Hawai’i much improved but still falls, 3 takeaways from ‘Bows loss at Vanderbilt

Hawai’i much improved but still falls, 3 takeaways from ‘Bows loss at Vanderbilt

Aug 26, 2023; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Hawaii Warriors head coach Timmy Chang yells to his players during the second half against the Vanderbilt Commodores at FirstBank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Hawai’i much improved but still falls, 3 takeaways from ‘Bows loss at Vanderbilt

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED AUG 28, 2023

After falling by seven on Saturday in Nashville, Hawai’i has started three seasons in a row with a loss. For the first time in years, however, there is an overwhelming feeling of positivity in the islands regarding the beloved Rainbow Warriors football team.

That’s enough, you’re here for some ‘Bows takeaways so without further ado…

Here are three ‘Bows takeaways from the season-opening 35-28 loss to Vanderbilt to match the vibes heading into home-opener week versus Stanford. 

1 Hawai’i’s 2022 end-of-season offensive jump was a preview, not a fluke. 

The Rainbow Warriors had a dreadful start to the 2022 college football season, posting just 10 points in the season-opener and flipping between quarterbacks as the staff evaluated what they had at the position (and elsewhere). 

Eventually, Brayden Schager (more on him later) won the starting job and the staff began to implement pieces of the Run-N-Shoot into their scheme. Results immediately followed, as the ‘Bows upped the scoring by four points a game and put up three 30-point performances in the final seven games. Still, questions remained for a Hawai’i program that lost three starters along the offensive line and the team’s top producing receiver (Zion Bowens) and running back (Dedrick Parsons).

Those questions were mostly answered Saturday, and a good part of it has to do with the return to the roots of what made Hawai’i the spectacle of the nation’s late-night game slot. The debut of Timmy Chang’s rendition of the full Run-N-Shoot resulted in the ‘Bows out-gaining the Commodores’ offense by nearly 100 yards and no shortage of weapons at the offense’s disposal. 

At the top of those weapons was redshirt freshman Pofele Ashlock, who reeled in seven catches for 127 yards and a touchdown in his first appearance in a ‘Bows uniform. Those numbers were good enough to earn the Texas-native Mountain West Freshman of the Week honors. 

He wasn’t the only receiver to pop for Hawai’i on Saturday, as senior Steven McBride chipped in seven receptions of his own for 98 yards and a pair of touchdown grabs after his offseason transfer from Kansas to UH. Alex Perry, the ‘Bows 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman receiver, enjoyed a nice 2023 debut with four catches for 51 yards against the Commodores.

The most exciting part of Saturday’s offensive performance for Rainbow Warrior fans? There is still another level that the offense can get to.

It was not close to a perfect offensive night, as sophomore tailback Tylan Hines got off to a slow start for the season with just 15 yards on nine carries. UH’s rushing attack was led by sophomore Landon Sims, who finished with 38 yards over nine carries, ripping off a long run of 22 yards. Hawai’i was also without the services of Nasjzaé Bryant-Lelei, the senior bruiser running back who has been out with an injury. The talent is in the room, though it did not pop off the screen in game one. 

2 – Hawai’i has their quarterback, and he’s taking the leap under one of the greatest to do it for the program. 

Brayden Schager came to UH in the summer of 2021 under a different coaching staff and fighting for a chance to be the ‘Bows QB1 of the future. After a mass exodus from the program at the conclusion of that season and a coaching change, Schager found himself back at square one going into his sophomore year of college.

Once again, he was in the center of a quarterback competition while learning a new scheme on a roster that was not yet situated. As the 2022 season continued, Hawai’i’s coaching staff saw an improved Schager as the signal caller settled into the pseudo-Run-N-Shoot scheme that was pieced together midseason. With the positive offensive results, a full out commitment to the RNS was made by the ‘Bows.

Schager ran with it, working in the offseason with former UH quarterbacks coach and guru of the Run-N-Shoot Dan Morrison to improve the rising junior’s understanding of his reads and how to best utilize his abilities. The gunslinger also has benefitted with head coach and former UH record-setting quarterback Timmy Chang working closer to the quarterbacks this season and taking over play caller duties.

If there was anyone for ‘Bows fans to pick to show a young QB how to run this offense to the best potential, Chang would’ve been at the top of the list. During his famed time under center for the Rainbows, Chang finished with over 17,000 yards passing and 117 touchdown passes while leading his home state to the national spotlight. He is still the program’s all-time leader in passing yards, though the late Colt Brennan broke Chang’s TD pass record by tossing 131 of his own. 

While it might be a little late for Schager to reach those career numbers, he certainly jump started his way up the record books with his performance against the Commodores. He set a new career-high, tearing up the Vanderbilt secondary for 351 yards through the air and three touchdown passes. With his first touchdown pass of the night the junior extended a streak of throwing a TD to 10 straight games, dating back to last season. 

There will still be growing pains this year, as evidenced by a pair of back-breaking interceptions against Vandy during an otherwise-spectacular performance for the junior. While the timing of the picks was poor, Schager was surgical otherwise while showing off a cannon-right arm that uncorked a few ‘Schager Bombs’ while igniting the ‘Bows offense.

For the first time in his UH football career, Brayden Schager is feeling some stability under his feet. If his first performance of 2023 is any indication of his trajectory, this rocket ship has just started to take off. 

3 – The Rainbow Warriors front seven did not get enough buzz during training camp. 

 

How about some love for the boys up front? All of training camp, reports have been discussing the Hawai’i secondary being the strength of the defensive unit. On Saturday, the defensive line and linebackers played with an extra fire that hadn’t been talked about.

Vanderbilt is a program that has a desire to establish the run, play clean football and have had solid offensive line play since Clark Lea took over three years ago. It was an identity that the Commodores committed to and thrived with last season while doubling their win total from year one. After Patrick Smith ripped off a 21-yard touchdown run to open the scoring, Vandy’s rushing attack went quiet. 

Part of it can be attributed to the addition of DL John Tuitupou to the line before the game. The All-Mountain West honorable mention had run with the first-team defense throughout camp but didn’t get official word he won his appeal for an extra season of eligibility until just before the ‘Bows suited up for Week 0. With attention focused on him, others along the line consistently pressured Vanderbilt QB AJ Swann on passing downs and effectively shut down the run. Hawai’i held Vandy’s ground attack to an average of under two yards per rush across 26 carries on the night.

Not only was the line getting consistent penetration, but senior linebacker Isaiah Tufaga was also a menace defensively for the ‘Bows. The O’ahu native missed the final six games of 2022 with an injury but came back with a vengeance in the ’23 season-opener, leading the defense with eight total tackles, two sacks and three tackles for a loss in his return to action.

After an offseason and training camp of talking about the ‘Bows secondary, the rest of the unit looks determined to not be forgotten in the 2023 season.