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‘Bows head to “9th Island” for crucial conference showdown with UNLV
BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED SEP 28, 2023
HONOLULU – Everything else was just a warm-up. The real season starts now.
“It’s a different mindset, the conference,” Hawai’i football head coach Timmy Chang told the media earlier in the week. “All these games are really important now.”
Obviously, the non-conference schedule games count similarly in terms of overall record, but the energy, preparation and stakes added from entering the conference portion of the schedule are just bigger.
Add in a battle for the “Island Showdown Trophy” – in the possession of the visitors coming to the “9th Island” – and the game being played at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders of the NFL, and you’ve got an excellent closing act to the month of September for Mountain West foes UNLV and Hawai’i.
The ‘Bows went through a challenging preliminary battle in the final week of non-conference play, an appetizer game against New Mexico State that turned into a full-course meal as Hawai’i completed a second-half double-digit comeback to take down the Aggies for win number two of 2023.
Rainbow Warriors’ QB Brayden Schager did have a fumble against NMSU but did an excellent job in decision-making otherwise, not throwing an interception in the entire game for just the second time this year. The UH running game has continued to heat up as the weeks progress, even without star back Tylan Hines able to go at full strength and various other injuries plaguing the room.
Those two things are bonuses to the real strength of the ‘Bows offense this season: the receiver room.
Led by a senior and redshirt freshman, Hawai’i has two “go-to” pass catchers in Steven McBride and Pofele Ashlock with a combined eight TDs. Add in the emergence of former walk-on Koali Nishigaya in the slot and the continued development of 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman Alex Perry and you’ve got a room that UNLV head coach Barry Odom referred to as “explosive, great receivers” on Monday.
While the offense will need to be working from the first whistle on Saturday against a high-scoring Rebels team, the onus is on the Hawai’i defense to answer the call. A unit that centers a mindset around “The Lion’s Den” and being aggressive, the ‘Bows will need to be on their A-game against a UNLV offense that averages 34 points per contest and has put up 40+ on all opponents other than #2 Michigan.
That dynamic Rebels’ offense is led by a familiar face for Hawai’i football fans. Former UH wide receivers’ coach Brennan Marion, now the OC for UNLV, has helped the Rebels develop a balanced attack between the air and ground on their way to wins in three of their first four outings. Last week against UTEP, UNLV turned into the Runnin’ Rebels with over 300 yards on the ground to complement three defensive takeaways and a blocked punt in the 45-28 win.
Both coming off wins, both programs look to open up Mountain West Conference play with a bang.
Tale of the Tape – Battle for the Island Showdown Trophy
The ‘Bows are currently in possession of the Island Showdown Trophy, an actual physical representation of the bragging rights that each program so eagerly desires each year that came into existence just in 2017. The rivalry between the Rainbow Warriors and the Rebels dates back decades though, as UH is one of the two oldest reoccurring opponents of UNLV football history.
This season will be the 33rd installment of the football feud between UH and UNLV and the 15th consecutive season that the two will meet. The first matchup came all the way back in 1969, just the second season of Rebels’ football, with a ‘Bows victory, 57-19.
The series remains in favor of the Rainbow Warriors all-time (19-13, UH leads) with the help of wins in four of the last five meetings, including last season’s win in Mānoa, 31-25. Fans are almost guaranteed a high-scoring game to watch for as well if history holds true for the newest rendition of the rivalry. Just three times has one of the teams been held to one or less scores and both squads have holds on to some notable national slots in statistics for 2023.
It’s another “Island Showdown” but at the “9th Island” this time, where UNLV leads 10-6 for the series and has won six of the last seven Las Vegas meetings. Hawai’i has struggled on the road under head coach Timmy Chang as well, not yet winning a road game during his tenure.
Speaking of firsts of the Chang administration, it’s another opportunity for Hawai’i to reach the .500 mark for the first time under the former UH QB’s two-season watch. It’s part of the reason the former gunslinger-turned-head coach referred to the game as a “must-win” for the second week in a row. Chang and staff continue to show a commitment to changing the narrative and vibe around a Hawai’i program that once captivated the nation annually. A win against a high-quality UNLV team to open conference play and kick down the metaphorical “.500”-door would be an excellent statement way to say “Hawai’i football is back” to the rest of the Mountain West Conference.
