It may not have resulted in a win, but what a difference a year has made for the University of Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors football program.
The ‘Bows fell to the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday, 35-28, after waiting out a 101-minute lightning delay. The ‘Bows lost for the seventh consecutive time on the road, dating back to last season, but massive strides of improvement on offense and defense were evident for UH as the game progressed.
Vanderbilt got started quickly, forcing the ‘Bows into a three-and-out on the opening possession and getting great field position after 0-yard punt set up the Commodores on the Hawai’i 32-yard line. Four plays later, Vandy RB Patrick Smith zipped through the defense for a 21-yard touchdown to give the home squad a 6-0 lead.
Hawai’i answered back with a quick-striking eight play drive that was capped off by the first Brayden Schager-Steven McBride touchdown connection of the year, a seven-yard strike to give the visiting ‘Bows a 7-6 lead with 7:13 left in the opening quarter.
The lead for UH was short lived. Vanderbilt WR Jayden McGowan took the ensuing kickoff 97 yards to the house as the Commodores jumped back ahead just thirteen seconds later. The Commodores momentum swing was accented with a successful two-point conversion, making it 14-7.
The home-town swing continued with Vandy sophomore QB AJ Swann finding Biletnikoff Award watch list honoree Will Sheppard on the first play of the second quarter for a touchdown. A miscommunication on the back end of the ‘Bows defense left Sheppard wide open in the endzone, allowing the Commodores to push the lead to two scores, 21-7.
It was the ‘Bows turn next as Schager uncorked the first ‘Schager Bomb’ of the season, a 45-yard rainbow on 4th-and-four that found McBride in stride for the duo’s second TD connection of the night, cutting it to 21-14.
Hawai’i had a chance to tie it on the next possession after Solo Vaipulu rumbled his way down to the Vanderbilt 1-yard line, but a false start followed by a spectacular interception in the end zone by Vandy CB De’Rickey Wright ended the ‘Bows threat.
Multiple ‘Bows struggled with cramping beginning in the third quarter, as DE Andrew Choi and LB Isaiah Tufaga both left with cramping in their lower extremities before returning. The two teams traded three-and-outs to open the second half, but Vanderbilt found footing again first with a touchdown on their second drive of the second half. Swann hit Sheppard for a big gain before the two connected for their second touchdown of the game to put the Commodores ahead, 28-14.
The Rainbow Warriors worked their way down to the Vanderbilt 13 on the next possession, as Schager continued to show off all the new weapons in the UH Run-N-Shoot this season by including 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman WR Alex Perry in the target share while RB Landon Sims ripped off a 22-yard run to help the offense drive the field. Unfortunately for UH, the offense would sputter there and came away with no points as the Vandy defense forced a turnover-on-downs.
It looked as though the ‘Bows defense had forced a three-and-out on the following possession after an illegal forward pass penalty initially wiped out a 41-yard gain on third down for the Commodores, but the call was overturned upon further review and set Clark Lea’s squad up in ‘Bows territory as the third quarter clock wound down.
Like the second quarter, Vanderbilt spent little time before scoring in the fourth quarter as Swann found London Humphreys on fourth-and-seven for a 32-yard touchdown to give the SEC squad a three-score lead, 35-14, just twelve seconds into the quarter.
The ‘Bows would not go quietly, driving the field on eight plays in under three and a half minutes to cut it to 35-21 as Schager continued to show off his arm and connection with the talented (and young) wide receiver room. This time, it was redshirt freshman Pofele Ashlock’s turn to show out with three catches for 46 yards and a touchdown on that drive alone.
Reinvigorated by the score, the Hawai’i defense held strong and forced a turnover-on-downs, giving the ball back to the offense with just over seven minutes left down 14 points but out of timeouts.
Schager uncorked another ‘Schager Bomb’ on the first play of the next drive, connecting with Ashlock again for 50 yards to put the ‘Bows in business at the Vanderbilt 17. Hawai’i made it a one-score game five plays later, as Navy-transfer Dalen Morris ran it in from a yard out with 4:49 left and momentum gaining for the ‘Bows.
It took just four plays for the Hawai’i defense to force a punt and the Rainbow Warriors looked to fight their way all the way back from down three scores in the fourth quarter, as the offense would get one more shot with 2:14 remaining.
The complete rally just wasn’t in the cards, as Schager was intercepted by Wright again to end the ‘Bows comeback bid, giving Swann and company the chance to run out the clock in victory formation.
Swann finished 19-of-30 passing for 258 yards and three touchdowns in the win for the Commodores. McGowan and Sheppard combined for 12 catches and 140 yards and three of the five total scores by Vanderbilt.
Hawai’i’s Schager set a new career high with 351 passing yards while completing 27 of his 35 pass attempts. The junior from Dallas, Texas also tied his career-high with three touchdown passes in the game, though he did toss a pair of interceptions as well. Pofele Ashlock made the most of his first career appearance for the ‘Bows as well, finishing with seven receptions for a game-high 127 yards and a score.
Kansas transfer Steven McBride had a nice debut in his new Rainbow Warrior digs as well with seven catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns. The senior wideout had just two catches for 23 yards while suiting up for the Jayhawks last season before hitting the transfer portal, committing to UH back in December of 2022.
The ‘Bows outgained the Commodores by nearly 100 yards of total offense, but small miscues in key moments would end up being the catalyst for a Hawai’i loss. Timmy Chang’s squad struggled to convert on third down (3-of-11) but saw a 75% success rate on their fourth down tries (3-of-4) as an aggressive Chang and company did not attempt a field goal all night.
Red zone efficiency also came back to bite the ‘Bows, going 3-of-5 in the “money zone” for touchdowns after an interception in the endzone and a turnover-on-downs.
One year after meeting Vanderbilt for the first time, Saturday’s performance was a stark contrast for a ‘Bows program that finished last season just 3-10 overall and 2-6 in the Mountain West Conference. After falling 63-10 to the Commodores last year, the Rainbow Warriors scared the SEC-squad this time in an exciting, back-and-forth contest that was a reminder of the “Late Night Hawai’i Game” era for college football fans.
Moral victories do not count in the record books, but Hawai’i’s showing Saturday against Vanderbilt is about as close as you can get without the real win. Commodores head coach Clark Lea tried to warn everyone during the week leading up to the game and reminded the world again following the final whistle.
Don’t sleep on Timmy Chang’s Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors.
Well, unless you want to see them ‘Run-N-Shoot’ right by you.