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Arizona football opponent preview: Hawaii

Week zero could offer lots of points

Hawaii v San Diego State Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats travel to Hawaii to face the Rainbow Warriors to kickoff the 2019 season. The game is scheduled for 7:30 pm MST on Saturday, August 24. It will be televised on CBS Sports. Here’s a breakdown of Hawaii:

Introduction

Playing in week zero is every fan’s dream. Alright maybe not EVERY fan’s dream but I’m definitely looking forward to it. UA starting the season one week early means the fans will be able to revolve their Labor Day weekend around a stress-free BBQ and fantasy football drafts rather than a late-evening kickoff.

The hope is Kevin Sumlin’s second year will begin better than the beginning we witnessed of year one. Traveling to Hawaii may create concern but fans should be comfortable playing against a Group of Five opponent like the Warriors.

With that said, this is a team coming off an 8-6 season in which they began 6-1. They’ve lost a couple key pieces in the receiving corps but they return redshirt sophomore quarterback Cole McDonald who was highly productive in 2018. This Warriors’ offense will be a great opening challenge for a UA defense that has struggled to find consistency over the past several seasons.

The Rundown

  • Returning Production Rank: 9th (73% offensive, 84% defensive, 79% total)
  • 2018 Record: 8-6
  • Head Coach: Nick Rolovich (18-22, fourth season)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

  • 2018 S&P+ Overall: 103th
  • 2018 S&P+ Offense: 63th
  • 2018 S&P+ Defense: 118th
  • 2019 S&P+ Projection: 94th
  • 2019 Projected Record: 6-7

2018 Recap

Through the first seven games, Hawaii found themselves sitting with a 6-1 record. Their single loss over this stretch was a close one and came to a more-than-respectable Army team in week three. Never mind the approximate 12 hours of flight time from Honolulu to West Point, NY, this game had a kickoff time of 12 pm ET which was 6 am in Hawaii.

However, from that point forward, they finished the season with an abysmal 2-5 record. In fact, none of their five losses were even that close. They lost those games by a combined 130 points.

They made it to the postseason and won five more games than they did in 2017. But for half the season, it was trending much better than their 8-6 finish. With that said, they would likely tell you 2018 was successful.

Offense Outlook

Cole McDonald enters this season as one of the premiere quarterbacks of the Mountain West conference with the departures of Brett Rypien (Boise State) and Marcus McMaryion (Fresno State). He’s coming off a season where he registered 3,875 passing yards while completing 58.9 percent of his passes and maintaining a 3.6:1 touchdown:interception ratio. It should also be noted that he used his legs quite a bit as he recorded 134 rushing attempts for 359 yards.

A key piece to McDonald’s production was receiver John Ursua. Ursua led the team with 89 receptions for 1,343 yards and 16 touchdowns but he was drafted by Seattle Seahawks in April.

As a result, there is a lot of opportunity for other receivers to get involved. The good news is the Warriors’ second leading receiving, Cedric Byrd (79 rec/970 yds/9 tds), is back for his senior year. Beyond that, fellow senior, JoJo Ward is also expected to step into a bigger role after posting solid numbers in 2018.

Another name to keep an eye on is Melquise Stovall who is a former four-star recruit that transferred from Cal. In 2016, as a true freshman, he was the third leading receiver for the Golden Bears with 415 yards and three touchdowns on 42 receptions. From there, the rest of his time with Cal was nothing but injury riddled and eventually transferred to Riverside City College prior to landing with Hawaii.

The run game was present but it just wasn’t as effective as the passing game. Their top two running backs, Fred Holly III and Dayton Furuta, return this season which helps familiarity within the system. The run game will also benefit from the return of right guard Solo Vaipulu, left tackle J.R. Hensley, right tackle/center Kohl Levao who all started every game in 2018.

Defensive Outlook

Hawaii finished 2018 ranked 100 (of 129) in Total Defense by allowing 439.7 yards per game and 109 in Points Allowed with 35.1 per game. Sadly, this was only 7.7 yards and 2.5 points worse than Arizona.

Key pieces on the defensive line include tackles Blessman Ta’ala and Samiuela Akoteu who both started all 14 games last season. Also, defensive end Derek Thomas provides ample experience as he appeared in all 14 games with five starts. However, the biggest star up front is Kaimana Padello who earned All Mountain West Second Team honors in 2018 and saw most of his time at the defensive end position.

The linebackers’ unit does not return as much depth. The good news is upperclassmen Solomon Matautia and Penei Pavihi were first and second on the team in total tackles with 92 and 87, respectively, in 2018.

The strongest returning defensive unit is likely the secondary which is headlined by cornerback Rojesterman Farris II. Farris was named to the Mountain West honorable mention after playing in all 14 games while recording 45 tackles and leading the team with 11 pass breakups.

Opposite of Farris should be some combination of Eugene Ford and Zach Wilson as they collectively recorded 12 starts at the position last season. The safety positions are more than solidifed by Kalen Hicks and Ikem Okeke. Okeke is coming off a junior season in which he tied with linebacker Pavihi’s for second in total tackles with 87.

3 Players to Watch

Cole McDonald, QB

The second year starter is coming off a season that should give Warrior fans hope. Despite the loss of Ursua at receiver, Hawaii still has depth at the position to help McDonald lead the offense to contention in the Mountain West.

Cedric Byrd, WR

Continuing with the theme of Ursua’s departure, the biggest beneficiary of his absence should Cedric Byrd. He showed tremendous upside as he recorded 140+ yards twice and never caught less than three passes in 2018.

Kaimana Padello, DE

This was a toss up between Padello and Rojesterman Farris II but I give the nod to Padello as I believe a true pass rusher is more valuable than a shut down corner. He was rewarded with second-team all conference honors during a season when defense was strong across the Mountain West.