HONOLULU — We are back.
Hawai’i (4-7, 2-4 MWC) stymied an elite Air Force rushing attack and forced four 4th quarter turnovers to steal the Kuter Trophy back from the Falcons Saturday, handing AFA its first conference loss of the year. The win comes on the heels of UH’s first road victory under Timmy Chang, giving the ‘Bows a winning streak for the first time under the former QB-turned-HC.
Rainbow Warriors’ QB Brayden Schager finished an impressive 22-of-29 for 176 passing yards, adding a career-high 57 rushing yards, and three total touchdowns (2 pass, 1 rush) to help pull off one of the biggest upsets in college football this season. Hawai’i entered the game as near-20-point underdogs (+19.5) before beating Air Force by two touchdowns.
After a two-week hiatus, here are three takeaways for ‘Bows football fresh off the press following UH’s impressive 27-13 win over Air Force on Saturday.
1. The lights have come on for Brayden Schager.
The junior QB didn’t have his typical gaudy passing numbers — the 176 passing yards against Air Force is his third-lowest total this season — but one can argue that it was one of his best performances as a college QB.
For weeks, Schager consistently threw the ball all over the yard to different receivers and put up eye-popping numbers that put the Texas-native among the nation’s top QBs in production, but the wins refused to follow. The ‘Bows struggled with protection and saw the 6-foot-3 gunslinger end up on his back in bunches after being forced to hold onto the ball and refusing to take off and run when plays broke down.
Since the ‘Bows were embarrassed by San Jose State on “Homecoming”, spectators have seen a different Schager. In Week 10 at Nevada, the UH quarterback tied a career best with 49 yards rushing, picking up key yardage to move the chains while helping the ‘Bows snap a four-game losing streak. He followed that performance by setting a new career high against one of the nation’s toughest defenses in Air Force, running around for 57 yards and his 2nd career rushing TD. The arm talent has never been an issue for Schager, oozing potential everywhere. The development of consistent efficiency against quality defenses and adding the threat of the sturdy QB taking off makes Schager a player that could challenge for Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year status in 2024.
While he may never be elite slinging the ball while being a runner at the same time, he has shown flashes that his legs could be unlocked more going forward. That’s excellent news for a Hawai’i program looking to get back into the meat of the competition in the Mountain West next season and one that continues to look at an outside chance at a bowl berth.
2. The correct people are in place to lead UH’s program back to competence, competition, and coronations.
Perhaps this will be read as an overreaction to a two-game win streak for a program that has looked lost at times during the season. It’s an understandable stance and not one to be ashamed of thinking.
Instead, attention should be called to a noticeable difference in the Hawai’i team over the past two weeks. Since an embarrassing home loss to San Jose State, the first time the ‘Bows had been held scoreless on Oahu since 1998, Timmy Chang’s team has seemingly grown up fast. The coaches attribute much of the shift to the players taking on bigger leadership roles, holding one another accountable to the levels the program aspires to reach.
“The best teams are player-led and it’s starting to get that way,” Chang said following UH’s win. “[The team’s] energy is unbelievable, and it’s been like that the last two weeks. There’s nothing different in scheme.”
The player-led ‘Bows had their hottest start to a game this year in jumping out to a 7-0 lead after their first possession, a situation that had not happened all season for UH. After getting the lead, Hawai’i’s defense compounded the “good” with a stop of Air Force’s vaunted “triple-option” offense.
“Shout out to our [defensive coordinator Jacob Yoro], he had a great game-plan for us and all we had to do was trust him and do our 111 and win our 1-on-1 battles,” said ‘Bows safety Peter Manuma of the inspired defensive effort. “It all came down to Coach Yoro and his game-plan and us just sticking and believing in it, trusting that he would put us in the right place.”
The Rainbow Warriors defense, much picked on throughout the season, put together a masterpiece with four takeaways to help win the turnover battle for the second week in a row. After being among the nation’s worst programs in turnovers-to-takeaways, Hawai’i has turned the ball over just once in two weeks while taking it away six times (4 INT, 2 FF).
It’s tough to remember the youth of the coaching staff that took over the Hawai’i program, especially when looking at the youth of the team and showing patience with player development. The past two weeks have been a testament to both players and coaches beginning to figure out winning consistently and winning tough at the FBS level.
It’s a virtue, friends.
3. Hawai’i has something for the future with Jalen Smith.
After LB Logan Taylor went down with a torn ACL just four games into the year, a gaping hole was left in the Rainbow Warriors’ defense. For as good as senior Isaiah Tufaga is, he can’t cover the entire second level of the defense by himself. After losing his running mate, Tufaga had been forced to step into a bigger role while coaches cycled through the depth at the position to find a replacement for Taylor.
Eventually, redshirt sophomore Jalen Smith got his opportunity to stake a claim for the job and the Bakersfield College transfer seized the role. Since UH’s loss at UNLV, Smith has been an impact player each weekend. In Taylor’s absence, the sophomore has racked up 55 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and forced a fumble this past weekend that Meki Pei scooped and returned for a touchdown. In other words, expect to see Smith’s name in the box score every game.
That’s an excellent find for the coaching staff and good news for the ‘Bows in 2024, when Taylor returns but Tufaga’s spot will need to be filled as the former Saint Louis Crusaders’ alum graduates from UH.
As the offense looks primed for a huge breakout next year, it’ll be vital for the UH defense to closely follow suit. Having the middle of the defense shored up and battled-tested ahead of time provides the ‘Bows a nice head start for the future.