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Comeback Kicks: 5 takeaways from Hawai’i’s 20-17 win over New Mexico State
BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED SEP 25, 2023
HONOLULU — The ‘Bows were back with a vigor this past weekend, coming from behind and scoring 17 unanswered 2nd-half points (capped with Matthew Shipley’s 24-yard game-winning FG as time expired) to pick up their second win of the 2023 season.
It’s tough to overstate the importance of the victory for the Rainbow Warriors, who begin Mountain West Conference play this upcoming Saturday on the road versus a strong UNLV Rebels unit with three wins in four outings so far this season. Hawai’i struggled to win close games during the ’22 season but have started to buck that trend to turn the close losses into wins this year.
Before diving deep into the Rainbow Warriors’ upcoming visit to the “Ninth Island” for a clash against the Rebels, let’s take a look back at the exciting 20-17 win over New Mexico State one last time. Just like the ‘Bows this past weekend, I’m back with vigor as well.
To make up for the lack of takeaways after the Oregon loss (my apologies, I was traveling for a family situation), here are FIVE (5) takeaways from Hawai’i’s comeback victory to close non-conference play.
1. The Hawai’i special teams unit is piecing it together at the perfect time.
It was not the prettiest start to the season for UH associate head coach Thomas Sheffield’s football baby – the Rainbow Warriors’ special teams – when giving up a kick-return touchdown against Vanderbilt in Week 0.
Having a 0-yard punt in two straight weeks drove some fans wild as a young unit tried to find the discipline on kick coverages and protections. Not-so-pleasant conditions made sure to compound issues for the group.
Just a few short weeks later, the argument is that specials won a game for the ‘Bows. On an on-and-off rainy night in Mānoa, Hawai’i converted on two field goal tries and recovered an onside kick right after scoring to open the second half, all giving huge boosts to morale among players and fans alike.
Moreover, the coverage game on kicks has improved. The Aggies didn’t muster a single punt return yard and only had one kickoff return go for 25 yards. It was a far cry from the season-opening loss at Vanderbilt when the ‘Bows gave up the TD.
That’s a big development for Hawai’i, a team that has openly talked about how they need to improve in all facets of the game if they want to achieve their goals for the year. A great step towards that is a consistently good special teams unit, which this group is turning into quickly.
2. Matthew Shipley is a short-range weapon for the ‘Bows.
Despite missing from 51 yards out on Saturday, ‘Bows kicker Matthew Shipley was a hero. Continuing his college career-long trend, the senior from Texas was money from inside 30 yards for the 24th time in 24 career tries as he put an exclamation point on the UH comeback from 24 yards out.
Shipley was 2-for-3 on the day kicking overall and did a nice job working double-duty as the ‘Bows place kicker and punter. His punts did not get returned for any yards and he didn’t have a touchback as the punter all night.
As much as head coach Timmy Chang and staff likes to be aggressive, especially in the red zone on fourth down, Shipley provides a sturdy option to tack on three points any time a drive stall deep in opposing territory. That’ll be a key tool to have as Hawai’i heads into the conference slate.
3. The running attack has multiple options in the absence of Tylan Hines and they’re doing a great job.
For the third straight game, sophomore tailback Jordan Johnson led the Rainbow Warriors’ running attack. After setting new career-highs in his season-debut against UAlbany, Johnson continues to add a spark in the backfield that has underperformed after being a strength of UH’s just a season ago.
That unit was led by Dedrick Parsons, who graduated last spring, and Hines at mostly-full health. This season, Hines has been dealing with a step up from bumps and bruises since Week 0 and hadn’t fully recovered his burst so far. Senior RB Nasjzaé Bryant-Lelei is still in the process of ramping himself up after a training camp injury sidelined him for the first couple weeks of games, though it is easy to see the bruiser starting to get his legs back under him.
In the meantime, it’s been Johnson and fellow sophomore RB Landon Sims taking the lion’s share of the rushing attempts. In three games, the duo has combined for 225 yards on the ground while Johnson has averaged 6.6 yards every carry to lead all Hawai’i rushers.
With Hines still an unknown with an injury, the Rainbow Warriors’ runners are ready to step up in his absence. That’s a good thing for a team that excels passing the ball and has displayed a mightily improved defense as they head into battles against familiar conference foes. If Hawai’i wants to close out close games, a reliable running attack is a must. It’s starting to feel like that’s what the ‘Bows have again.
4. Koali Nishigaya’s breakout season is just getting started.
The 2020 Saint Louis ATH walked onto UH’s football team, just hoping to work for a shot at making the roster before focusing on more. This past summer, his work had culminated in a scholarship offer to him from his hometown school while they switched fully to his high school offensive scheme. Everything began to line up for the 5-foot-7 slot receiver and he has seen extended action this season despite not being listed among the top six receivers on the depth chart.
With four more catches Saturday night, Nishigaya is now over 125 yards receiving this season and caught his second career touchdown against the Aggies. While Pofele Ashlock and Steven McBride are the flashy names through five games for Hawai’i, the smaller Nishigaya has emerged as a dependable 3rd down target for Brayden Schager and has helped the offense become more efficient moving the chains.
In the biggest moments of the game, Nishigaya was on the field getting opportunities to make plays to help his team. It was what he came to UH for in the first place, to compete and help the ‘Bows win. As Hawai’i heads into conference play, Nishigaya adds another trick up Timmy’s sleeve.
5. The defense needs to wrap up and tackle better if they want to get to bowl game eligibility.
Okay, I was positive Paul for the first four takeaways but anyone who watched the game knows there were some issues for Hawai’i despite coming away with a W. Don’t worry, it won’t be harping on negatives but merely an observation from Saturday (and the games prior, really).
Injuries have gashed the ‘Bows through the non-conference schedule, seeing star cornerback Cam Stone miss two games after suffering an injury late against Stanford and losing last season’s leading tackler in LB Logan Taylor to a torn left ACL. The injury to Taylor was a gut-punch to a ‘Bows defense that looked to the senior as their spiritual and vocal leader in the middle of the defense. This past weekend saw CB Virdel Edwards II miss his first contest as a Rainbow Warrior and fellow defensive back Jojo Forest left late against UAlbany with an injury.
The ‘Bows have also dealt with ejections and suspensions from targeting penalties, forcing Meki Pei and Isaiah Tufaga each to miss two halves of action. Overall, plenty of UH players have heard their number called to play snaps for numerous reasons in 2023.
It happened before injuries, but missed tackles and an inability to wrap up has allowed opposing offenses to run wild against Hawai’i after initial contact. With an elite secondary that continues to get better with every game, teams will look to exploit the run against the ‘Bows to open up the attack in the air.
It’s not like UH has struggled getting penetration or a hit behind the line of scrimmage this season but backs shedding ‘Bows defenders has extended drives and added extra points against the Rainbow Warriors that could’ve been prevented.
Luckily for Hawai’i fans, they can look to the penalty issue that plagued the ‘Bows to begin the year for hope that the staff can quickly correct the team’s deficiencies. After multiple weeks of over 100 free yards in penalties given up to opponents, Hawai’i was flagged just four times for 25 yards on Saturday against the Aggies. This comes on the heels of just five penalties for 27 yards against Oregon despite a frustrating loss, showing multiple steps from the team the visited Vanderbilt to open the year. With the improvement on specials and in penalties, the little things don’t go unnoticed by this staff. It’s on the players to put this next step to use on the field.
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