HONOLULU – On the board.
Timmy Chang’s Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors picked up their first win of the 2023 season on Saturday, taking down the UAlbany Great Danes, 31-20.
It was an up-and-down game; one might even call it a “dog fight” for most of the contest for the level of physicality and competition on display.
(It’s me, I would call it a dog fight)
After a hard-fought, roller-coaster ride of a contest for the ‘Bows, here are three takeaways from the first win of the season and heading into a tough Week 3 road contest against #13 Oregon.
1. The ‘Bows are banged-up, and they may have to face their best competition of the season without some of their defensive stars
It was a nightmare second half for Hawai’i defensive coordinator Jacob Yoro, but not at all because of the on-field product of his defense. The ‘Bows totaled four sacks for a loss of 43 yards, including two on the Great Danes’ final drive, and tallied the first two forced turnovers of the season with true freshman Elijah Palmer’s first career INT and LB Noah Kema’s 41-yard fumble return that helped Hawai’i seal the game.
In all, the ‘Bows defense gave up just 13 total points (UAlbany’s Larry Walker Jr. intercepted Hawai’i QB Brayden Schager in the second quarter and returned it for a touchdown) in the win against the Great Danes.
So why was it a nightmare second half?
Four different injuries to every level of the Rainbow Warriors’ defense blanketed the final 30 minutes of the night. In all, DL Fo’i Sila, DT John Tuitupou, DB JoJo Forest and LB Logan Taylor were all forced to leave the contest with varying degrees of injuries. Forest started in place of the injured Cam Stone, who suffered a knee injury late against Stanford in Week 1, and performed admirably in his absence while on the field.
The two worst-looking injuries were to Sila and Taylor. Sila, the defensive lineman, had to be carted off the field and left with a towel covering his face while exiting on the back of the cart. Taylor, the “spiritual leader” of the ‘Bows, went down holding his left knee after a non-contact injury and was quickly spotted on crutches over on the sideline afterwards.
Tuitupou’s injury is an interesting case as well, as the senior DT currently has the longest streak of consecutive games started of any current UH football player after making his 16th straight start on Saturday. Hawai’i head coach Timmy Chang was unable to give any updates regarding the statuses of the players after the game.
As they head to Eugene, Oregon to take on the 13th-ranked Ducks, the ‘Bows will almost certainly be without a few defensive starters while dealing with nagging injuries everywhere else.
2. The rushing attack might just end up alright, but health will be vital going forward
Continuing our trend of medical talk, Chang revealed postgame that star sophomore running back Tylan Hines has been dealing with a nagging injury, calling the back “banged up” in his availability after the game. That would make some more sense to All-Mountain West honorable mention’s slow start to his second year, who came into the contests with just 28 total rushing yards over 14 carries.
Hines, injured and all, rushed for a season-high 30 yards on just four carries before the coaches leaned on the fresher legs of sophomore Jordan Johnson and senior Nasjzae Bryant-Lelei for the remainder of the night.
Johnson enjoyed a career-best showing, going for 76 yards over 11 carries to lead the ‘Bows on the night. Coming into the game, Johnson had totaled just 69 yards on 12 carries in 5 appearances last season before more than doubling his career output.
Bryant-Lelei, who had suffered an injury early on during training camp that had sidelined him up until this past week’s practices, returned with the same bruising style fans have known to love from him. The senior running back had 35 yards rushing in eight total touches on the night, a nice workload as “Mojo” (as he is known by the team) works to get his mojo back.
Last season, it felt as though the identity of UH offensively was built on the rushing attack. While that has clearly changed this season (Brayden Schager has totaled 972 yards and 10 TD passes in three games), it will be important that the running attack continues to see success similar to what it saw Saturday night against UAlbany. It was the first time this season that the ‘Bows have eclipsed over 100 total yards rushing, though there has not been a UH running back to record a score yet this season.
For the triple-digit production to continue and the scoring stat to change, it is vital that health begins to wrap the metaphorical arms around the ‘Bows RB room.
3. It may not have looked like it, but these ‘Bows are learning to win tough
Okay, maybe you read this takeaway and roll your eyes. Perhaps you believe the same thing, that this team that overwent a massive overhaul of personnel just two offseasons ago with both players and coaches, the one that went 3-10 last season, needs to learn how to win the close games and Saturday was a step towards that.
Taking a closer look, the ‘Bows lost four conference games by one score in 2022, two of which were at home. It’s a little bit of coach-speak, but in those games, the little things matter way more than the name suggests. In three of those games, Hawai’i did not force a defensive turnover and lost the turnover battle.
While the ‘Bows did not win the turnover battle Saturday night, they did force the first two turnovers of the season for a UAlbany squad that has been particularly good at taking care of the ball for the past two years. Palmer’s INT of Great Danes’ QB Reese Poffenbarger was just the fifth total interception the 2023 Walter Payton Award preseason watchlist member’s UAlbany career.
Hawai’i also lost the total offense battle in three of those four one-score losses from ‘22, even twice finishing with less rushing yards than their opponents despite a strong offensive line and a running identity. This season, back in the Run-N-Shoot that Hawai’i is known for, they have fared far better offensively and finally out-rushed their opponents in their Week 2 victory.
It seems like small things, but winning the rushing game and overall offensive attack while being aided by some defensive turnovers quickly add up to victories. Pulling out a game that was tied at halftime is a tough feat, no matter the opponent. Next up, they need to clean up the penalties and turnovers, especially against a nationally-ranked opponent hosting them next week.
It’s why they play the games instead of simulating through paper and names, though. When competitors get on the field, it is about the little things. Those who learn to win those areas learn to win games. Saturday was the ‘Bows first step in showing they can do that.