Hawai'i's Much-Improved Defense Hoping To Slow Down Georgia's Running Attack

Fueled by the constant criticism, the defense has proven its detractors wrong

Dec. 31, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Cupcakes. Full of holes. Soft.

It's what Hawaii's defense has been called this season.

Warriors defensive coordinator Greg McMackin has used some of the comments to fire up his players. He's gone as far as playing an audiotape recording during halftime of a college football analyst who called his squad a "cupcake defense."

Fueled by the constant criticism, the defense has proven its detractors wrong and established its own identity on a team known for its prolific offense.

The Warriors' defense is hoping to make one final statement when No. 10 Hawaii (12-0) faces No. 4 Georgia (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday night.

"We haven't gotten the respect we deserve," said linebacker Solomon Elimimian, who leads the team with 132 tackles. "It's a great opportunity to prove to everyone how good the defense really is."

Hawaii is ranked 33rd in the nation in total defense, allowing 348.9 yards, the best in June Jones' nine seasons at Hawaii and a major improvement over previous years. Last year's 11-3 team, which featured two defensive lineman that were drafted in the NFL, was ranked 93rd. The Warriors were 102nd in 2005 and 116th in 2004.

Hawaii also ranks ninth in the nation in sacks (3.3 a game) and is sixth in tackles for loss (8.5).

Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan and his receivers often get all the attention.

"It's really all you hear about when you watch the news," Bobo said. "But when you turn on the tape, you get a different view. ... They play extremely hard and physical and create a lot of turnovers. Hawaii is 12-0 for a reason."

Brennan couldn't agree more. He credited the defense, not his high-powered offense, for getting Warriors to the Sugar Bowl.

"The best thing about our defense is, when we need them to make a play, they've always made the play," Brennan said. "When you're a quarterback, that's the defense you want. You want a defense that shows up when the time counts and that's exactly the defense we have."



The defense has been critical in the closing moments of several games:

-- At Louisiana Tech, Gerard Lewis knocked down the potential game-winning 2-point conversion pass in Hawaii's 45-44 overtime victory.

-- At San Jose State, Michael Lafaele forced a fumble with 3 minutes left and Myron Newberry sealed the 42-35 overtime win with an interception in the end zone.

-- At Nevada, the defense forced the Wolf Pack to punt with 2:16 left, setting up the game-winning drive.

-- Against Washington, the Huskies were shut down in the second half and Ryan Mouton intercepted a pass in the end zone to secure the 35-28 win.

"We've made stops when we've had to. We've come up with big plays when we had to," Elimimian said. "We're confident in every one of our players and we know we can get the job done."

The Warriors will be challenged by the Bulldogs' running attack, led by Knowshon Moreno and Thomas Brown. But they have gone up against several talented runners, including Boise State's Ian Johnson and Washington's Jake Locker, and were able to make adjustments and shut them down in the second half.

"I believe in what we do. I believe in the guys that are here. I have no doubt we will play competitive football," McMackin said.

Teams have converted just 28.7 percent of third downs against Hawaii, ranking the Warriors fourth best in the nation. Hawaii is also ranked 16th in the nation in turnovers gained.

A key reason for the Warriors success is the attacking 4-3 scheme implemented by McMackin, who rejoined the team this season after spending a year with the Warriors in 1999. He succeeded Jerry Glanville, who became Portland State's head coach and used a 3-4 defense.

"Everybody believes in him as a coach and what he's doing," safety Jacob Patek said. "Everybody has bought into the game plan he has."

McMackin said the players were quick to learn the play book from his years as defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks from 1995 to '98. One thing he didn't have to teach was hitting.

"In Hawaii, football is a big thing," he said. "So you don't have teach anybody how to hit in Hawaii. I learned that the first time I was here. They're passionate and they're hitters."

He credits his players for being smart, playing well together and fitting into their roles. As good as the defense is, McMackin realizes his unit's role.

"Our role is to get the offense on the football field," he said.

That sounds good to his players because they rarely get a chance to take an extended breather because of Hawaii's quick-striking offense, which rarely calls a running play.

"They're just so explosive," Lafaele said. "So many things can happen in three plays, so we're always ready. We're always at the edge of our seat watching them.