Players to Watch – Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors
Brayden Schager – QB (Jr.)
Here we go again.
Okay, this is the last week I’ll make the joke that I always have Schager in the players to watch. He deserves it and I mean that in the best possible way.
The gunslinger from Dallas has taken plenty of heat from the outside at times for his decision making and shortcomings as he has continued developing as a collegiate athlete. Despite the outside noise, Schager continued to put his head down and work on the way to winning the starting QB job for the ‘Bows and doubled-down on that commitment to being the next quarterback to benefit from the Hawai’i program by doing an entire offseason deep-dive into the Run-N-Shoot offense in preparation for the 2023 season.
It has paid off in production numbers through the first third of the season, tossing 11 TDs (and rushing for his 1st career TD last week) while checking in at fourth nationally with 1,348 yards passing through Week 4. He has thrown a touchdown in 14 consecutive games, dating back to last season, and extended that streak when the ‘Bows needed him most last week when he found Nishigaya on a crossing route to tie the game up.
Most of all, he didn’t compound errors when issues arose. Down two scores in the first half, Schager came out firing to open the second half of play and bring the Rainbow Warriors within seven points of New Mexico State and didn’t allow a back-breaking fumble on a deep offensive drive haunt him any longer than his brief stay on the sideline. No interceptions for just the second game this year.
He has done a respectable job spreading the ball around to the aforementioned playmakers in Hawai’i’s system and caught the eye of UNLV’s Odom. The head man for the Rebels made it a point to say how they have got their “work cut out for [them]” if they want to snatch back the Showdown trophy.
It’s certainly a unit with the ability TO snatch it back as well. UNLV forced three turnovers in last week’s win and has forced nine turnovers in four games. Part of that is due to the pass rush that has racked up nine sacks and 33 QB hurries (via PFF) in their games so far, something Hawai’i has been hit-or-miss with in their outings so far.
It’ll be vital for Schager to be quick with his reads to get the ball out against a solid Rebels’ pass rush, sure. It will be more vital for the QB to take care of the football on the road, especially if this one turns out to be a shootout of two dynamic offenses.
Pofele Ashlock – WR (RS-Fr.)
I know he was here last week. I didn’t have a choice but to put him here again.
Ashlock opened his college career this year with back-to-back Mountain West Freshman of the Week selections and has led Hawai’i in receiving yards for all five games. He has been a consistent chain-mover AND big-play threat each snap he takes for the ‘Bows and has clearly received more attention from opposing defensive coaches and players than a usual freshman would.
While he isn’t the only Freshman of the Week honoree playing in this one (more on that later), he is UH’s trump card for a lot of situations. His ability to get open against both man and zone coverage is a weapon for the Hawai’i offense and his yards-after-catch (YAC) talent has pushed him towards early stardom. With 439 yards, Ashlock leads UH and is second among all MWC players in receiving yards. Of those 439 yards, 149 have come after the catch for Ashlock.
While he has seen a scoring hiatus the past few weeks, Ashlock remains as productive as can be and continues to open up opportunities for Schager to distribute elsewhere. With that said, it does feel like the young wideout is due for a big score – a Schager Bomb anyone? – and could help the ‘Bows in a big way this weekend versus a semi-banged-up UNLV secondary.
Daniel “Sauce” Williams – DL (Sr.)
The big fella’ “Sauce” himself, Williams had the best defensive grade among all defensive players in the country for Week 4 (via PFF) while turning in an electrifying performance charged up by his 41-yard fumble recovery after ripping the ball loose to stonewall a driving New Mexico State offense.
While it’s the snatch-and-dash that will get Williams the attention, it would be a disservice to the senior to not mention the rest of his impact on the ‘Bows critical comeback win.
