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“Must-Win”; ‘Bows understand importance of non-conference finale against Aggies
BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED SEP 20, 2023
HONOLULU – There was no stuttering from the ‘Bows following their Tuesday morning practice regarding the mindset going into Saturday’s matchup versus New Mexico State (2-2). The Aggies, a team that Hawai’i (1-3) has historically had the number of before falling 45-26 in Las Cruces during the ‘22 season, have been on the mind of UH since then due to the embarrassment they felt.
It’s been a feeling that’s been multiplied in the past few days as well, after a 55-10 shellacking against at-the-time #13 Oregon left the ‘Bows humbled as they put the metaphorical axe back to the grindstone. (Oregon moved up to #10 in the nation in the most recent CFB rankings)
Hawai’i enters the weekend with an opportunity to pick up some positive momentum ahead of Mountain West conference play, taking on a quality New Mexico State team in the 12th meeting all-time between the two programs, and a chance to wash away the sour taste left by a pair of games on the minds of the ‘Bows.
“These are must-wins for us,” Hawai’i head coach Timmy Chang said of the schedule before his team’s Week 6 bye. “We have to play better; we’ve got to execute. [NM State] is a good team, [Aggies head coach Jerry Kill] got those guys going early on in his first year there [in 2022]. That’s a good 2-2 team that going to come in and challenge us and we’ve got to answer the call.”
Kill (who has a track record of turning programs around for the better) has been great for the Aggies, going 7-6 in his first season at the helm for New Mexico State. Prior to his arrival, the Aggies had never beaten the ‘Bows in 10 tries while giving up over 40 points in eight of the contests. In his first try versus the Rainbow Warriors, Kill’s unit held UH to just 26 points while running all over the defense.
The visitors out of Conference USA come to Honolulu after an exciting 27-17 win over in-state rival New Mexico and looking to reach above .500 during the regular season for the first time since 2014. While the Aggies have twice finished the season at 7-6 since then, both of those seasons finished 6-6 ahead of Bowl season and never would reach a winning mark during the 12-game slates.
With high stakes for both sides looking to build strong programs in the G5 world of FBS college football, Hawai’i will look to the past for help while New Mexico State hopes to keep the recent times rolling under head coach Kill with the program’s first ever win in Honolulu.
Tale of the Tape – ‘Bows beat Aggies again & again, until they don’t
As alluded to, before 2022 it was the Rainbow Warriors’ dream to see the Aggies on the schedule during the fall. For 10 straight games, the ‘Bows would defeat New Mexico State behind a potent offense like it was their job. When the whistle blows Saturday, Timmy Chang and company hope to bring shades of those games back to fans in attendance now.
For Jerry Kill’s Aggies, they’ll look to continue business as usual after the only meeting between the programs with the current head coaches went the way of the Conference USA members. While it was just one matchup, it’s a game that has even QB1 for the ‘Bows still thinking about how they needed to be better.
“I left out of there really embarrassed,” Hawai’i QB Brayden Schager recalled of the 2022 matchup. “I thought it was all around just a bad game, we didn’t play well on any phase of the ball.”
The Aggies ran for 357 yards and five touchdowns, gashing the Hawai’i rushing defense repeatedly last year. That has been a common trend for the matchups, as NMSU has averaged 245 yards rushing across the last three meetings between teams. The Aggies also scored on a TD on 5-of-6 first half drives, compared to a measly 10 points from UH in the first 30 minutes of play.
“We definitely still have that sour taste in our mouth from last year,” Schager added. “I think that’s something everybody remembers this week – just how bad that game was.”
Players to Watch – Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors
Brayden Schager – QB (Jr.)
I don’t care.
You are going to listen to my reasoning why he’s on the list again and you will LIKE IT.
Jokes aside, this week pits a pair of offenses off to an electric start in 2023 with a duo of QBs that rank inside the nation’s top 15 of passing yards and passing touchdowns. Of the two, Hawai’i’s Schager ranks higher with the third-most yards through the air in the nation with 1,103 yards while coming in at number four of all QBs with 11 passing TDs.
We’ve seen the good – like leading the nation in passing yards for a few weeks to start the season while continuing his streak of games with at least 1 passing TD – the bad (tossing a pair of back-breaking picks against Vanderbilt), and the ugly at times this season from the junior signal-caller.
Despite struggling against Oregon last week, Schager bounced back late with a touchdown to redshirt freshman Alex Perry to close the game on the right foot. It was important for the quarterback to do after going against (arguably) the best defense the ‘Bows will face all season. According to PFF, Schager had 4 turnover-worthy plays and was held without a big-time throw for the first time all season.
Against the Aggies, it’ll be important for the gunslinger from Texas to get back to his production levels over the first three games of 2023. That means completing the easy ones underneath – sure – but also means the offense needs a healthy dosage of “Schager Bombs” to succeed.
