Nota bene: Hawai’i has played two FBS games in week 0 at Vanderbilt and Week 1 vs Stanford which have been charted for this preview, plus an FCS game hosting Albany week 2. Last week’s game was evidently aired only on local pay-per-view, and acquiring the tape, or even highlights, has proven impossible. I have the play-by-play from the school’s records checked against local and national media, but still can’t be certain it’s completely correct without film review. It was a close contest – Albany was driving into the redzone late in the 4th quarter down four points, only to give up a long fumble return that set up Hawai’i with a short field for a touchdown that would put the game away – but per standard practice statistics from that game are excluded from this article, except as specifically noted.
Thanks to tristanh314 for the preliminary charting work on the Stanford-Hawai’i game.
After receiving the early resignation of Todd Graham and nearly his entire staff at the end of the 2021 season (including OL Coach Terry, now at Oregon, though longtime LB coach Yoro was retained and promoted to DC), Hawai’i put program legend Head Coach Chang in charge of revitalizing the team in 2022. Chang broke records as a quarterback in the Run & Shoot offense with the Rainbow Warriors under June Jones, himself a former QB at Oregon, Hawai’i, and Portland State.
For the five years prior to rejoining his alma mater, Chang coached receivers at Nevada under HC Jay Norvell and OC Matt Mumme (son of offensive scheme icon Hal) in the Wolfpack’s pistol version of the Air Raid. Chang hired OC Shoemaker from Eastern Washington, who was part of an RPO version of the Air Raid with the Eagles.
When I watched the Bows’ 2022 film, hearing commentators repeatedly describe the offense as a return to the Run & Shoot, I was chagrined to see that none of the recognizable staples of Mouse Davis’ record-setting offense have persisted. There are no motions, rollouts, or overloads, and excepting the very basic elements that have disseminated to all modern spread offenses around the country like four-verts and some option routes, the passing patterns are difficult to identify as anything other than the Air Raid concepts that are increasingly widespread. More than anything else, this offense reminds me of Nick Rolovich’s during his time at Wazzu – himself also a former Nevada assistant who landed at Hawai’i and paid lip service to the Run & Shoot while really just running Chris Ault’s pistol offense (though mostly out of the shotgun) with Air Raid patterns and an occasional choice route.
There have been no major staff or schematic changes so far in 2023. Hawai’i finished ranked the 120th offense in F+ advanced statistics last year, but are up to 98th right now, and I would anticipate them finishing the season higher than that once they get out of non-conference play. I think returning starter from last year #13 QB Schager has some real arm strength to hit the deep ball and the staff doesn’t shy away from appropriately bold decision-making, and I expect them to tear up quite a few Mountain West defenses now that Chang has established a better team culture than the previous staff.
Statistically, by far the best weapon the Bows’ have is their explosive passing offense – in FBS play outside of garbage time, 16.3% of their passes gain 15+ yards, and they’re averaging 8.3 adjusted YPA. Their most targeted players are #86 WR Ashlock, who’s the real deep threat to burn DBs, and #7 WR McBride, who’s used more as a possession receiver on comebacks and intermediate routes but can go deep. They’re filled out their WR corps with three other tall, rangy receivers — #84 WR C. Hines, #88 WR Perry, and #83 WR Pupunu, though they don’t have nearly the production Ashlock does — plus inside receiver #23 WR Nishigaya who’s also a great blocker.
Here are some representative examples of successful passing plays:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – Schager’s developed a pretty cool head under pocket pressure – he’s had to – and the defense is giving pretty big cushions and free access to the sideline after bump & run coverage got burned on a 45-yard TD bomb the last drive, so now he gets this uncontested completion on the out-pattern.
- :07 – The defense is back to pressing in the 4th quarter, and the low 3-star Vandy has covering Ashlock can’t keep up with him or defeat his great hands for the ball.
- :22 – Schager’s got an arm around him when he lets this one fly and it winds up a little underthrown, but Ashlock has the Stanford DB beat by three paces so that’s fine.
- :41 – Great body control by McBride here to get the extension, twist, and toe-tap in for the touchdown.
