AFTER HAWAII'S convincing 39--27 win over No. 17 Boise State for the WAC championship last Friday, the team the poll voters can't seem to embrace took a moment for itself. Standing together in their locker room at Aloha Stadium, the Hawaii players bellowed a celebratory song, a nameless tune that included the refrain, We are the Warriors/If you don't like us, we don't care. It was an anthem of defiance, but on this night it also carried an unmistakable note of triumph. All season the Warriors (11--0) have been derided for their gimmicky run-and-shoot offense and soft schedule. They were so lightly regarded going into the game that despite winning week after week, Hawaii had dropped from 12th in the AP poll on Oct. 28 to 14th.
In a year in which the top 10 has been ruled by chaos, it became increasingly unjust to dismiss the Warriors as unfit for the BCS. Now, finally, they have gained a measure of respect, moving to No. 11 in the AP and, more important, advancing three spots to No. 12 in the BCS rankings. All that remains between Hawaii and a probable berth in the Sugar Bowl is a home victory over Washington (4--8) this Saturday.
Indeed, the Warriors are more than qualified for one of the 10 BCS berths, boasting (in addition to the only unbeaten record in the country) the top scoring offense (47.18 points per game) and a first-tier Heisman candidate in quarterback Colt Brennan. The 6'3", 196-pound senior threw for 495 yards and five touchdowns against Boise State, running his NCAA Division I-A career-record total to 126 scoring passes. "He should have won the Heisman last year," says Hawaii coach June Jones. "He threw for more yards and touchdowns than [ Ohio State's Heisman winner] Troy Smith and [ Michigan's] Chad Henne combined."
But aside from Brennan's aerial artistry, what distinguishes this Hawaii team is a physical defense that ranks 31st in the nation and is led by a ferocious front seven. Last Friday the Warriors shut out the country's No. 3 scoring offense over the final 21 minutes and held Broncos running back Ian Johnson to 86 rushing yards, 50 of which came on a first-quarter touchdown dash. "We missed one gap," says Hawaii defensive coordinator Greg McMackin. "After that, everybody played really smart."
McMackin, who was also Hawaii's coordinator in 1999 and most recently coached the San Francisco 49ers' linebackers from 2003 through '05, turned around a defense that was among the nation's worst a year ago by switching to an aggressive 4--3 scheme and ordering his linemen to lose weight. "No rice," says defensive tackle and captain Michael Lafaele, who shed 30 pounds over the summer. "Being from the islands, I grew up on that stuff." The faster, leaner Warriors wreaked havoc in the Boise State backfield with three sacks and six tackles for loss; they now have 37 sacks, seven more than they had in 14 games last year.
When Hawaii plays Washington of the Pac-10, it will be the Warriors' first game against a team from a BCS conference. Extra motivation for Hawaii. "We knew before the season that we were going to have to win them all," says Jones. "All we have to do is take care of business."