He’ll also need to take care of the football. He has thrown an interception in three of Hawai’i’s four games so far and is third nationally with six picks tossed this year. That’s part of what happens when you throw it as much as the Rainbow Warriors do. This season, Schager has thrown 34 more times than the next closest QB (Sheduer Sanders, 137) and saw three INTs in the same game – the ‘Bows 31-20 win against UAlbany. He has shown stretches of taking excellent care of the ball.
In what is expected to be another pass-happy game with the Aggies’ aerial attack coming into town, Schager will get yet another chance to put up some eye-popping numbers this weekend. For the ‘Bows to win however, he’ll need to keep those notable statistics on the positive side of the books. He’s got a decent chance, too. The Aggies have yet to intercept a pass through four games.
Pofele Ashlock – WR (R-Fr.)
After two extremely productive games to begin his college career saw him get over the 100-yard receiving mark twice to go along with three trips to the endzone, Ashlock has seen a dip in production over the past couple of weeks.
Against UAlbany, the 6-foot-1 wideout caught four passes for 74 yards and was held out of the endzone for the first time in his college career. Facing national-powerhouse Oregon presented different issues, as the redshirt freshman was able to catch eight balls but was held to his lowest yards output of the year with just 47 yards.
He’s shown an ability to get open against even the top corners he has faced this season and should have another high-volume day of targets on Saturday. His speed and fluidity on the field has been a weapon through four games and a return to the endzone would boost the ‘Bows offense again. NMSU’s defense has given up five passing touchdowns in four games.
He should have time to work deep as well while the UH offensive line protects against an Aggies’ unit that has mustered less sacks than games played in 2023 (three sacks, four games). Put together those factors and “Schager Bombs” – on the rocks to Pofele Ashlock – could be flying all over Manoa once again this weekend.
Peter Manuma – S (Soph.)
An All-Mountain West honorable mention in his true freshman season, Manuma has had an interesting start to his second college campaign. While productive with the second-most tackles for the defense this season, Manuma has yet to create a turnover for the ‘Bows. That was something he excelled at in his debut year with his hometown school, totaling two forced fumbles and two interceptions over 13 games.
On top of that, Manuma has struggled with some untimely penalties that extended opponent drives through the first few weeks of 2023 to the point where he felt the need to address it himself following the UAlbany game.
Under coach Kill, the Aggies have enjoyed a successful passing attack with dynamic plays of their own. While they are no “Schager Bombs”, New Mexico State has averaged almost 18 yards per completion this season, good for sixth-best nationally. Additionally, NMSU has complied a total of 11 plays through the air of 25+ yards, showing a propensity for the big shot at any time.
All that to say, Manuma should get a chance to make some plays this coming weekend versus a team that likes to air it out nearly as much as the ‘Bows do. For the Rainbow Warriors to get back to winning ways against their CUSA foe, Manuma being impactful against the Aggies’ passing game is paramount.
Players to Watch – New Mexico State Aggies
Diego Pavia – QB (Jr.)
In his first year under center for the Aggies, Pavia showed off an ability to do a little bit of everything in Kill and crew’s offense. The transfer from New Mexico Military Institute (who quarterbacked the Broncos to a 2021 NJCAA National Championship) led the Aggies in passing yards (1,450) and finished second in rushing yards (508) while contributing 21 total touchdowns (13 pass, 8 rush) to a 7-6 season and bowl win in 2022.
He’s started his second year with home-state NMSU strong, tossing eight TDs and four INTs in four games so far and is among the top 15 in passing yards with 918 yards. His legs have continued to pose an issue for opposing defenses, averaging about five yards per carry and racking up almost 200 additional yards on the ground for the Aggies.
His four interceptions are interesting, after he threw just six picks across 12 games last season. Part of that is an added aggression in the offense this year. Pavia has nearly doubled his yards per game passing from last season while taking some deep shots to a talented cast of skill position players.
It will be vital for the ‘Bows to contain Pavia’s ability to run around and make something happen on a broken play. Should they be able to keep things in front of themselves defensively, Hawai’i could challenge an otherwise aggressive aerial attack.
Jonathan Brady – WR (Soph.)
The Aggies’ version of Ashlock, Brady is one of 20 receivers across the nation in Division I football to compile a pair of 100+ yard receiving games already. Those two performances have come in the past three weeks, sandwiching a –7 yard outing between 102 and 109-yard games.
Brady lines up mostly inside the numbers in the slot, meaning he could see former high school teammate Elijah Palmer across from him. The pair helped national powerhouse Bishop Gorman to the Nevada state championship in 2021 when Brady was a senior and Palmer was a junior. That is a good thing, as the ‘Bows could use any advantage to stopping the Aggies’ offensive weapon they can get.
While he can burn you with his speed (his longest reception this season was 80 yards), he is someone who gets a lot of touches. He will get a few carries to run the ball from time to time but is equally dangerous returning the ball as he is lining up at wideout. Expect to see him try to use his speed in the kick return game to try and win the hidden yards for the Aggies.
