Football: Wolf Pack searching elusive win at Hawaii Saturday
Chris Ault says you can’t lose a football game during a plane ride.
“Everybody always comes up to me and says, ‘Boy, you guys got a long plane ride over to Hawaii. That must be tough to go play a game there,'” the Nevada Wolf Pack head coach said this week as his team prepared to play the Hawaii Warriors Saturday night (8:30 p.m.) in Honolulu.
“I always tell them, ‘Now, what do you think the players are going to do during that plane ride?’ They’ll tell me things like, ‘Read a book, do homework, sleep, listen to music, talk to their friends.’ Exactly. It’s a relaxing time. What’s so tough about that?”
Well, if you put it that way . . .
“That plane ride really doesn’t take that much out of you,” Pack senior Vai Taua said. “That trip isn’t too bad. Once we get there we run around a little (at the stadium) and we’re ready to go. This is really nothing more than a business trip for us. We’re not going to let anything get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Then why has the Wolf Pack had such a frustrating time in paradise over the last five decades?
The Pack has not beaten Hawaii in Honolulu since 1948, a string of six consecutive losses and six long, quiet plane rides back to the mainland.
Ault, though, refuses to blame it on sunscreen, bikinis, surfboards and gnarly waves.
“That stuff has nothing to do with it,” Ault said. “It’s because Hawaii is a pretty darn good football team. They are tough to beat at their place. But winning on the road anywhere is a tough thing to do.”
Ault has a point. Hawaii, especially in recent years, has been pretty darn good. The Warriors haven’t had many problems beating the Wolf Pack anywhere, winning seven of the last 11 meetings between the two teams at home or in Reno.
Even when the Pack has beaten the Warriors, it hasn’t been easy. All four of the Pack’s victories over Hawaii since 1948 have come by 10 points or less. Last year the Pack won 31-21 in its toughest WAC victory at home by far.
“They are not easy to beat anywhere,” Ault said.
The Wolf Pack, which also lost in Honolulu last Christmas, 45-10 to SMU in the Hawaii Bowl, left on Friday for their second Western Athletic Conference game this year. The Pack, now 6-0 overall and ranked 19th in the latest Associated Press poll and 21st in the USA Today coaches’ rankings, won its WAC opener last week 35-13 over San Jose State.
“It seems like every week there is a new challenge for us,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said.
The challenge this week is the long trip to Hawaii as well as playing a team on the road that has a winning record.
The Pack has played just two road games this year and only one of those was out of state (in Las Vegas to play UNLV). The other trip was just over the state lines in Provo, Utah against BYU. Both BYU and UNLV have struggled this year. Hawaii, now 4-2, is riding high after opening the WAC schedule with wins against Louisiana Tech and Fresno State. The Warriors also only lost to USC 49-36 to open the season at home.
“Playing on the island can be tough,” said Kaepernick, who is 0-2 on the island as a starting quarterback, having lost to Hawaii, 38-31 in 2008, and to SMU. “There’s the long travel, the distractions, the beach, all that stuff. That’s why we’re leaving Friday.”
The Wolf Pack used to leave for Hawaii on Thursday for a Saturday game. That all changed two years ago when budget cuts dictated they leave 24 hours later.
“It works out better this way,” Ault said. “In the past, we’d have all day Saturday with nothing to do but sit around the hotel waiting for the game that night. It drove everybody crazy. This way we’re busy all the time right up until we leave for the stadium.”
The Pack players will have a few hours on their own to explore the surroundings.
“We might get an hour or so on our own,” Taua said. “That’s about it.”
Let’s just say that nobody is going to pack a surfboard and bring it on the team charter flight.
“We let them go put their feet in the water if that’s what they want to do,” Ault said. “They have about two hours on Friday to go to the beach. But, you know, hardly any of them actually go swimming. They just walk around for a little bit and then come right back to the hotel.”
Like every roadtrip, Ault schedules team meals and meetings as safeguards against players having too much free time.
“You know, two years ago I asked seven or eight of our seniors whether they minded going over there just a day early,” Ault said. “They all told me the same thing. To a man, they all preferred going over there on Friday instead of Thursday. They all said they just felt like a caged animal walking around and sitting around all day on Saturday waiting for the game.”
The Wolf Pack will have more things to worry about than simply the sun and surf this weekend.
The Warriors are coming off an impressive 49-27 victory at Fresno State a week ago as quarterback Bryant Moniz threw for 376 yards and the Hawaii secondary picked off three passes.
“They have an explosive offense,” said Ault of the Warriors’ No.1-ranked passing offense (422 yards a game) in the nation. “But it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. We know what they like to do. They are going to come out and throw it 50 times a game.”
Knowing it and stopping it are, well, as different as a trip to Moscow, Idaho and Honolulu.
“Their quarterback is very comfortable in what they do,” Ault said. “They like to throw a lot of the underneath, possession stuff.”
Moniz has thrown for 1,845 yards and 18 touchdowns this year and has been intercepted just four times. His favorite targets are Greg Salas (50 catches, 757 yards, seven touchdowns) and Kealoha Pilares (45-726-9). The Warriors, though, are also running the ball with success. Alex Green ran for 96 yards and three scores against Fresno.
“They’ve made more of a focus on running the ball this year (an average of 19 times for 75 yards a game) and it is paying off for them,” Ault said.
Nobody has to remind the Pack about its frustrating history at Honolulu.
“We’ve gone to the island a few times since I’ve been here and we’ve come up with a loss both times,” defensive end Dontay Moch said. “But we’ll be all right. It all about practicing harder this week.”
Moch, who loves to rush the passer, has been looking forward to facing the Hawaii offense.
“We just have to go out and attack them,” he said, smiling. “They pass a lot so you just have to be aggressive.