Both fresh and familiar faces help ‘Bows pick up season’s first win against UAlbany

Both fresh and familiar faces help ‘Bows pick up season’s first win against UAlbany

Both fresh and familiar faces help ‘Bows pick up season’s first win against UAlbany 

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED SEP 10, 2023

HONOLULU – It took a little longer than expected but with the help of both new names and the usual suspects, the University of Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (1-2) picked up the team’s first win of the season Saturday night with a 31-20 victory over visiting UAlbany. 

The Great Danes (1-2) out of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) entered the contest fresh off an upset bid that came up just short in Week 1 on the road against FBS Marshall and a hunger to finish the job against their second FBS opponent in as many weeks. 

It was the Rainbow Warriors striking first, though, blocking a punt on the opening Great Danes possession after forcing a three-and-out to set the offense up deep in Albany territory. A drop and two short runs followed, resulting in UH having to settle for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead. 

After the teams traded a pair of fruitless drives, UAlbany jumped ahead for the first time on the legs of sophomore QB Reese Poffenbarger, taking a QB read option 41 yards to the house for the game’s first touchdown. The 2022 CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year had a 54-yard touchdown run in last week’s loss to the Thundering Herd for UAlbany. 

Hawai’i looked to answer back quickly, as junior QB Brayden Schager found WR Pofele Ashlock for a catch-and-run that went for 53 yards and set the ‘Bows up at the Albany 17-yard line. It was just the start of volatile night for the QB though, as Schager tossed his first interception of the night three plays later, trying to get the ball to Solo Vaipulu on a screen pass that Great Danes’ LB Dylan Kelly tipped and came down with for the pick. 

The Rainbow Warriors answered back with an interception of their own on the ensuing possession, as true-freshman DB Elijah Palmer came up with his first career pick on a deep shot by Poffenbarger. It marked the ‘Bows first defensive turnover forced in the 2023 campaign and shifted the momentum back to the host Hawai’i.

They built on that momentum with a nine-play, 74-yard scoring drive capped off by the return of senior WR Jonah Panoke to the field with a 4-yard TD catch. A fun way to celebrate, it was the birthday boy’s first touchdown catch of the season and second of his career that put the ‘Bows up, 10-7, with nine seconds left in the opening quarter. 

UAlbany showed off the defense a bit in the second quarter, as Larry Walker Jr read the eyes of Schager perfectly and returned the Hawai’i quarterback’s second INT of the night to the house for six and the lead, 14-10, with 11:20 left in the first half. 

The ‘Bows answered back in the best way that they know how: Schager to Steven McBride for a score. Driving 62 yards across seven plays in less than three minutes, Hawai’i re-took the lead after the two connected for the third consecutive game for a touchdown – this time a 30-yard catch McBride was able to haul in for a 17-14 UH advantage with just over three minutes left in the half. 

Hawai’i looked like they had gotten to halftime with the lead, but a personal foul called against Peter Manuma helped extend the half and put the Great Danes into field goal range. UAlbany kicker John Opalko stepped up and drilled one from 46 yards out to send the teams into the halftime break, tied at 17. 

The ‘Bows re-took the lead on their second possession of the second half, continuing the trend of Chang being ultra-aggressive on fourth down so far this season with a 4th-and-6 ‘Schager Bomb’ down the right sideline to sophomore WR Jalen Walthall. The wideout hauled in the deep shot with one hand – while being interfered with – to catapult Hawai’i to a lead with 6:10 left in the third quarter that they would not relinquish. 

It wasn’t due to a lack of effort from UAlbany, as Great Danes’ DB Aamir Hall intercepted Schager at the ‘Bows own 21-yard line and Opalko drove home a 32-yard FG to make it a four-point game with just over 18 minutes left to play. 

Three straight turnovers-on-downs (Hawai’i-UAlbany-Hawai’i) began the final quarter of play, ending up with a possession for the Great Danes starting in ‘Bows territory. UAlbany drove the ball down to the Hawai’i 17-yard line before a holding penalty backed up the visitors and a fumble picked up by ‘Bows LB Noah Kema flipped the momentum back in favor of the hosts. 