In just 19 total snaps, the JUCO transfer had the forced fumble and recovery and was a demon against the run. While he totaled just one tackle, Williams continuously ate up space and created penetration to slow down the Aggies’ running attack. While being a great run-stopping asset for UH defensive coordinator Jacob Yoro, “Sauce” decided to make his presence known in the passing game as well with a QB hurry and a positive pass-rush grade from PFF.
It will be the run-game stopping mastery that Hawai’i should be interested in seeing even more of this week. As mentioned before, the Rebels totaled over 300 yards on the ground in their victory over UTEP in Week 4 and enter Saturday averaging 190.8 yards per game.
The ‘Bows atoned for a previous season’s demons in their comeback win against the Aggies last week, giving up less than 100 yards on the ground after getting gashed for over 350 yards and five TDs on the ground in 2022. Hawai’i teams of the past, the ones who struggled, allow for those trends to continue. Saturday is the first conference chance to prove that the new era of the #BRADDAHHOOD is here and that begins with taking away the comfort of the Rebels’ run game.
To do that, look for the “Sauce” on the defensive line to grade out highly again in more action if the ‘Bows want to win in Las Vegas for just the second time in the last eight tries.
Players to Watch – UNLV Rebels
Jayden Maiava – QB (RS-Fr.)
The name might bring you pause, even sound familiar.
That would be for good reason when it comes to Maiava. The former Kaimuki QB came to UNLV after completing his senior season at Liberty High School in Nevada as the highest-rated HS quarterback prospect Rebels’ recruiting history and redshirted the 2022 season before finally seeing the field for action this season.
Now, full disclosure. Maiava might not start on Saturday, as Rebels’ QB1 Doug Brumfield left UNLV’s game two weeks ago with an injury but has been a limited participant in practices leading up to the weekend matchup against the University of Hawai’i. Should he be able to go, this whole section might be old news for Maiava, and we’ll file the information away for at least a year.
The argument can be made that Maiava has proven himself more-than-capable in the absence of Brumfield, coming into the Vanderbilt game during the 1st quarter and throwing for 190 or more yards in both of his longer appearances of the season over the past two weeks. The Rebels have won both of those outings and could easily look to the redshirt freshman one last time as their starter gets healthy.
The experience has been a solid one for the young signal caller and UNLV alike. The redshirt freshman led the Rebels to the program’s first victory over an SEC opponent in the Week 3 40-37 home win over Vanderbilt and followed with a strong road outing and win at UTEP, 45-28.
If Brumfield is unable to go once again, expect to see Maiava under center for the ‘Bows opponents. If that’s the case, Hawai’i needs to keep explosives limited to a minimum while spying the athletic quarterback. Despite being evaluated as a pocket-passer coming out of high school, the 6-foot-4 Maiava has shown extra juice in the legs to extends plays and drives as he progresses.
Jai’den “Jet” Thomas – RB (Fr.)
The reigning Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Week, Thomas had over 100 yards on the ground and FOUR rushing touchdowns in last week’s victory at UTEP on just 13 carries. Known as “Jet” by coaches, players and media alike, the true freshman has burst onto the college scene in his first four games.
Thomas has yet to eclipse 40 total carries and has never had more than 15 total touches in a game through the four weeks of college football the Rebels have played so far. Despite the limited chances as he earns his way onto the field for Odom and staff, Thomas has racked up over 200 yards rushing and seven TDS in his playtime thus far.
Some might point to last week’s game as the breakout for “Jet”, making reference to doubling his season’s output in just one game. Don’t be shocked if the 5-foot-9, 180-pound back sees another uptick in touches this week after his first 100-yard game as a college student-athlete. Coach Odom was complimentary of the back’s pass-blocking ability and mentioned how it is crucial for running backs in his scheme to be strong pass-blockers along with talented runners.
If Thomas does see more snaps and plays his way, it’ll be key for the ‘Bows to limit his production. This season has trended towards if Thomas scores, UNLV wins (his only time out of the end zone for a full game was the 35-7 loss to #2 Michigan). He won’t be the only runner to worry about out of the UNLV backfield, as senior speedster Courtney Reese is back for his senior season and graduate transfer from PITT RB Vincent Davis Jr joins the fray.
