Hawai’i looks to make it two straight, steal Kuter Trophy from Air Force
BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED NOV 9, 2023
HONOLULU — Finally.
The Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (3-7, 1-4 MWC) snapped a 10-game road losing streak last weekend when they took down the Nevada Wolfpack, 27-14, for the program’s 1st conference win of the season. The ‘Bows now return home to the islands to host an Air Force program (8-1, 5-0 MWC) that fell from the undefeated ranks with a 23-3 loss to Army last Saturday.
For the first time all season, Hawai’i won the turnover battle and the war in the trenches, racking up a season-high six sacks in the win over the ‘Pack.
While a feel-good win over Nevada to get back on track was exactly what the doctor ordered for Hawai’i, the task to do it again against a more-proven opponent will be a far greater task.
Tale of the Tape – Battle for the Kuter Trophy
The history of the ‘Bows and the Falcons dates back nearly 60 years, first meeting one another back in 1966 and becoming regular foes from 1980-1997 when both Hawai’i and Air Force were members of the Western Athletic Conference, or WAC.
The trophy, named for the late General Laurence S. Kuter who became the 1st head of the Pacific Air Forces Command in 1957, didn’t come into play until the 1980 matchup when UH conceived the trophy that had been sponsored by the Pacific Air Command for the then-annual matchup between the Falcons and the ‘Bows.
It’s been a series that AFA has held steadily in hand, winning 14 of the 22 all-time matchups, including three of the four meetings from time in the Mountain West. The ‘Bows have lost two straight to the Falcons in Honolulu by a combined 81 points over the two meetings, struggling to keep the triple-option attack that Air Force employs at bay.
It’s a scheme that has continued to work to great lengths of success. Air Force enters the upcoming weekend with the top rushing attack in the nation with an average of 284 yards on the ground per game, an area of concern for the Hawai’i defense for most of the season. On the other side of the aisle, UH has struggled along to the worst rushing attack in the FBS to the tune of just 65 yards per game, though the ‘Bows are coming off of a season-best 136 rushing yards in the win at Nevada.
While running may not be the Rainbow Warriors’ game, airing out the pigskin sure is. Hawai’i QB Brayden Schager leads the Mountain West with 2,768 passing yards this season — also good for 7th in FBS overall — and a conference-best 22 TDs in the switch to the Run-N-Shoot this season. He’s continued uncorking “Schager Bombs” as well, tied with USC’s Caleb Williams for the most 50+ yard passes for FBS QBs this season with eight such plays.
He’s been airing those deep passes out to a pair of reliable targets as well in Pofele Ashlock and Steven McBride, as the redshirt freshman and senior have each made national noise for their contributions this season. Ashlock leads all freshman FBS receivers with 60 receptions and 659 receiving yards while McBride ranks inside the top-20 nationally for receiving yards, totaling 785 yards through 10 games.
Like it has been through much of the matchup’s history, Saturday will likely come down to the run versus the pass and who can remain the most disciplined on defense. A tough task awaits the ‘Bows, although Army showed last week it is not an impossible one.
Players to Watch – Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors
Brayden Schager – QB (Jr.)
As previously mentioned, Schager has enjoyed the switch to the Run-N-Shoot offense this season as he has seen his production skyrocket in his first full season as a starter. In addition to ranking inside of the top-20 in multiple categories nationally, the junior has five 300+ yard performances while climbing into historical UH company with the seventh-most passing yards in program history. With 269 yards on Saturday, Schager would become the seventh ‘Bows QB to throw for 6,000 yards in a career.
The arm has never been the question for Schager, but there have been plenty of worries regarding his mobility. The 6-foot-3 gunslinger resembles a “pro-style” passer rather than the usual dual-threat QB fans have become accustomed to in the RNS scheme. Last Saturday, the QB showed off the wheels more than he had for most of the season, using a few designed runs and a few scrambles to rack up 49 more yards on the ground along with his 203 passing yards. If that version of Schager, one who keeps defenses honest with his legs while striking fear into others with his arm, is the new development here to stay, Schager should get a chance to move up further into the all-time ranks of ‘Bows and start adding wins to his resume as well.