Schager promptly provided the knockout blow, finding McBride in the endzone for the second time of the night to go up, 31-20, with 3:20 remaining for UAlbany to work with. On an up-and-down night for the junior from Dallas, Texas, the gunslinger finished on a high-note with a new career-high four TD passes to put the game away. 

UAlbany QB Reese Poffenbarger finished with 93 passing yards, going 10-of-31 passing on the night with one total touchdown and one interception. The pick thrown by Poffenbarger was the first turnover of the season for the Great Danes. Linebacker Dylan Kelly had a game-high 13 total tackles (11 solo) and an interception in the loss. 

The Great Danes head to Baltimore next week, taking on Morgan State in hopes to get back on track after a pair of losses where their upset try came up short. 

In an overall up and down night for Schager, the junior QB finished 23-of-40 for 266 yards and a career-best four TD passes to go along with three interceptions. McBride continued his early season golden touch, hauling in seven passes for 72 yards and a pair of scores. The Kansas transfer has scored at least once in every game this season for the ‘Bows. 

Pofele Ashlock paced the receiver room with a game-high 74 yards receiving on just four catches. It was the first time this season that Ashlock had not scored a touchdown and eclipsed 100 yards in a game. Senior WR Jonah Panoke celebrated both his return to the field and birthday with four catches for 47 yards and a touchdown. 

Hawai’i also got the running attack going, led by sophomore Jordan Johnson’s career-high 76 yards on 11 carries while Nasjzae Bryant-Lelei ran for 35 yards over eight carries in his return from an injury suffered in training camp. A banged-up Tylan Hines also rushed for 30 yards on just four carries for the Rainbow Warriors. 

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the ‘Bows, seeing multiple players exit with injuries throughout the second half of play. The defense was massacred by the injuries; among those who left hurt were DL Fo’i Sila, DB JoJo Forest, DT John Tuitupou and LB Logan Taylor. 

Forest had started in relief of injured CB Cam Stone, who left against Stanford with a knee injury, and played well throughout the night with four tackles and three passes broken up before exiting. Sila was carted off the field in clear anguish, while Tuitupou suffered a lower-leg injury that he was able to walk off on his own. Taylor, the ‘Bows defensive captain and “spiritual leader”, went down with a non-contact left knee injury that will likely hold him out going forward. 

Hawai’i heads to the continent next Saturday to take on #13 Oregon, who had to hold off an upset bid this past weekend while visiting Texas Tech. The game will kick off at 2:00 p.m. HT and the TV feed will be broadcast on the PAC-12 Network. 

A win is a win, even if it was ugly at times. For a team like the Rainbow Warriors, it’s no time to be picky about the “how” – they’re finally learning to win the little moments late. Now it’s time to clean up everything else. 

‘Bows look to escape doghouse against scrappy visiting Albany Great Danes

‘Bows look to escape doghouse against scrappy visiting Albany Great Danes

‘Bows look to escape doghouse against scrappy visiting Albany Great Danes

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED SEP 8, 2023

HONOLULU – Two games in, it hasn’t been the start to the season Hawai’i football was looking for. 

Progress and potential oozes from everywhere on the field for the ‘Bows, as dynamic weapons on offense like Steven McBride and Pofele Ashlock continue to make plays in both practices and games while putting up numbers that compete for tops in the country after two weeks. The defense added bigger and faster athletes in the offseason, including a couple transfers who have already put fingerprints all over the positive moments from the first pair of games in CB Cam Stone and DL Kuao Peihopa. 

The Rainbow Warriors even have the nation’s leader in passing yards in junior QB Brayden Schager, who followed up a career-best level game in Week 0 with an even better performance against Stanford. He’s up to 706 passing yards and six TD passes through two weeks, just one season after it took UH quarterbacks nine games to reach the same number of passing TDs.  

All that sounds wonderful, but it has still resulted in zero wins and two frustrating losses. That is not an outsider’s perspective either. UH edge rusher Andrew Choi said as much on Tuesday, sharing how the team felt as though it had opportunities come away with a pair of wins but “too many mental errors [and] too many mistakes” sank the ‘Bows. 