Hawai’i has been able to hold some stronger rushing attacks at bay this season while struggling against others. Saturday’s contest will rely greatly on the ‘Bows ability to stop both the old and young legs in the UNLV backfield. If Thomas scores, it’s not over. If Thomas runs wild, it’ll be a long trip home from the “9th Island” for UH fans.
Jalen Dixon – DE (Sr.)
Dixon was a player who got decent buzz heading into the season as he won the top spot on the depth chart among defensive ends and is someone who the coaching staff has been able to lean on in their first year overseeing the program.
The junior edge rusher totaled three sacks last season and was a constant presence in the backfield, racking up 6.5 tackles for loss in 2022. He had been quiet to begin the 2023 slate but showed out last weekend versus UTEP with his first sack of the year and a pair of TFLs in the Rebels’ 45-28 road win.
Against a team that likes to pass as much as the Rainbow Warriors do, Dixon will get plenty of opportunities to rush the passer. If Hawai’i can limit him (and others along the line) throughout the day on Saturday, Schager should have enough time to distribute the ball around and score consistently.
The problem arises if Dixon can get free. If Schager is forced out of the pocket or on the run, the ‘Bows offense becomes a bit less dynamic and a bit more survival-mode. Star edge rushers have gone quiet only to show out again against Hawai’i already this season (looking at you, UAlbany), so look for Dixon to try and add his name to that list. Look for Hawai’i to make sure this is the only time you hear his name.
What-2-Watch-4 & Final Thoughts – Hawai’i @ UNLV
What more fun can regular season football be than a conference opener in a place meaningful for both sides in competition for a trophy? The stakes are there for the Saturday morning matchup for the ‘Bows in the second consecutive “must-win” week of 2023, but here are a few more notes and keys to keep an eye out for this weekend.
- This one could be impacted by penalties a lot. It was an issue that Timmy Chang and staff verbally vowed to fix after the first three games of the season after multiple 100+ free-yard offerings to opponents. UNLV’s Barry Odom mentioned penalty woes this week in his press availability and how it will affect them against better programs and in closer games. Hawai’i has averaged 65 penalty yards per game while UNLV has given away 60 free yards on average per contest. This could be a battle of who shoots themselves in the foot less.
- UNLV is an elite team at forcing turnovers with nine in just four games (6 INT, 3 FF) but is also susceptible to the big play. Among UNLV defenders who have allowed multiple receptions, six have given up 14 or more yards PER reception this season. That’s good news for lovers of the Schager Bomb. Hawai’i just has to avoid handing UNLV the big play turnovers.
- Can Hawai’i finally get the “road win” weight off their back? Since Chang took over, the ‘Bows have yet to win a game on the road and have yet to sit at .500 at any point of the season. Saturday brings a chance for both feats to occur at the same time and would be a different outcome from the expected “norm” between the schools. The home team has won 12 of the last 14 meetings in the series.
- Can the ‘Bows blow the lid off early? UH has struggled at the start of games, being outscored 110-47 in the first half this season. Thankfully for Hawai’i, the team thrived in the fourth quarter, winning the final 15 minutes in four of five games this season and outscoring opponents by nearly six points in the last quarter of action each week. To win against UNLV, Hawai’i will need both the defense AND offense ready to go from the first whistle and kickoff.
Timmy Chang called last week against NMSU critical and a “must-win” ahead of the contest and his team responded with a gritty, last-second win to close out the non-conference schedule. He doubled down and made it seem like this week is even more important than last (to be fair, it is) in his comments to the media this week.
Will his team respond again and keep the “Island Showdown” trophy with the ‘Bows on the trip back from the “9th Island” or will UNLV have their revenge after UH shocked them late last year?
Saturday kicks off the “real season” to give us the answer.
The game will be broadcast on Spectrum Sports – with kickoff scheduled for 10:07 a.m. HT on Saturday, September 30.
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