Hawaii opener goes according to plan, unfortunately

I think it’s fair to say that the Hawaii opener was just about what was expected. The Rainbow Warriors fell 51-31 to the Cal Golden Bears, who kicked off as a three-touchdown favorite.

Hawaii proved to be game in Nick Rolovich’s debut as UH head coach, hanging with Cal for most of the first half before turnovers and big plays gave the Bears a 20-point halftime lead they never really squandered. The result was similar to what has become the norm for the ‘Bows over the last half decade. They were competitive but mistake prone, making a good showing without truly threatening the better opponent.

One surprise was the play of quarterback Ikaika Woolsey, who had one of his best starts to begin his senior season. The numbers were solid, if not spectacular — 17 for 34, 234 yards, one touchdown, one interception. The difference appeared to be Woolsey’s comfort in the pocket and his ability to fit the ball into some tight windows.

Woolsey has always seemed to have a confidence about him, a true belief that he should be the starting quarterback. Not everyone else, myself included, has shared in that belief. But while Hawaii may not have made quite enough plays to win its opener, Woolsey seemed to be playing with a level of security in Coach Rolovich’s offense that he hadn’t previously experienced.

The other major bright spot was the play of running back Diocemy Saint Juste, who has shown flashes in the past but looked like a truly special weapon out of the backfield. The team went by committee in the game’s latter stages, but Saint Juste proved to be capable of the feature role in the first half. He ended the day with 14 carries for 118 yards and a touchdown, letting plays develop, making good reads at the line of scrimmage and evading tacklers. I think a big season is in store.

The obvious problem was the inability to stop the Cal offense, specifically running back Khalfani Muhammad and receiver Chad Hansen. Hansen was the primary target, catching 14 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns. New quarterback Davis Webb finished the day with 441 yards and four scores with no interceptions, so he certainly picked up where No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff left off last season.

Despite the big numbers, the defense did fairly well on third downs, holding Cal to an under 50 percent conversion rate (8 for 17). The problem was simply the number of possessions for the Bears. Hawaii turned the ball over five times to Cal’s zero, which makes it almost impossible to stay level with a capable team. The fact that UH wasn’t completely dismantled on the scoreboard is actually a positive they can take away from Sydney.

Against most power conference schools, Hawaii has done enough in recent years to suggest that it would later be competitive in conference play. The problem has been that those positives haven’t progressed through the season as expected. Hopefully this time around Coach Rolovich can build upon some of the offensive momentum the team displayed against Cal and not take steps backwards, as has been the norm.

But things only get tougher next game against No. 7 Michigan and the Wolverines’ vaunted defense. Woolsey and Co. face a tall order heading into The Big House, but if they can hold onto the football and execute a few things similarly to the opener, coming home 0-2 won’t be as bad a start as it may look on paper.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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