While there is no time machine to go back and fix the mistakes already made, Hawai’i will get another chance to right the wrongs from the first two weeks of the season as they host the Albany Great Danes of the FCS on Saturday at Clarence T.C. Ching Field. It will be the first meeting ever between the two programs when the action kicks off at 6 p.m. HT in Manoa. 


 

Tale of the Tape – First Meeting Between ‘Bows and Great Danes

Like previously stated, these two programs have never met. The Great Danes, who hail from the Coastal Athletic Association (formerly the Colonial Athletic Association), enter the Week 2 matchup against the ‘Bows having already experienced a W this season after dismantling Fordham in Week 0. 

That season-opening performance saw Albany rack up 10 sacks, a number that remains the same after the team failed to take down the QB in last week’s loss at Marshall. Leading the way and setting the program’s single-game sack record with 4.0 sacks of his own against Fordham was senior defensive lineman Anton Juncaj, the reigning CAA defensive player of the week as the Great Danes set up to take on their second FBS opponent in as many weeks. 

Speaking of that FBS school, Hawai’i has enjoyed considerable success against FCS programs this century. Since 2001, the Rainbow Warriors have won 19 straight matchups versus the Football Championship Subdivision by an average of 26.7 points per matchup. In 15 of the last 16 seasons, UH has played at least one FCS program. 

The ‘Bows may have won bunches against similar programs, but they would be wise to take caution with the Great Danes coming to the islands. Albany enters Week 2 off a loss to a quality FBS program in Marshall, leading the Thundering Herd into the fourth quarter before falling late. The Albany defense held Marshall scoreless through two quarters, entering halftime leading 3-0. 

The Hawai’i football program likely has more overall talent than this Albany team, but the ‘Bows are still a young unit trying to learn how to win. That complicates things more than veteran-led teams with track records of success at the college level. 

Saturday presents another prime opportunity for Timmy Chang’s team to register their first win of the season and jump-start their learning curve on how to win. 


 

Players to Watch – Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors

Steven McBride – WR (Sr.) 

McBride enters Saturday tied with Pofele Ashlock for the team lead in touchdown catches, each hauling in three TDs in two weeks so far. While Schager has shown a tendency to spread the ball around with a bevy of offensive weapons at his disposal, the wideout duo has separated themselves above the rest as the go-to targets when it comes to scoring looks. 

It’s been Ashlock with two games over 100 yards receiving so far, twice being named the Mountain West’s freshman of the week to kick off his career for the ‘Bows. The redshirt freshman developed a connection with his fellow Texan in Schager that teams will have to take notice of going forward. 

The same could be said for McBride, even though some might think of him as just a “Schager Bomb” threat. The 6-foot-1 pass-catcher had a quiet first half against Stanford before finding some space in the second half and coming down with a spectacular touchdown catch to begin the fourth quarter for UH. Otherwise, the Cardinal did a nice job limiting downfield opportunities for the speedster after his torching of the Vanderbilt secondary.

Week 2 presents a new challenge for McBride and the ‘Bows against a stingy Albany defense allowing 17 points a contest. The Great Danes have yet to allow a 100-yard receiver this season and recorded the team’s first interception of the season last week against Marshall. Hawai’i didn’t have a turnover in Week 1 but had a pair of giveaways against Vanderbilt in the season opener. 

McBride is a big-play threat on any snap. The question becomes if the ‘Bows can get him free as he continues to break out after transferring from Kansas. 

Elijah Palmer – DB (Fr.) 

The true-freshman defensive back from Bishop Gorman is part of the first group of the fresh pipeline between the Nevada prep football powerhouse and Hawai’i, cultivated by UH LBs coach Chris Brown. It’s easy to see why the whole staff is excited about the future of the pipeline after early returns. 

Palmer started his first game for the ‘Bows in the home-opener against Stanford and rewarded the coaches with seven tackles, good for second-most among Rainbow Warriors defenders in the 37-24 loss. The slot corner could be found involved in plays all over the field last Saturday night, finishing with UH’s second-best coverage grade via PFF of the night. 

The only player better than Palmer for the ‘Bows in coverage was Stone, who left late in the Stanford loss after suffering a knee injury on a special teams return. While Stone tweeted out that he was okay the next day, the defensive back is questionable going into this weekend’s matchup. 