Lastly, it’s vital that he takes care of the football this weekend against a team that is 3-0 this season when forcing two or more turnovers in a game. Schager has struggled with ball security at times, tossing interceptions in bunches and recently struggling through some fumble issues (along with the rest of the offense). To have a chance at an upset this weekend, Hawai’i cannot afford to give away opportunities.
Steven McBride – WR (Sr.)
One of the most dynamic playmakers in the nation through Week 10, McBride’s dominance since moving from Kansas to Hawai’i has been remarkable. The senior wideout has continued to produce week-in and week-out, leading the team in TD receptions (8) and yards (785) while ranking second nationally with five catches of 50+ yards this year.
After fellow stud receiver Pofele Ashlock got free for a pair of scores last week, look for McBride to get back in on the fun after being held out of the end zone for two consecutive games. The 6-foot-1 pass catcher has long been one of Schager’s favorite and most-reliable targets, dating back to spring practices in noticeable on-field chemistry.
In a game that almost guarantees a loss in the time-of-possession category for the ‘Bows, quick scores can combat the long drives that Air Force will attempt to put together to chew up clock. McBride’s specialty has been flying past defenders down the field to haul in the “Schager Bombs” while also showing off some speed after the catch to blaze by opponents on short-yardage plays and turn them into explosives. He continues to get involved when opponents focus on shutting down the deep ball for Hawai’i with solid route running and quality hands that usually bring in anything within his catch radius. McBride has eclipsed 40 yards in eight of 10 outings for UH this year.
Isaiah Tufaga – LB (Sr.)
One of the captains of the defense, Tufaga has been a bright spot in the takeaways department recently. The senior can be seen involved in every play all over the field and has forced a fumble in two straight games, manning the middle of the defense at an exceptionally high level since running mate Logan Taylor went down with an ACL tear early in the season.
Sophomore Jalen Smith could also have gone here, stepping into the role of the aforementioned Taylor and running away with it to take a majority of snaps recently next to Tufaga. It’s going to be important for both linebackers to be constantly communicating with the rest of the Hawai’i defense as they face off against the triple-option offensive scheme that the Falcons run. Tufaga is tied for the team lead in tackles with 65 total tackles this season (S Peter Manuma has also recorded 65 total tackles) while Smith has quickly shot up the ranks with more playing time, coming in with the 3rd-most tackles at 47 through 10 games.
Facing off against a team that doesn’t want to throw the ball but will keep you guessing in the run game, it’ll be vital that both are on their A-games in communication, tackling and attempting to create some takeaways for a ‘Bows upset bid.
Players to Watch – Air Force Academy Falcons
Zac Larrier – QB (Sr.)
Coming off a week where he set career-highs in passing attempts and completions, the senior QB hopes to get back to what he’s become accustomed to in the Falcons’ attack. Before AFA’s 23-3 loss to Army, Larrier hadn’t thrown the ball more than nine times in a single game while rushing less than 10 times in a game just once all year.
The Falcons’ offense runs most efficiently when Larrier can keep the defense guessing on if he’s the one taking off or if it will be one of his multiple options in the backfield. Like much of the Academy, the QB shows elite discipline in most outings. In his 22 passing attempts last week, he threw his first two career interceptions as he was asked to try and lead a comeback effort with time as the enemy.
One of the most direct ways for Hawai’i to pull off an upset on Saturday and put a dent in AFA’s Mountain West title hopes is for the ‘Bows to force Larrier to become a passer rather than a distributor, where he is far more inclined to make a mistake. To do so, the rushing attack for the Falcons needs to be shut down.
Emmanuel Michel – FB (Sr.)
The triple-option typically offers exactly that — multiple options on a single play — and can be tough to prepare for singular players within the system because it can be anyone in any week. Michel leads the Falcons with 163 carries for 733 yards and nine touchdowns this season, going through a six-game stretch where he received no fewer than 18 carries and topped out at 33 rushes for 148 yards and three scores in a win against San Jose State during the stretch.
