Conference play gets underway as UH travels to Wyoming

Yes, we’re three games into the season. But the measuring stick is only now going to be utilized because conference play is here to separate the good from the great, the contenders from the pretenders and the mediocre from the truly awful.

Saturday sees the first Mountain West action for the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (2-1) when they hit the road to take on the Wyoming Cowboys (1-2). The two schools haven’t played since the 2014 season when Hawaii earned a 38-28 win.

But this is a much different team than that one with increased expectations and potential. What we’ve seen through three games from UH is much of what was expected coming into 2017 — the offense can be explosive, reminiscent of some of the high-octane units of years past, but the defense is a question mark.

Quarterback Dru Brown is a playmaker with his arm and legs, capable of giving his receivers opportunities down the field. Brown has been solid, but he still has a lot of room to improve. Some of his decisions have been questionable and he hasn’t had a turnover-free outing yet. But his confidence is unquestioned. He’s the heartbeat of the team and he’s fully capable of shouldering that responsibility.

The Wyoming defense, however, should be up to the task. The Cowboys have a pair of blowout defeats, but their defensive unit has not performed as poorly as the score lines may have indicated. Their 24-3 opening loss to Iowa included just 263 total yards of offense for the Hawkeyes. The Cowboys actually forced four turnovers in that contest but were just never able to capitalize on those opportunities.

They picked up a 27-0 win over Gardner-Webb in which they surrendered only 195 total yards (just 22 passing). Last week’s 49-13 loss to Oregon was as one-sided as expected, but the Ducks are back in the top 25 and likely to remain one of the best teams in the country throughout the season.

Wyoming has the defensive talent to limit the Hawaii attack, or at least contain it long enough to earn a close win. There are good reasons that, despite performing statistically worse than Hawaii across the board to this point, Wyoming is a touchdown favorite heading into Saturday. The Cowboys brought back just about the entire starting defensive unit from a team that came up three points shy of a Mountain West championship last season.

Coming up three points short was a common story line for Wyoming in 2016. Despite a solid 8-6 campaign, four of their losses were by just three points. While they probably weren’t much better than your typical eight-win team, they could have just as easily won double-digit games and come into 2017 with much more hype.

Hype hasn’t been an issue for quarterback Josh Allen, who is considered a top NFL prospect. He hasn’t had an ideal start, though he can look like the total package some days. Top competition has been where he’s stumbled. Luckily for him, the Hawaii defense has been slow to work out the kinks, especially through the air. It’s the weakest unit for the ‘Bows, simply from a talent standpoint. They don’t seem undisciplined, they just don’t have many playmakers.

While I would like to see Hawaii open with a conference win and grab some early momentum in the Mountain West, I think Wyoming will turn things around quickly after its no-show against Oregon.

The Pick: Wyoming 31, Hawaii 20

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

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