However, while it can be extremely explosive on an occasional deep shot, overall the Bows’ passing is underwater in terms of per-play efficiency, as it was last year and the year before. Against their two FBS opponents in 2023 they’re at a 46.7% success rate in their passing offense – that’s 43 successes vs 49 failures, given the down & distance. The main problem is an offensive line which is allowing a sack, scramble, or throwaway on nearly 25% of dropbacks.
There’s been some bad injury luck already, with #54 LT Atkins missing a few plays in the opener but coming back quickly, and then a lot of rotation on the right side with starter #51 RG Ta’ala going down early in the 4th quarter against Vanderbilt. That led to moving starter #78 RT Decambra over to RG and bringing #77 OL Mose off the bench to play RT, then replacing Mose with another backup, #72 OL Felix-Fualalo (a Utah transfer I’d actually charted before). That situation lasted through the end of the opener and for the first few drives against Stanford, before moving Decambra back to RT and having Mose play RG for the rest of the game, which I think looks like the best available solution. That said, very clear issues in pass protection are obvious across the board and with all personnel, including those unaffected by the rotations, with the lowest grades on my tally sheet going to #66 LG Muasau who I believe has played every snap.
I can’t say why this was without watching the film, but pass performance against FCS Albany last Saturday was extraordinarily inefficient according to the play-by-play, with a success rate of just 35% on top of three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Apparently the line gave up five sacks during the game, and even if all four of Schager’s runs were designed not scrambles and none of his 14 incompletions were broken-pocket throwaways, that would raise the s/s/t per dropback rate from 25% to almost 30% had I included the FCS numbers in the dataset.
Here’s a representative sample of unsuccessful passing plays:
- :00 – The biggest decision-making criticism I have for Schager is that I’m not sure he’s always going through his progressions as designed, but rather just hitting the first open guy he spots on scanning the field. That results in a lot of unnecessarily short and unproductive completions even when he has a clean pocket to work with and better options breaking open shortly, as with this quick throw into the flat with a DB sure to tackle him for practically no gain.
- :06 – This blitz isn’t complicated, and they have #0 FB Vaipulu in to help (who does a good job and grades out very well on my tally sheet), but just about the entire o-line is getting eaten alive by a not particularly talented Vandy front.
- :17 – This problem showed up several times: the interior offensive line, trying not to let the defense get past them, drops so far back that they give the QB no room to operate – stepping into his throws, changing his arm angle, finding the throwing lane. Here the release angle is shallow enough and the DT is close enough that he gets the swat.
- :32 – The high angle replay shows why Schager eventually scrambled despite no pressure – nobody’s getting open, even against Stanford’s depleted secondary. The issue is that the only guy they’re sending deep is the tight end, who doesn’t have the wheels for it, while their speedy outside guys are stuck on shorter hitch routes – that’s just not a recipe for Hawai’i to get anything through the air.
There’s not much of a rushing offense to speak of at Hawai’i so far in 2023. The Bows throw the ball on about a 3:1 basis, with designed runs only becoming preferred in obvious short-yardage situations. Rushing so rarely and with just two FBS games into the season means encountering some sample size issues, although including the FCS data doesn’t change the situational tendencies at all … and actually makes the efficiency rates almost five percentage points worse.
That’s the other reason there’s no real rushing offense here – they’re just not getting anything on the ground. Against Vanderbilt and Stanford they had a designed rushing efficiency rate of 39% (11 successes vs 17 failures), averaging just 2.4 YPC with only 3.5% of runs gaining 10+ yards, which are the lowest yardage and explosiveness figures I think I’ve ever seen. Somehow, including the FCS data drops the efficiency rate to almost 34%, and though it would improve the yardage by 1.1 YPC and explosiveness by 8 points, 3.5 adjusted YPC and 11.5% explosiveness are still very poor numbers.
