With a lei the size of a semi-truck tire around his neck, Hawaii football coach Nick Rolovich deflected credit for chopping down 11-point favorite Arizona late Saturday night.
“Coach (Corey) Batoon and his defensive staff had a good game plan,” Rolovich said.
“Give coach (Brian) Smith credit; he fully prepared those guys. That’s good coaching by the defensive staff.”
No one was saying nice things about Arizona’s coaching staff.
And there was this from Rolovich: “We had opportunities to put it out of reach.”
Hawaii won 45-38 even though it committed six turnovers. And yet it “had opportunities to put it out of reach”?
Hawaii is not a feared football team. It’s a mid-level “Group of 5” program whose victories the last two seasons came against FBS opponents who went a cumulative 28-72. It also beat Western Carolina and Duquesne.
It committed six turnovers and still beat Arizona.
Let that sink in.
The Wildcats appeared to arrive at Aloha Stadium after being awakened early from a group nap. It was a replay of Arizona’s sleepwalk through its 2018 season opener, a head-shaking loss to a BYU program that hasn’t finished in the AP Top 25 for a decade.
Arizona was similarly emotionless a week later, losing big at Houston, another “Group of 5” team.
Hello? The time to hesitate is through. No time to wallow in the mire. Would someone light Arizona’s fire?
It can be done. The last time an Arizona opponent committed more than six turnovers and won was 1984. The No. 1 Washington Huskies lost five fumbles, threw four interceptions and trailed Larry Smith’s Wildcats 7-6 with 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter in Seattle.
Alas, Arizona faded in the fourth quarter and lost 28-12 to a Husky team that would win the Orange Bowl.
Smith didn’t wait for someone else to light the fire, he was so shaken by the loss that he took off his headset and all but threw it out of Husky Stadium.
At the final buzzer, after the Huskies scored a meaningless touchdown following an onsides kick, Smith was so agitated that he sprinted to the locker room, eschewing the traditional post-game handshake with UW coach Don James.
Smith was just getting started.
“I think that the officiating in this league stinks, and you can quote me on it,” he said. “I’m sick of it.”
Sick of losing, following their coach’s lead, the Wildcats swept Stanford and ASU to finish the season, triggering a 17-6-1 streak that attracted so much admiration that USC hired Smith to coach the Trojans in 1987.
Smith coached UA football as if high on a case of 5-hour Energy drinks, and I swear his victories over No. 1 USC, No. 2 UCLA, No. 6 SMU, No. 9 Notre Dame and four consecutive, program-changing upsets over ASU were directly related to the force and fire he wore on his sleeve.
Kevin Sumlin does not coach the way Larry Smith did 35 years ago.
That wasn’t necessary at Texas A&M, where 100,000 fans at Kyle Stadium and one elite-level recruiting class after another lit the fuse for the famed “12th Man” support system at A&M.
That “what-me-worry?” demeanor isn’t working at Arizona.
Sumlin’s befuddling losses to BYU, Houston, Arizona State and Hawaii have shaken the community’s faith and belief, a troubling follow-up to Rich Rodriguez’s fade following the 2014 Pac-12 South championship season. Do you realize Arizona has gone 3-5 against “Group of 5” opponents the last four years?
If you’re in the Pac-12, you’ve got to go 7-1, minimum, in those games. You have to be prepared and energized the way Rolovich’s Rainbow Warriors were against Arizona.
“Congratulations to our fans,” Rolovich said Saturday night. “We took advantage of it.”
And Hawaii only drew a turnstile count of 20,572 fans in the 50,000-seat stadium.
With enthusiasm sapped before Labor Day, Arizona might be fortunate to draw 20,573 for next week’s home opener against NAU.
This isn’t always a game about big names.
Defensive coordinator Batoon is a Hawaii native who spent 10 years coaching at NAU, with his last two stops at Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State.
He had his defense far more prepared than did Marcel Yates’ Wildcat defense.
The Rainbow Warriors’ offensive coordinator, Brian Smith, suffered through two failed coaching regimes at Hawaii, but Rolovich liked what he saw, kept him on board and on Saturday Smith’s unit, bailed out by a second-string QB, gained 595 yards against Arizona.
Imagine how many more yards that might’ve been if Smith had a talent like Khalil Tate on his roster.
Before it beat Arizona, Hawaii had gone 0-11 against Power 5 conference opponents dating to 2011. The last five of those games were by a combined 236-57. In retrospect, had Hawaii not turned the ball over six times, most of them self-inflicted, it might’ve scored 60 against Arizona.
Look, Arizona’s roster isn’t built to contend for the Rose Bowl or spend three months inside the Top 25. But losing to Hawaii is unacceptable.
It makes you wonder if this is as good as Arizona football is going to get.