Well, that was fun, huh?
I’d like to say “let’s not do that again” but I’m not about to lie to myself or you.
Hawai’i is unlikely to play this close a game again for a while, but I will bet my paycheck this is nowhere near the last time a Rainbow Warriors game will remain undecided until well after folks on the East Coast should have gone to bed.
The goal coming into this game was for Hawai’i to be competitive, show what they were capable of going forward, and if they were very lucky perhaps steal a win. Even folks who were high on the Warriors were nearly evenly split between
- Hawai’i will win
- Hawai’i won’t win but they’ll cover (at -10.5)
- Hawai’i will lose and not cover
This Hawai’i squad not only won, but they also led the game wire-to-wire. No matter how close this game ended up, that’s money in the bank.
Call it whatever you like, but I think the ‘Bows benefitted from an Arizona squad whose minds and bodies weren’t quite in the game, to begin with, and then never fully bought into the reality that they were struggling against a G5 program.
Arizona has been the best rushing attack in the Pac-12 for several years now, but they only ran the ball nine times in the opening quarter and Khalil Tate’s 16-yard scoot on the last play before the commercial break doubled their rushing output.
The Wildcats eventually found their offensive rhythm, but they still had yet to crack 150 rushing yards going into the game’s final snap. I’m sure they’d like to have a balanced offense this season, but trying to lean too hard into establishing the pass is how you wind up with Tate going 18-of-32 for 254 yards with 3 TD and 2 INT heading into the final five minutes.
Kudos to the trenches for Hawai’i on both sides, by the way. An offensive line who gave up way too many sacks last season will enter week two with a clean sheet. The defensive line didn’t generate any sacks but made Tate work to establish himself as a presence in this game and shut things down repeatedly when it mattered.
Heading into the season, this was one of four games on Hawai’i’s schedule that listed them as one-touchdown underdogs with less than a 40% chance of winning per S&P+ projections. If they can replicate the good and minimize the bad from this game going forward, they could flirt with a 10-win season.
So how does that happen?
Keep feeding Cedric Byrd. The odds are low that other teams will do what Arizona did and give one of Hawai’i’s fastest receivers a free release at the line all night long, especially now that there’s a live game film out there to game plan around.
That said, it says many positive things about this offense that in their first game without the seemingly-irreplaceable John Ursua, Byrd caught 14 passes and four touchdowns – two things that Ursua never accomplished.
Reign in the rainmaker. Cole McDonald is an absolute joy to watch, especially when he’s making things happen. It’s going to take a solid film session with the coaches to make sure that “making things happen” always winds up on a positive note.
The main reason this game went down to the wire is that Hawai’i opened the second half with a touchdown and then followed it with three consecutive drives where the got inside the Arizona 40 and then turned the ball over.
Only one of those turnovers was on McDonald, but it was a ghastly decision and throw back across his body to a receiver that wasn’t open. It’s a definite concern that he threw four interceptions without playing all four quarters. Fortunately, these errors are largely “keep your head in the game and stop playing hero ball.”
Keep up the aggression on defense. The Warrior defenders got a bit sloppy in the middle of the game and again late as the speed that Arizona possessed started poking holes in the armor, but overall I’d consider their performance a success given the minimal pass rush they produced and the dynamic offense they were facing.
Some of that was the ability to “play from ahead” on defense and be a bit more aggressive, but the secondary has got to avoid the lapses that allowed Arizona to keep themselves in this game.
I enjoyed watching Nick Rolovich be aggressive on fourth downs, and I’m curious to see what the offense can accomplish as they play around more with tempo and spacing, but this game makes all of the rest of their schedule (save Washington) look a lot less daunting.
Here’s to more late-night fun the rest of the season – two of their next three games kick off even later than this one did!