More than passing inefficiency or propensity for sacks, I thought the inability to run the ball really hurt Hawai’i when I was watching their film last year and in my opinion was the biggest reason for their bottom-10 F+ offensive ranking. It made it extremely difficult to protect leads, sustain drives, or just stay on schedule, and let defenses get away with what would otherwise be unsound methods defending the pass in 2022. So far this year, the Bows’ raw rushing stats rankings nationally are worse in both yards per attempt and yards per game.
Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:
- :00 – I don’t know how this play design was going to work even if everybody made their blocks, they don’t have enough blockers playside and aren’t neutralizing anybody with the read. And then nobody makes their blocks.
- :07 – What Vandy figured out before the end of the 1st half was that even a pretty light box could shut down the Bows’ run game and give them more pass defense resources. They don’t even have any d-linemen in the B-gaps here, the center is instantly getting crushed, which interrupts the slicing TE, and the wide end shoves him into the back.
- :13 – There’s just nowhere for the back to go here to avoid the TFL, Stanford is beating multiple blockers on the line into the backfield.
- :22 – Virtually every successful run on my tally sheet looks like this – the hole’s not really there due to some missed blocks, but #2 RB T. Hines makes the backer miss and the rest of the offense rallies to help push forward for a win through yards after contact.
DC Yoro runs a fairly traditional base 4-3 defense against offensive formations with two or more tight ends in, pulling the SAM linebacker for a nickel safety when the opponent goes to 11-personnel or lighter – the snap count has been about 40% the former, 60% the latter in FBS play this year, but it’s been such a perfect match to offensive personnel that I’m sure it’s just about whatever the opponent chooses.
Statistically, Hawai’i comes out exactly average for FBS teams in my experience across the numbers I calculate. They’re perfectly even in defensive efficiency at 60 successes and 60 failures (both rush and pass subtotals are equal too), with 6.0 adjusted YPP (again an average number, with rush and pass yardage numbers also being almost the exact average for their subcategories), and 15% of plays gaining explosive yardage (precisely the average total number, though there is a split in subtotals with better explosive rush defense than explosive pass defense). I don’t believe I’ve ever seen down-the-middle numbers like this in every category before.
These numbers may seem mediocre but they’re a considerable improvement on 2022’s performance in defensive F+, which finished the season ranked 123rd. Of course, their current 2023 ranking is 129th, but I think that has to do with preseason data being so heavily baked into advanced stats at this point, and also the nature of the offenses they’ve played in Vanderbilt and Stanford. I believe I’m seeing a defense that looks qualitatively better in its second year under the new staff when watching their film, although there are still talent limitations and this week they received the unfortunate news that starter and leading tackler #16 LB Taylor has been lost for the season with an ACL injury.
At this point in the year, disentangling the quality of the Bows’ defensive performance from expectations of their opponents’ offensive performance is next to impossible, since both Vanderbilt and Stanford had lousy seasons last year and suffered decisive losses last week to Wake Forest and USC respectively, but also have reasons to believe they may be better offensively than that history might indicate. From watching film I think Hawai’i had a poor defense last year but is competently coached and has players who know their assignments and go all out, and with a better team culture is probably getting better this year, but as a bottom line I’m uncertain about how much better. I doubt it’s enough to land them in the top half of the FBS given that isn’t how they recruit, but I would be shocked if they finish in the bottom-10 again.
The rush defense has been slightly better than the pass defense, in that they’ve kept teams from getting explosive rushing yardage – just 10.5% of opponents’ designed runs are gaining 10+ yards this year. There’s no real secret here, just sound assignment football from the front and good support from the secondary. Some examples:
- :00 – The back’s not getting through his initial pathing due to #52 DT Evaimalo and #96 DE Choi winning their blocks so he bounces out, where #18 LB Kema has eaten the TE’s block and #17 LB Tufaga has properly flowed to the play and shut it down.
- :08 – Nice job beating the slicing TE by #6 DE Kahahawai-Welch with speed, and Choi beats the LT on the other side with good hand technique.
- :15 – I don’t really think Stanford’s o-line is any good this year (or any year since 2017), but this is still an impressive heads-up win by #43 DE T. Jones and #3 LB J. Smith (who I expect to fill in for the injured Taylor, also in on this play) – they’re not getting fooled by all the o-line action but staying properly leveraged and getting off the blocks and to the play.
