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Hawai’i looking to “start faster” ahead of road test at New Mexico
BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED OCT 19, 2023
HONOLULU — At this point of the 2023 college football season, slow starts and the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors have become synonymous with each other. It has become especially frustrating for fans, coaches, and players alike as the team continues to come up short late despite inspired comeback performances at times.
The ‘Bows hit the road this weekend to take on fellow winless-in-conference-play opponent New Mexico with a pair of streaks directly opposing the other. Head coach Timmy Chang has yet to win a road contest as the lead man of the Rainbow Warriors in a year-and-a-half at the helm of the program, despite some down-to-the-wire games that didn’t bounce the way of the ‘Bows. On the other side, UNM currently holds the longest conference losing streak in the nation with 14 consecutive losses in Mountain West play. Even more, the Lobos haven’t won a home conference football game in 20 straight outings. The last home Mountain West victory came back in 2017 when New Mexico took down Air Force, 56-38, in their 2nd conference game of the season.
As the Rainbow Warriors come to town, one of the streaks will be forced to end for the programs fighting to escape the cellar of the Mountain West in 2023. Whose streak ends remains to be seen as both programs have strengths and weaknesses that diametrically oppose the other. Who can start fast? Who can finish strong? Most of all, who can leave the other looking up at the rest of the conference with a win on Saturday?
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of time so you can make your own call.
Tale of the Tape – New Mexico, old friends come around once again.
New Mexico and Hawai’i have met each other on the football field 26 times ahead of Saturday’s matchup with the Rainbow Warriors holding the advantage, 16-10 all-time. A popular rivalry in the WAC back in the 1960s, the program’s inaugural game took place in 1964 and saw 17 more games between the schools be played over the next 20 seasons before taking nearly a 40-year hiatus from facing off in between the white lines.
The rivalry took on a new meaning in 2012 when Hawai’i joined the Mountain West and the programs saw each other on the field once again. In five meetings since then, the ‘Bows have gone 2-3 but won the past two contests coming back in 2018 and 2019. Since then, New Mexico brought in a new head man for the program in Danny Gonzales, who is 9-28 in his four seasons taking over the reins. New Mexico’s head coach had history with the program, spending four seasons as a player for the Lobos before spending seven years as part of the coaching staff after graduating in various roles. Gonzales had stops at San Diego State and Arizona State in coordinator roles before coming back home to the program he once played in. It’ll be the second time the ‘Bows while take part in a game this season where both teams have head coaches that are alumni of the program they lead (Clark Lea, Vanderbilt in Week 0 was the other instance).
All of those words should read: who knows with this one?
Two teams that have struggled in their own ways, with Hawai’i on a 9-game slide on the road since Chang took over and UNM on a 20-game home conference losing streak that dates back to 2017. The ‘Bows have struggled in the first half this season, where the Lobos have excelled at times. New Mexico is coming off a nightmare-second half that Gonzales called “as bad [a team performance] as he had been a part of” in all three phases of the game, where Hawai’i has been far better in the second half of contests this season than in the first half of play.
With both teams sitting in the cellar of the Mountain West standings currently, it’ll be vital for each team’s stars to show up with force on Saturday to try and help their program make a late-season push for the postseason.
Players to Watch – Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors
Brayden Schager – QB (Jr.)
The ‘Bows junior gunslinger has put up numbers this season, checking in at sixth in the nation in total passing yards with 2,088 yards in seven outings this year. Schager has even outpaced presumed-NFL 1st overall pick and USC QB Caleb Williams in the same number of games in yards and ranks just below other notable names such as Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., recently reaching a new peak with a new career-best 427 yards through the air last week at home against San Diego State.
Despite Hawai’i’s struggles on the road, their QB has continued to put up solid numbers trying to keep the team in it during many second half comeback attempts. In three away games this year, Schager has thrown for an average of 265 yards a game while throwing six TDs and four INTs in those outings. He’s done it on respectable completion numbers as well, completing 76-of-113 passes — good for a 67.2% completion rate.
If the ‘Bows are to pick up their first road victory under coach Chang and continue the home slide that New Mexico has been on, it will be because Schager continues to take strides towards being an elite QB in the conference.
He’s been phenomenal completing the deep ball this season, leading the country with seven completions of 50+ yards, while continuing to produce with at least one touchdown pass a game in 16 straight games.
His growth has taken the attention of opposing coaches throughout the Mountain West, who continue to sing the praises of the 6-foot-3 quarterback. UNM HC Danny Gonzales said that Schager was a QB that can “throw all over the place” and commented on the fact that despite Schager’s desire to throw the ball, the junior has begun to run in key situations more this season. This comes just a week after SDSU HC Brady Hoke told reporters that he had liked Schager for three years and called him a “really good player” and a pro-style QB.
