Chow has said those agonizing runs up the middle are necessary to keep the safeties honest and draw them in toward run support, so they cannot cheat outside and focus on coverage of Gant or the other wide receivers.
But with UH averaging a measly 2.44 yards per carry, the safeties’ run support hasn’t been necessary anyway.
Midseason changes in strategy are easier said than done, but Chow built his renowned reputation as an offensive guru and that’s a large reason he was hired, so there’s no better time for adjustments than now.
After the 37-27 loss to San Jose State on Oct. 5, in which the Rainbow Warriors surrendered 534 yards — including 216 rushing to a team that entered the game ranked 117th in the nation — defensive coordinator Thom Kaumeyer said, “Right now, it’s too easy for (opponents) to score, and if we’re gonna win, we gotta stop that. We gotta keep making plays and eliminate the mistakes.”
One month and three games later, things have not improved, and last Saturday they got much worse.
The effort is still there, the personnel is what it is.
Now, it’s up to the coaches to fix what needs fixing … strategically speaking.
Wes Nakama is a Honolulu-based freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org