Three takeaways from Hawai’i’s 41-34 home loss to San Diego State

Paul Brecht - The Sporting Tribune
Hawai'i fell at home to SDSU, 41-34, but there were plenty of glimmers of hope for 'Bows fans watching.

HONOLULU — The Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors fell behind by three scores early in the 2nd quarter and fought tooth and nail the rest of the way to get back into Saturday’s matchup with San Diego State, even taking the lead into the final 15 minutes of play after a Nick Cenacle 52-yard catch-and-run went for six as time expired in the 3rd quarter. 

Despite the fight, the ‘Bows ultimately fell to the Aztecs, 41-34. Turnovers and dynamic plays for SDSU proved to be the difference, scoring 21 points off four Hawai’i turnovers (3 fumbles, 1 INT) and using a blocked punt on the first drive of the game to set the stage for the fight waiting ahead for UH. 

That said, there were so many positives to take away from the game. It’s almost more frustrating to have lost than be able to learn from a win because of that. Without further ado, here are three takeaways from Hawai’i’s 41-34 home loss to San Diego State. 

1. The final score will fool you on UH’s defensive performance. 

Loyal followers of the Hawai’i football takeaway articles that drop each Monday may recall a harsh reality check of where the ‘Bows defense was after allowing 44 points on the road to UNLV right before the bye week. Among the things referenced in the piece were the struggles to finish tackles and awarding free yards via penalties to opponents. 

We’ll start there to uncover how the UH defense, despite “giving up” 41 points, looked far better in their first showing after the bye. 

While using the raw defensive grade given out by PFF for each game would be enough to show you the point (it was the ‘Bows highest-graded defensive performance of the season), the underlying numbers are what should pique interest of fans moving forward. It was the 2nd-highest tackling grade of the 2023 season for the Rainbow Warriors (62.8, behind 77.9 grade vs UAlbany), showing strides in finishing tackles and not allowing opponents to bounce off contact and burn the ‘Bows for bigger gains. There will be “missed tackles” in every game for defenses, but Hawai’i entered the evening averaging 13 allowed missed tackles per game (according to PFF). They improved that number to 10 missed tackles on Saturday night, a marginal improvement but an important one at that. Linebacker Jalen Smith had a pair of missed tackles in his second career start but also provided four “stops” for the ‘Bows defense, good for second among UH defenders. Safety Peter Manuma, who left the game with injuries a few times throughout the night, also was credited with two missed tackles but led the team with six “stops” and recorded his first interception of the season. It was the first pick for the ‘Bows since Week 2 against UAlbany when true freshman Elijah Palmer snagged his first collegiate pick. 

The turnover was a pretty welcome sight as well after not forcing a turnover at UNLV. Hawai’i’s defense was expected to be a strength coming into the season and have added ability to take the ball away but have yet to win the turnover battle against an opponent this season. That does need to change going forward but shouldn’t be an impossible task as the Rainbow Warriors try to get healed up increasingly as the weeks roll on. Manuma did finish the game despite a couple scary moments for the stud sophomore safety. 

UH also posted a season-low for penalties, getting flagged twice for just 11 total yards in the loss. While it’s a little thing for now, Hawai’i can only win games by winning on the margins and that includes disciplined play leading to no free yardage. Saturday was a monster step towards being the fully-working machine that the ‘Bows know they can be. 

It is important to note the position that the defense was put in against the Aztecs this past weekend as well, as a blocked punt on the first possession of the game saw Hawai’i’s defense already have heels on the goal line for the first snap. A similar situation happened late in the contest as well after a Landon Sims fumble inside Hawai’i territory allowed SDSU to punch in a second TD forty-nine seconds after re-taking the lead in the 4th quarter. A 70-yard pick-six also goes on the final score by no fault of the defense, which held San Diego State to just 5-of-14 on 3rd down conversion attempts and forced the Aztecs to settle for FG tries three times. 

While there are things to improve still (the lack of sacks and ability to generate pressure on opposing QBs in general jumps to mind), Saturday was an encouraging leap forward for a talented Hawai’i defense that has struggled to fully put it together to this point. 

2. Steven McBride deserves national attention, even if it’s just a little bit. 

Few people knew what to expect from McBride entering this season. The senior had just transferred in from Kansas, where he had accumulated 21 receptions across parts of three seasons for the Jayhawks and was entering into an offense that relied greatly on the rushing attack the season prior. 

The coaching staff had an idea of what the 6-foot-1 speedster could do in the new Run-N-Shoot offense while pitching him to join the program and McBride quickly developed an on-field rapport with starting quarterback Brayden Schager in the offseason. That chemistry has translated into game action for the senior and the ‘Bows offense as he’s racked up 626 yards receiving on just 35 catches, good for an average of 18.2 yards per catch for McBride. 

He’s turned up the production even more recently as well, leading all pass catchers in the nation over the past two weeks in receiving yards after performances of 180 and 157 yards against UNLV and SDSU, respectively. It’s also the first time that the senior has gone over 100 yards receiving in back-to-back games in his career. McBride is a big-play machine, holding the ‘Bows top three plays from scrimmage in terms of total yards gained with catches of 65, 62 and 55 yards and leading the team with six TD receptions. 

The senior bet on himself by transferring out of a Power 5 program to go to a Group of 5 school and it has paid dividends for McBride. He started the year hot, cooled off for a few weeks and immediately sprinted past the competition again. He ranks 14th in the nation (among FBS schools) in receiving yards, below names like LSU’s Malik Nabers and Washington’s Rome Odunze who are expected to be selected in this year’s NFL draft. 

This isn’t to say McBride should generate 1st-round or even Day 2 draft buzz, but it is time that the ‘Bows big-play threat gets the true respect he deserves. 

3. Hawai’i won’t be going to a bowl game this year. 

Okay. It was positive to begin for a reason. It’s time to deliver the blow now that it’s been softened a bit. 

The ‘Bows aren’t going to be a bowl team this season. It’s been a stated goal of players and coaches alike to get Hawai’i back to bowl eligibility this season, but Saturday’s loss made an already-difficult climb nearly impossible with just six games left on the schedule and five wins required for a guaranteed bowl berth. 

A quick look at the remainder of the year for Hawai’i goes as follows: at New Mexico, home for San Jose State, away for Nevada, home for Mountain West-leading Air Force, in Laramie, Wyoming for a date with a strong Wyoming team and a season finale at home against a spunky Colorado State program that just upset Boise State. 

Now, this is not to say that it’s impossible for the ‘Bows to run the table (or close to it) on the way to end the season. The path is there with just two of those opponents currently above .500 on the season in Wyoming and Air Force. If Hawai’i were to beat the other four teams currently at .500 or worse in their meetings, an upset in only one of those two games would be needed for bowl eligibility. 

Hey, on any given weekend. 

Realistically speaking, this young ‘Bows team will continue to see highs and lows in year two of Timmy Chang and staff and will experience growing pains in winnable games that could potentially lead to losing outcomes. Any combination of two losses pretty much ends the ‘Bows hopes at a bowl game and young players are bound to make some errors. Young coaches, too. 

The outing against SDSU was encouraging in so many ways but also displayed how UH still doesn’t have enough talent/skill level hasn’t yet developed to the level where they can survive critical errors in key moments of games and still win. The ‘Bows took steps forward on defense, Schager threw for a new career-high in yardage again and UH put up a season-high in points, yet still lost. 

A bowl game isn’t in the cards for the 2023 season, but the pieces here and experiences to come this season will build the foundation for next year’s team to re-join the end-of-season festivities.