He’s also matched his TD output from last season already with three scores in four games. In his true freshman season, the Bishop Gorman-product totaled three TDs in 13 games (9 starts) for New Mexico State. Pavia will look to the 5-foot-11 shifty receiver early and often – he leads the team with 16 targets and 10 receptions – when he is in trouble because of what the pass-catcher can do with the ball. Of his 252 receiving yards this season, 146 have come after the catch.
It’ll be important for the ‘Bows to slow down the speedster if they want to get back to their winning ways against NMSU.
Star Thomas – RB (Jr.)
While much of the conversation in this piece has been regarding the passing attack expected to be on display Saturday in Honolulu, it would be foolish not to mention the Aggies’ leading rusher in Star Thomas after NMSU made it look more like Ruidoso Downs Racetrack than a football game in 2022.
The Aggies rushed for over 300 yards against Hawai’i last season and had five rushing TDs to boot. Thomas chipped in 144 of those yards and a score himself and has started off his junior season strong by averaging about six yards per carry to the tune of 195 yards rushing and three scores.
Part of that is due to the offensive line put together for the team, seeing four returners from last season build from where they left off. So far in 2023, the Aggies’ O-line has ranked among the top-10 units nationally by allowing just three tackles for a loss or less each time out. Physical and athletic, the UH defensive line will have their hands full.
If the ‘Bows want to avoid a repeat of last year and not allow the Aggies to get their first win ever in Honolulu, they will need to key in on shutting down the rushing attack and allow the corners to create turnovers when NMSU becomes too aggressive. If New Mexico State gets the ground game going, it will be a long, frustrating night for the ‘Bows.
What-2-Watch-4 & Final Thoughts – New Mexico State @ Hawai’i
Two teams enter this matchup with a similar thought in mind:
“This one is winnable.”
After a loaded non-conference schedule for the ‘Bows included three Power 5 opponents, a Group of 5 opponent does not look as daunting on paper. With that said, Hawai’i enters the game below .500 against a team that is starving to get into the positive when it comes to record. It will be no easy feat for either side, meaning little things will decide the outcomes and big moments late – per usual.
Some keys and quick notes before the ‘Bows host the Aggies to close out the non-conference schedule.
- It’s a family reunion! Hawai’i OL/RB Solo Vaipulu and brother A.J., who plays OL for New Mexico State, will get a chance to suit up against each other (kind of). Solo has transitioned from a key cog along the ‘Bows O-line to being a versatile chess piece for Chang to use on offense as an extra blocker or receiver. His brother, A.J., has been a strong piece for that good unit the Aggies have, though the younger Vaipulu has been penalized three times this season.
- Going against a team from a similar conference size, can the ‘Bows get their own ground game going? We’ve seen how dangerous Schager can be when he’s in rhythm, slinging it around to the numerous offensive weapons Hawai’i has. Tylan Hines has been banged up to begin the year and has faced some massive defensive lines that clogged up holes quickly. Will an increased bill of health for the backfield help launch the Rainbow Warriors towards the over once again?
- Speaking of health, can Hawai’i be semi-whole again? Season-ending injuries aside, UH has dealt with a bevy of injuries to key players for every phase of football. Top CB Cam Stone has missed the last two games and is still working his way back. Hines didn’t play last week versus Oregon. Various others have also managed pain with soft-tissue tweaks in practice. How healthy can Hawai’i get before the weekend?
- Win the turnover battle, win the game. This one will likely be high scoring and fun with plenty of splash plays for both sides. Can Hawai’i copy the gameplan from the UAlbany win and create some defensive turnovers while improving the overall turnover margin? Schager will need to take care of the ball and continue the Aggies’ wait for their first pick of 2023.
After a somewhat shocking loss last season and a tough outing last week, Saturday against New Mexico State can’t come soon enough for the University of Hawai’i football team. For the Aggies, it is a chance for Kill and Co. to show off that this isn’t your grandpappy’s New Mexico State football team.
The game will be broadcast on Spectrum Sports with kickoff scheduled for 6:05 p.m. HT on Saturday, September 23. The University of Hawai’i at Manoa welcomes back father and son Tom (UH ‘80) and Tuma Tuinei (UH ‘18) to campus for a chance to visit with fans and will honor the duo between the first & second quarter. The Rainbow Wahine basketball team will be honored during the opening quarter for their back-to-back Big West championships and release the 2023-24 schedule. At halftime, NFL Flag Football Hawai’i will hold a five-minute scrimmage between two teams. The Rainbow Wahine tennis team will be honored during the third quarter for their regular-season and tournament titles from last year.
Gates will open at 3 p.m. for “Kickoff at the Les”, featuring free ice cream in honor of National Ice Cream Cone Day with music from The Vitals. There will also be concessions available for fans, along with an upgraded Keiki Zone for Youth Night and Heineken Beer Garden among other things.
Reminder that parking passes for lower campus must be purchased in advance for the game.
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