- :22 – Stanford had three consecutive opportunities to put the game away in or near the redzone in the second half, all three times they went with three runs in a row, and Hawai’i shut down all nine of those plays to keep the game alive. This is the ninth such run, with the outside blocker crushed comically by #23 CB Edwards.
By the same token, there’s no singular problem with the Bows’ rush defense either, but rather the entire range of typical execution issues each cropping up at different times. They just … lose the play, about half the time. Some examples:
- :00 – The tackle here, #58 DT Peihopa, otherwise grades out pretty well on my tally sheet (even though he is a former Husky) but he’s getting beat on this play and it interferes with the DB filling the B-gap. That gap is enormous because Choi is too deep instead of properly setting the edge.
- :07 – Tufaga is losing his block on this one, #1 DB Manuma (who has the lowest grades among starters on my tally sheet) takes a poor angle, and #9 DB C.J. Williams isn’t playing with outside leverage, allowing the ballcarrier to get to the sideline.
- :17 – This is the closest thing to a structural issue I see with the defensive front, they can be cleared out fairly readily with lateral blocks once they get moving, and the edge guys are taken 10 yards upfield.
- :24 – This is a talent issue, unfortunately. Manuma should be able to blow through that blocking back’s inside shoulder to change the ballcarrier’s angle, but he gets hung up on the bluechip. Tufaga ideally would be quick enough to get an outside angle on the ballcarrier and force him back inside, but he lacks the footspeed for it and instead gets stiffarmed into the ground.
Pass defense is a similar story: sound defense in the front gives them a decent but not phenomenal havoc rate of about 17% sacks, scrambles, or throwaways per dropback and without many opportunities for the QB to break the pocket productively, and the back end knows its coverage assignments and forces receivers to earn every yard. Some examples:
- :00 – Nice move on the center by Tufaga on this blitz, and both #22 DE Robinson and Nebraska transfer #12 DE Ho’ohuli get around the tackles.
- :16 – The QB steps up ahead of the twist by Evaimalo, but #98 DT Sila (a strong presence in the DT rotation even though he hasn’t recorded a stat yet) is working the center well and forcing this quick throw short of the sticks on 3rd down. Tufaga and #7 DB Pei (another former Husky) clean up.
- :27 – He wasn’t initially a starter against Vandy, but #28 DB Palmer had such a strong game against Stanford, and Manuma and Pei’s grades were shaky enough, that I wouldn’t be surprised if he took one of their jobs sooner rather than later.
- :44 – In the second half of this game, the Bows’ blitz rate went way up, as they found it almost impossible to cover Stanford’s returning starter at TE and some of their other very tall receivers unless they rattled the QB. It was a pretty good strategy.
Unlike the rush defense, there is something of a throughline to failed pass defenses, and a reason why their explosive pass defense number – allowing 17.8% of opponents’ attempts to gain 15+ yards — is below average. It’s pretty simple: when pressure doesn’t get home, the coverage by backers and safeties of intermediate to deep routes has been suspect. Some examples:
- :00 – Six-man blitz here but nothing’s getting through, and Pei gets a DPI flag, the second one on the defense on this drive. The high replay shows their cover-1 structure, and good short man coverage by the corners and nickel.
- :19 – This RPO play really had the keys for the interior of the defense worked all night long – eight (!) defenders get sucked up here, and the only DB covering the No. 2 receiver has pretty wide outside leverage which demands Manuma help him out underneath.
- :30 – All these TE shifts have Kema running around and out of position as the ball is snapped, even as his teammates try to help him out, then he gets a bit of a rub by the X receiver and can’t recover. Pei can’t beat the throw to the sideline.
- :49 – Ho’ohuli gets flagged for being lined up pretty deep into the neutral zone, I think he distracts the center and contributes to the DT getting so deep and the QB starting to scramble. That in turn I think causes Manuma to start playing the QB run and failing to cover the TE wheel, which is a big mistake.