To build off the original point of making Larrier play quarterback and beat you as a passer, it’s key for UH to shut down the run game and Michel headlines it. He’s coming off his second-worst game of the season, going for just 37 yards on eight carries in the loss against Army. Otherwise, the strong 5-foot-10 runner has burnt teams over and over. He has eclipsed 100 yards in three games, just missing a fourth by three yards, but typically will not impress with game-breaking speed. A consistent force, his game-long rushes (apart from one 57-yard run) haven’t gone over 22 yards. Many of his touches come from misdirection and confusion so communication will be key for Hawai’i.
Trey Taylor – FS (Sr.)
The 2nd-team Mountain West selection from 2022 has enjoyed another nice season for the Falcons, tied for the second-most tackles on the team with 60 total in nine games while racking up a team-best two interceptions. The free safety is used as a chess piece in the AFA defense often, floating in coverage but getting his nose dirty in the backfield on passing downs as well with half-a-sack recorded.
Taylor’s impact is felt on special teams as well. The senior recorded a blocked PAT earlier this season against Wyoming, the first blocked kick for Air Force since 2021. A clear playmaker on a strong Falcons roster, the less Taylor’s name is mentioned on Saturday, the better fortune for the ‘Bows.
What-2-Watch-4 & Final Thoughts – Hawai’i vs Air Force
It’ll be a tall order for the Rainbow Warriors to fill come Saturday when they host Air Force, trying to hand the Falcons the program’s second consecutive loss while attempting to put together a winning streak for the first time all year. The last appearance in front of home fans for Hawai’i was among the roughest outings in recent UH memory, how do the ‘Bows erase that from the minds of the faithful fans? Here are a few more storylines and keys to keep an eye on come Saturday evening in Mānoa.
- Can Hawai’i return to the promising trend of being less penalized than opponents? It’s been an up-and-down year for the discipline in the UH program, facing problems with the officiating laundry at times this season. They cleaned it up following the bye week but saw some penalties start to fly last weekend. That can’t happen against one of the least penalized programs in the FBS in Air Force.
- Do we continue to see the upward trend of the Hawai’i defensive line? All season, questions in the trenches for UH have existed. Coming off a week where the ‘Bows dominated against the pass with a season-high six sacks, can Hawai’i finally figure out their run-defense woes versus the nation’s best?
- Air Force’s defense once again ranks among the nation’s elite, forcing turnovers and shutting down the run consistently. The Falcons’ defense also keeps games within reach, holding the nation’s longest streak of holding opponents to 30 points or less in 16 consecutive contests. Hawai’i has the pieces on offense to explode, now will the ‘Bows ruin the streak?
- Does Dalen Morris get a little extra action for Hawai’i on Saturday? The active-duty Naval officer moonlights as one of UH’s QBs in one of the more impressive multi-tasking lives you’ll see, playing an important role in the ‘Jumbo’ packages and down near the goal line. Maybe he gets to let one rip on Military Appreciation Night at Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex?
The ‘Bows have a chance to put together the first winning streak of the year in a development year for the program while trying to hand the first losing streak of the season for Air Force. Conversely, expect the Falcons to come out with an additional fire after an embarrassing loss for an otherwise elite team.
The game will be broadcast on Spectrum Sports PPV with kickoff scheduled for 6:00 p.m. HT on Saturday on Saturday, November 11. It’ll be “Military Day” at the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex, where the first 750 fans will receive rally towels at Gate B from game sponsor First Hawaiian Bank.
There will be an F-22 flyover during the pre-game and the Letterwinners Club will welcome 2004 graduate Britton Komine to be this week’s legend. Komine currently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Hawai’i Air National Guard. Air Force General Kenneth S. Wilsbach, the commander of the United States Pacific Air Forces, will also be recognized during the game along with Superintendent Lieutenant General Richard M. Clark and Director of Admissions Colonel Candice Pipes of the USAFA.
Gates will open at 3:00 p.m. for “Kickoff at the Les” and parking will be open to the public one hour before gates open at 2:00 p.m.
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