Should the Hawai’i coaching staff decide to rest Stone while he recovers and works back towards 100%, it’ll be important for the rest of the corner room to step up in his absence. Luckily for the ‘Bows, corner is arguably the team’s deepest position group with Virdel Edwards II leading the way and JoJo Forest continuing to put together a solid senior season. 

Palmer may be tasked with defending electrifying junior Albany wide receiver Ray Alexander, who tallied a pair of touchdown catches in Week 0 against Fordham and has proven to be extra quick through his time returning kicks for the Great Danes. If Palmer can help keep Alexander at bay and continue his quick adjustment to the college game, the ‘Bows will be in a good spot. 

Logan Taylor – LB (Sr.) 

Taylor finished with a team-high 85 tackles in 2022, filling in admirably after fellow LB Isaiah Tufaga went down with an injury that didn’t allow him to return for the rest of the season. The 2023 defensive captain led UH in tackles in each of the final six games of the season while Tufaga recovered from injury. 

After an ejection from a tough targeting penalty in the second half of the ‘Bows loss to Stanford, Tufaga is forced to miss the first half of the next contest. Once again, it’ll be Tufaga out and Taylor taking control of the middle of the field for “the Lion’s Den” against the Great Danes. 

It will be important for the Rainbow Warriors to not just start quick offensively but also hold Albany’s offense at bay. Although head coach Greg Gatturo did not make the trip for the Great Danes, the visitors will be in good hands with associate head coach and offensive coordinator Jared Ambrose calling the shots. 

When Ambrose was first introduced as part of the staff, Gatturo said that he had been impressed by the energetic Ambrose’s “ability to utilize his personnel to attack defenses based on strength of his players,” and added that the former Delaware offensive coordinator “understands the importance of a strong and consistent run game.” 

With an athlete at QB for the Danes who is unafraid to run and a coach who will remain committed to the run to tire out defenses, it’ll be paramount that Taylor continues to be the communicator and leader in the middle for Hawai’i with Tufaga out. 


 

Players to Watch – Albany Great Danes 

Anton Juncaj – EDGE (Sr.) 

As mentioned before, the defensive edge rusher comes into the contest against Hawai’i as the reigning CAA defensive player of the week. The 6-foot-3 senior tallied four sacks against Fordham in Week 0 before chipping in three tackles against Marshall. 

The ‘Bows have seen some issues in sack numbers, giving up nine total in two games so far and six in last week’s loss to Stanford. On top of that, UH’s rushing attack has been slow to begin the year after playing a pair of Power 5 opponents. 

If Juncaj is able to get similar penetration against the Rainbow Warriors like he did against Fordham, it could be a long day for the running game once again and Schager could be forced to move around more than Chang and company would prefer. 

It does provide a chance for a Hawai’i offensive line, one that saw plenty of fresh faces join it after the 2022 season, another chance to establish itself with a cohesive look after switching to the Run-N-Shoot fully. Juncaj (and company) will look to continue the questions about the Hawai’i run game and pass protection through Saturday night. 

Roy Alexander – WR/KR (Jr.) 

One of the more diverse skill players on the roster, junior receiver Roy Alexander doubles as a solid kick returner for the Great Danes. He has averaged nearly 30 yards per return to start this season and can be one of the main outlets for QB Reese Poffenbarger on offense, helping move the chains on four of his six Week 0 catches. 

Alexander was quiet in Week 1, albeit on only eight snaps where he ran routes against Marshall. That performance doesn’t take any attention away from the 5-foot-10, 200-pound receiver. 

If he is a full-go, look for him to try to impact the game in the little ways and find hidden yards on special teams. If the ‘Bows can limit him in the return game, they have the tools to hold him to a quiet Week 2. If they allow him to get his momentum started on specials and carry over? A performance far like Week 0 could be in store for Alexander. 

Reese Poffenbarger – QB (Soph.) 

The sophomore quarterback transferred to Albany after redshirting his first year at Old Dominion and set the CAA on fire as a redshirt freshman for the Great Danes. In a 2022 season that saw him named as the Coastal Athletic Association’s offensive rookie of the year and all-CAA 3rd-team selection, Poffenbarger threw for 2,999 yards while completing 62% of his passes.  