While those compliments feel nice, Schager himself would be the first to tell you they don’t mean much to him without wins accompanying them. This week on the road against a New Mexico team in a similar spot to his Hawai’i program, Schager has a prime chance to grab a win while continuing to put on display all of the steps forward he has taken this season.
Jordan Johnson – RB (Soph.)
Eventually, we will get the running back of the week correct here.
Another player that coach Gonzales had high praise for in his Tuesday media availability, Johnson has stepped up in the absence of fellow back Tylan Hines this season. Should Hines continue to miss time with an injury sapping his explosiveness, the ‘Bows have an excellent player to take his place in the meantime.
Johnson holds the best rushing performance of the season for UH with his 76-yard performance at home against UAlbany and had been a consistent 35-40 rushing yards a game since before taking just one carry against the Aztecs last week.
Despite the lack of action, Gonzales didn’t have a lack of good things to say about the running back from Dallas, Texas, calling Johnson an explosive back and comparing him to “a little jitterbug that’s physical” and saying his speed can cause problems for opposing defenses.
Johnson is also a player who can contribute to the passing attack, though that part of his game has been more hit-or-miss over the course of the season. In Hawai’i’s thrilling comeback win over New Mexico State, the 5-foot-9 back had a season-high 35 receiving yards to go along with 44 yards on the ground.
The ‘Bows could use a similar performance against another college located in New Mexico, this time on the road facing the Lobos. If he’s healthy and Hines is still working his way back, look to Johnson to try and get the ‘Bows rushing attack charged up and help supplement an elite passing game.
Peter Manuma – S (Soph.)
Another repeat member of the “players to watch” portion of these articles, Manuma got banged up throughout UH’s 41-34 loss to SDSU last week but also recorded his first interception of the season while registering a season-high nine tackles (including one TFL).
The high-energy sophomore is hard to miss on the field for the Rainbow Warriors for plenty of reasons, from his energy to his hair to his actual play. Manuma exhibits everything Hawai’i defense is supposed to be in a heat-seeking missile of a player that talks the talk and walks the walk between the white lines.
Speaking of between the white lines, that’s everything Manuma covers for this UH defensive unit. The 6-foot sophomore safety can be seen involved in almost all plays past the line of scrimmage and his speed allows him to lock in on targets and pursue from across the field. He has also struggled with some missed tackles this season (as has the rest of the Hawai’i defense) that seem to stick out because he is so consistently involved in plays.
Another player that Gonzales sang the praises of, it’ll be important for Manuma to finish on plays this Saturday while just being himself. The Hawai’i safety said he was okay to play following a physically-taxing Week 7 contest, but it can be tough to trust yourself to move the same when pain/injury are involved.
If the free-ranging safety continues his style of attacking play while cleaning up missed tackles, he’ll help a Hawai’i defensive unit that has typically allowed opposing teams to gash them for explosive plays. If Manuma and the ‘Bows can limit explosives for UNM while producing plenty of their own, it’s a formula for a Timmy Chang and Hawai’i road win.
Players to Watch — New Mexico Lobos
Dylan Hopkins – QB (Sr.)
Hopkins enters Saturday’s contest already as one of the best QBs in recent Lobos’ memory, already ranking fourth in single season passing yards since 2010 for the program with 1,165 yards in six games. The senior needs just 252 yards to move into the top three since 2010 and would take over the best single-season yardage production for a Lobos’ quarterback in the last 14 years with a game of 330+ passing yards against Hawai’i.
That would be a tall ask for Hopkins, seeing as the Hawai’i defense has yet to give up a 300-yard passing performance to any single QB this season in seven games. That’s not the request from his Lobos’ coaches, who just hope to see the senior signal caller continue to be who he has been in 2023. Using his COVID year of eligibility, the former UAB QB came to the desert after throwing for nearly 4,500 yards and 31 TDs while throwing just 16 interceptions across 32 games played. He’s enjoyed a solid first half to his “super-senior” season with UNM, tossing seven touchdowns and only three picks so far. He’s not the dual-threat QB that other programs have had against UH this season, but much like Schager will use his legs enough to get by and move the sticks when the defense presents the opportunity.
It’s key for Hawai’i’s defensive backfield to continue holding the standard of which they’ve played while the ‘Bows defensive line needs to do a better job getting home and finishing the job with sacks against opposing QBs after a few games without a recorded sack. With a bit less of a running quarterback across from them, it’s key for UH’s defense to limit the effectiveness of the fifth-year QB of the Lobos in a balanced New Mexico offensive attack.
DJ Washington – WR (Sr.)
