HONOLULU – It took a little longer than expected but with the help of both new names and the usual suspects, the University of Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (1-2) picked up the team’s first win of the season Saturday night with a 31-20 victory over visiting UAlbany.
The Great Danes (1-2) out of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) entered the contest fresh off an upset bid that came up just short in Week 1 on the road against FBS Marshall and a hunger to finish the job against their second FBS opponent in as many weeks.
It was the Rainbow Warriors striking first, though, blocking a punt on the opening Great Danes possession after forcing a three-and-out to set the offense up deep in Albany territory. A drop and two short runs followed, resulting in UH having to settle for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
After the teams traded a pair of fruitless drives, UAlbany jumped ahead for the first time on the legs of sophomore QB Reese Poffenbarger, taking a QB read option 41 yards to the house for the game’s first touchdown. The 2022 CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year had a 54-yard touchdown run in last week’s loss to the Thundering Herd for UAlbany.
Hawai’i looked to answer back quickly, as junior QB Brayden Schager found WR Pofele Ashlock for a catch-and-run that went for 53 yards and set the ‘Bows up at the Albany 17-yard line. It was just the start of volatile night for the QB though, as Schager tossed his first interception of the night three plays later, trying to get the ball to Solo Vaipulu on a screen pass that Great Danes’ LB Dylan Kelly tipped and came down with for the pick.
The Rainbow Warriors answered back with an interception of their own on the ensuing possession, as true-freshman DB Elijah Palmer came up with his first career pick on a deep shot by Poffenbarger. It marked the ‘Bows first defensive turnover forced in the 2023 campaign and shifted the momentum back to the host Hawai’i.
They built on that momentum with a nine-play, 74-yard scoring drive capped off by the return of senior WR Jonah Panoke to the field with a 4-yard TD catch. A fun way to celebrate, it was the birthday boy’s first touchdown catch of the season and second of his career that put the ‘Bows up, 10-7, with nine seconds left in the opening quarter.
UAlbany showed off the defense a bit in the second quarter, as Larry Walker Jr read the eyes of Schager perfectly and returned the Hawai’i quarterback’s second INT of the night to the house for six and the lead, 14-10, with 11:20 left in the first half.
The ‘Bows answered back in the best way that they know how: Schager to Steven McBride for a score. Driving 62 yards across seven plays in less than three minutes, Hawai’i re-took the lead after the two connected for the third consecutive game for a touchdown – this time a 30-yard catch McBride was able to haul in for a 17-14 UH advantage with just over three minutes left in the half.
Hawai’i looked like they had gotten to halftime with the lead, but a personal foul called against Peter Manuma helped extend the half and put the Great Danes into field goal range. UAlbany kicker John Opalko stepped up and drilled one from 46 yards out to send the teams into the halftime break, tied at 17.
The ‘Bows re-took the lead on their second possession of the second half, continuing the trend of Chang being ultra-aggressive on fourth down so far this season with a 4th-and-6 ‘Schager Bomb’ down the right sideline to sophomore WR Jalen Walthall. The wideout hauled in the deep shot with one hand – while being interfered with – to catapult Hawai’i to a lead with 6:10 left in the third quarter that they would not relinquish.
It wasn’t due to a lack of effort from UAlbany, as Great Danes’ DB Aamir Hall intercepted Schager at the ‘Bows own 21-yard line and Opalko drove home a 32-yard FG to make it a four-point game with just over 18 minutes left to play.
Three straight turnovers-on-downs (Hawai’i-UAlbany-Hawai’i) began the final quarter of play, ending up with a possession for the Great Danes starting in ‘Bows territory. UAlbany drove the ball down to the Hawai’i 17-yard line before a holding penalty backed up the visitors and a fumble picked up by ‘Bows LB Noah Kema flipped the momentum back in favor of the hosts.
Schager promptly provided the knockout blow, finding McBride in the endzone for the second time of the night to go up, 31-20, with 3:20 remaining for UAlbany to work with. On an up-and-down night for the junior from Dallas, Texas, the gunslinger finished on a high-note with a new career-high four TD passes to put the game away.
UAlbany QB Reese Poffenbarger finished with 93 passing yards, going 10-of-31 passing on the night with one total touchdown and one interception. The pick thrown by Poffenbarger was the first turnover of the season for the Great Danes. Linebacker Dylan Kelly had a game-high 13 total tackles (11 solo) and an interception in the loss.
The Great Danes head to Baltimore next week, taking on Morgan State in hopes to get back on track after a pair of losses where their upset try came up short.
In an overall up and down night for Schager, the junior QB finished 23-of-40 for 266 yards and a career-best four TD passes to go along with three interceptions. McBride continued his early season golden touch, hauling in seven passes for 72 yards and a pair of scores. The Kansas transfer has scored at least once in every game this season for the ‘Bows.
Pofele Ashlock paced the receiver room with a game-high 74 yards receiving on just four catches. It was the first time this season that Ashlock had not scored a touchdown and eclipsed 100 yards in a game. Senior WR Jonah Panoke celebrated both his return to the field and birthday with four catches for 47 yards and a touchdown.
Hawai’i also got the running attack going, led by sophomore Jordan Johnson’s career-high 76 yards on 11 carries while Nasjzae Bryant-Lelei ran for 35 yards over eight carries in his return from an injury suffered in training camp. A banged-up Tylan Hines also rushed for 30 yards on just four carries for the Rainbow Warriors.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the ‘Bows, seeing multiple players exit with injuries throughout the second half of play. The defense was massacred by the injuries; among those who left hurt were DL Fo’i Sila, DB JoJo Forest, DT John Tuitupou and LB Logan Taylor.
Forest had started in relief of injured CB Cam Stone, who left against Stanford with a knee injury, and played well throughout the night with four tackles and three passes broken up before exiting. Sila was carted off the field in clear anguish, while Tuitupou suffered a lower-leg injury that he was able to walk off on his own. Taylor, the ‘Bows defensive captain and “spiritual leader”, went down with a non-contact left knee injury that will likely hold him out going forward.
Hawai’i heads to the mainland next Saturday to take on #13 Oregon, who had to hold off an upset bid this past weekend while visiting Texas Tech. The game will kick off at 2:00 p.m. HT and the TV feed will be broadcast on the PAC-12 Network.
A win is a win, even if it was ugly at times. For a team like the Rainbow Warriors, it’s no time to be picky about the “how” – they’re finally learning to win the little moments late. Now it’s time to clean up everything else.