While his early success was impressive, it was his ability to take care of the ball while allowing the offense to work for him that helped him to the honors. In his first season for the Purple and Gold, he threw 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 11 starts. His efforts led him to a runner-up finish for the 2022 Jerry Rice Award, given each year to the top FCS freshman. 

Expectations are there now for the redshirt sophomore. He was given an all-CAA preseason honorable mention for this year and was one of 35 players named to the 2023 Walter Payton Award preseason watch list, an award given annually to the FCS Division I offensive player of the year. 

While his arm and decision-making are each high-quality, the 6-foot signal caller also has the ability to take off and run when the defense allows. Last week against Marshall, he scrambled his way 54 yards into the endzone to put the Great Danes ahead by 10 in the second half. 

A week after struggling to get home against Stanford’s Ashton Daniels, Hawai’i needs to find a way to get pressure against Poffenbarger if they want any chance to force the QB into a mistake for a turnover. 


 

What-2-Watch-4 & Final Thoughts – Albany @ Hawai’i 

Just a few more things to keep an eye out for, some key storylines and questions as the ‘Bows continue to fight towards their first victory of the 2023 season while welcoming a new foe to the arena. 

  • Is this the week the Hawai’i defense finally forces a turnover? Strange things in sports “are more normal than normal is normal,” if you catch my drift. Albany has a quarterback that took care of the ball better than almost anyone in the country last season going into year two of the scheme, but Hawai’i has a lot of talent in the secondary. Can they bring in an interception, or maybe punch the ball out to force and recover a fumble? Turnovers are a need for a team as aggressive on fourth down as the ‘Bows. 
  • Brayden Schager was able to piece together back-to-back games with no interceptions twice last season. After playing a beautiful game against Stanford taking care of the football, the junior has an opportunity to accomplish back-to-back games without a pick for the first time this season. It’ll be important not to give extra possessions to an Albany team that doesn’t hand out too many free ones themselves. 
  • Who from the WR room has a breakout game this week? It seems that every time the ‘Bows step on the field, another name is producing in the RNS scheme. Against Stanford, it was Koali Nishigaya and Karsyn Pupunu joining in the fun for UH receivers. Before them, Alex Perry, Ashlock and McBride all enjoyed career-best outings against Vanderbilt. Every week, multiple players get a chance to have a big game. Who will it be this week? 
  • Can Hawai’i get Tylan Hines going? The shifty back has gotten praise after a promising freshman campaign but has struggled to get going in the early portion of 2023. He hasn’t gotten a ton of touches, averaging seven carries per contest so far and only gaining a net total of 20 yards. Against an FCS school, can the ‘Bows offensive line open some holes for the lightning-quick back to explode through and spark his season as we creep closer to conference play? 

Hawai’i started the first year of Timmy Chang’s tenure with three straight losses and stare a similar fate in the face if the ‘Bows aren’t prepared to take on an Albany program hungry for an FBS upset after coming up short just a week ago. 

The ‘Bows offense took a little time to get fired up in the home opener in front of over 12,000 fans in white attire. They’ll need to have all cylinders firing at full steam come kick-off Saturday night. 

No more screwing around, no more hurting themselves with penalties. If the Rainbow Warriors expect to compete in a competitive Mountain West, it’s time to start racking up the W’s by winning their 20th straight game versus an FCS opponent. 

The game will be broadcast on Spectrum Sports with kickoff scheduled for 6:00 p.m. HT on Saturday, September 9. It’ll be “Legend of the Run-N-Shoot Night” as the University of Hawai’i at Manoa welcomes back Bryant Moniz, Chad Owens and Greg Salas to campus for a chance to visit with fans and will be honored during the first quarter. Gates will open at 3 p.m. for “Kickoff at the Les”, which will feature a live musical performance by Chardonnay for fans in attendance while working alongside a DJ to keep the party going. There will also be concessions available for fans, along with a Keiki Zone and Heineken Beer Garden among other things. 

Reminder that parking passes for lower campus must be purchased in advance for the game.