Coming to Albuquerque with two years of eligibility after dominating the junior college level, the 6-foot-5 Washington has provided an additional jump ball threat for the Lobos’ offense and has been a comfortable target for Hopkins to look for. Washington’s 10 receptions are tied for 2nd-most among UNM pass catchers and is tied for the team lead with two touchdown receptions.
With a bigger frame, Washington has the frame to box out smaller defenders and carve out short-yardage receptions to help move the chains. It’ll be interesting to see how the ‘Bows counter the Lobos’ hulking receiver with the variety of defensive backs at UH DC Jacob Yoro’s disposal. Washington is not close to the most explosive skill player for Gonzales’ program, so I wouldn’t expect a Cam Stone to travel with him and Virdel Edwards II could see another assignment with four players with 100 or more yards receiving on the UNM roster.
If the Lobos are able to drive the length of the field, all eyes should be on Washington in the short-yardage passing plays in the red zone.
He most likely won’t break long-yardage plays against the Hawai’i defense, but don’t be surprised if he is a pesky thorn in the side of the ‘Bows as they try to get off the field on defense.
Jacory Croskey-Merritt – RB (Sr.)
Normally, these previews will include a defensive player to change up the offense chatter that fills the conversation.
Not this week.
The ‘Bows need to focus on not playing from behind as they head to New Mexico and the best way to stop the Lobos from scoring is to shut down the most consistent threat to enter the end zone.
Croskey-Merritt is another new face to the program, spending the past four seasons at Alabama State before making the jump to the Mountain West. The fifth-year senior ran for 1,164 yards and 13 TDs in 31 career games and just two 100-yard rushing performances before his transfer to New Mexico. It’s been a rewarding transition as he leads the Lobos’ rushing attack with 431 yards on 63 attempts, good for an average of 6.8 yards per touch.
Even more, he’s already run for seven scores on the ground in just five games played after scoring 13 total in 31 games at his last stop.
He’ll be the main threat of an extremely balanced UNM offensive attack that will also throw other faces in the backfield to keep Croskey-Merritt as fresh as possible while trying to wear down the Hawai’i defense at the same time.
It’s critical that UH doesn’t lose track of the 5-foot-11, 204-pound running back and get to him early behind the line of scrimmage. If he’s able to run wild, the ‘Bows could be in for a long afternoon.
There’s reason to believe he’s heating up in production as well despite two straight losses to conference opponents. In those games, Croskey-Merritt ran for 171 yards total and a pair of scores versus quality opponents in Wyoming and San Jose State.
For a team that has struggled at times against the run, keying in on the lead back for New Mexico seems smart.
What-2-Watch-4 & Final Thoughts – Hawai’i @ New Mexico
This weekend’s contest pits a pair of programs working tirelessly to rebuild to heights once seen and beyond but both clawing to get by the beginning stages of said-rebuild. With both sides having prime chances at ending streaks that are on the minds of players and coaches, Saturday’s game promises to be hard-fought despite it being the first meeting between programs in five years. Here are more specific things to keep an eye on as the teams take the field at 12:00 p.m. HT on Saturday.
- Can Hawai’i continue serving up “Schager Bombs” or is this the week that UNM figures out how to defend the deep ball? The ‘Bows best offensive attack to this point has been the quick drives that spawn from Schager throwing a rainbow spiral down the field to one of his streaking receivers for 50+ yards at a time. Defending deep passes was a concern New Mexico HC Danny Gonzales mentioned earlier in the week.
- Who wins the turnover battle? Hawai’i hasn’t been able to produce takeaways at the level the defense was expected to this year, losing the turnover battle in five of seven games so far and tying in the other two contests. Going against a Lobos program that hasn’t produced a takeaway in four weeks and has given the ball away four times in that same span, can Hawai’i win both the turnover competition and a road game for the first time this year?
- Discipline matters! The ‘Bows were flagged a season-low two times for just 11 yards in their loss to SDSU but have seen plenty of laundry on the field because of them this season before the bye week. Did they fix that? UNM has been the 2nd-most penalized team per game in the nation, averaging 9.8 flags per contest. In a battle between even opponents, who gives away less free yardage?
- Will somebody play hero? Each week it feels that the ‘Bows are crushed by one player on the opposing team in particular while also having a true no-doubt-about-it standout themselves. Which one of those “stars of the game” will emerge this week and how much can one player have on the final result of a football game?
Hawai’i enters must-win territory once again to keep postseason hopes alive and New Mexico finds itself in a similar situation. History won’t play much of a role in this edition of the series after the four-year hiatus between meetings but a chance to be written into the history of the matchup is there for the taking.
Saturday will be the time to show for the ‘Bows and Lobos.
The game will be broadcast on Spectrum Sports PPV with kickoff scheduled for noon HT on Saturday, October 21.
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