‘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.