With bowl scouts watching from the press box and title hopes possibly resting on the outcome, the University of Utah will play the University of Hawaii in Rice Stadium today at noon in a genuine Big Game.
The Utes are 3-1 for the first time since, well, last year, but last year's team never had any real hopes of contending for a conference championship. This year's team, with 18 starters back, fully expects to challenge for the title and could make a serious charge in that direction with a win today. They also could do everyone in the WAC a favor.The Rainbows are 3-0 and sitting in the driver's seat in the conference race, having already knocked off traditional powers Air Force and BYU. A win over Utah today would give them victories over three of the four teams expected to challenge for the title this season.
"This is a big game for everybody," says Utah coach Ron McBride.
"We have to look at it like a championship game," says Utah quarterback Frank Dolce. "It's a game for the WAC lead. San Diego State is up there, too, but we don't play them, so this is it."
Yes, it's early, but the bowl scouts have dragged their colorfulsport coats out of the closet and are making the rounds again. Representatives from the Copper, Aloha and Freedom bowls will watch the Utah-Hawaii game today. The Copper Bowl representative will be Doug Penner, who served as Utah's recruiting coordinator the past two years.
Neither Utah nor Hawaii has exactly made a habit of bowl appearances. The Utes have earned just two bowl berths, the last one 28 years ago in the Liberty Bowl. The Rainbows' only bowl appearance was in the 1989 Aloha Bowl.
The Utes were contending for a bowl last year until the Rainbows handed them a 52-26 defeat in Honolulu. Some of the Utes grumbled afterward that the 'Bows had run up the score - Hawaii coach Dick Wagner sent a note to Ute coaches explaining his side of the issue - but if they're thinking about revenge this year they're not letting on. Anyway, losing to Hawaii was hardly a novel experience for the Utes. They haven't beaten the 'Bows in six tries since 1985.
In their last meeting, Utah simply could not stop the Hawaii offense, which totaled 622 yards for the night. Which brings us once again to the O-word. The option. Hawaii dazzled Utah with it last year. Colorado State put added emphasis on the option against Utah last week and rolled up 543 yards before losing in the final two minutes. Hawaii undoubtedly will try again to captilize on Utah's weakness against the option.
The word out of the Hawaii camp is that quarterback Ivin Jasper might be replaced by Michael Carter, last year's starter, at least partly because of a shoulder injury to Jasper and partly because Carter runs the option - there's the O-word again - better than his teammate. Against Utah last season, Carter ran for 108 yards and 2 touchdowns and passed for 209 yards and 2 touchdowns. Hawaii coach Bob Wagner said he won't announce his starter until game time.
"We played very poorly last year (against Hawaii)," says McBride. "We didn't play any option responsibility."
The Utes will be better equipped to stop the option this week than they were last week now that inside linebacker Pita Tonga is back in the lineup. Tonga was sidelined by a sprained ankle against Colorado State, and the Utes, who had stuffed the Oregon State option a week earlier with him in the lineup, struggled all day against CSU's option.
"He's the leader of our defense," says McBride. "He's the glue that keeps it together. It would've helped to have him in there last week."
Meanwhile, the Ute offense probably will have to play today without Keith Williams, last year's 1,000-yard rusher. He sprained an ankle against Colorado State and was unable to practice this week. Trainer Bill Bean says it is unlikely he will play. Without Williams last week, the Utes got their first long look at reserve tailback Pierre Jones in action. He rushed for 143 yards.
Running against Hawaii will be another matter. The Rainbows lead the WAC in rushing defense, not to mention scoring defense and turnover margin. They will be a big challenge for the Utes, who rank 10th in total offense. It's a challenge the Utes hope they're ready for this time.