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What to expect from Hawaii in Arizona’s Week 0 opener

A lot of passing, for one

NCAA Football: Hawaii at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, we’ve reached the Arizona Wildcats’ first game week of the 2019 season. It’s been nine months since UA has taken the field, and that long wait will finally end on Saturday night, as they travel to Honolulu to face the Hawaii Warriors.

Here’s what to expect from UH.

First Look

2018 Record — 8-6 (5-3 Mountain West)

Key Offensive Players — QB Cole McDonald (more on him below), WR Cedric Byrd (970 receiving yards, 9 TD in 2018), WR JoJo Ward (865 receiving yards, 9 TD), OL J.R. Hensley, OL Kohl Levao

Key Defensive Players — DE Kaimana Padello (8 sacks, 13.5 TFL in 2018), LB Solomon Matautia (team-high 92 tackles), LB Penei Pavihi (87 tackles, 6.5 TFL), CB Rojesterman Farris II (1 INT, 11 PBU)

The stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of 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

A deeper dive

Hawaii and Arizona will help kick off the 2019 season, as their matchup is one of two Week 0 contests (the other being Miami vs. Florida). Teams that play at Hawaii are allowed to start the season a week early in order to take a bye week after the long journey across the Pacific.

The most important part of Hawaii’s identity for a long time has been to throw the ball as often as possible and see what the hell happens. That hasn’t changed under fourth-year coach Nick Rolovich, who played quarterback for the Warriors during June Jones’ tenure. Rolovich is 18-22 in his 40 games in Honolulu, and his team has become one of the weirder teams in FBS (as it rightfully should be).

In 2016, the Warriors overcame playing games in five time zones to go 7-7. Rolovich’s 2017 squad unexpectedly collapsed to 3-9. The 2018 team bounced back to an 8-6 finish.

The biggest new face for Hawaii last year was, without question, quarterback Cole McDonald. McDonald went from a completely green sophomore to one of the most deadly arms in the nation within the month of September, and if injuries hadn’t hit him hard just as the schedule got tougher, both McDonald and Hawaii could’ve gotten serious nationwide attention.

McDonald fought through a foot injury and internal bleeding in his scrotum (yes, really) and somehow only missed one game, a close win over Wyoming at Aloha Stadium. Despite all those injuries during a time when Hawaii was facing the toughest stretch on the schedule, McDonald still finished 285-of-484 (58.9%) for 3,875 yards and 36 touchdowns (with only 10 interceptions).

We haven’t even mentioned McDonald’s legs yet either, and he can use them well, going for 580 yards and four scores on 100 carries (not including sacks).

“Here’s a guy who threw for 3,800 yards last year... is 6-4, 220, runs well all over the place and he can spin it,” said UA coach Kevin Sumlin. “He’s a big, tough guy, you see him get hit sometimes, it doesn’t faze him. The scary part of this he had a great year last year, ... and he’s coming back this year bigger and stronger.”

McDonald will be healthy against Arizona, and that should scare Wildcats fans. What’s even scarier is that he will have an experienced line full of sophomores and juniors to block for him, and a very deep receiving corps to throw to, a luxury Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate might not have.

John Ursua was one of the best Group of 5 receivers in the country last year, and losing him hurts, but almost every other Hawaii receiver returns, plus former Cal four-star recruit Melquise Stovall joins their ranks.

Almost all of Hawaii’s receivers are quite small and focus on simply outrunning their coverages. Arizona’s secondary should be fairly stout, but Hawaii has long since mastered the art of making defenders look silly, and guys like Cedric Byrd and JoJo Ward could do just that against UA.

Hawaii does not have a lot of the ground game in their DNA, but it’s still an important piece of the offensive puzzle. As mentioned, McDonald was actually a very efficient runner, and whoever is running the ball will have a strong line to block for them. The Warriors have an all-around back in Fred Holly III and a bowling ball in 250-pound Dayton Furuta.

Another part of the Hawaii football experience has been mediocre-to-bad defense for a long time. The Warriors haven’t been good on defense in a long time, but last year they were very aggressive for the first time in a while as well, and with some luck that can work just as well.

Expect a lot of aggressive blitz packages from Hawaii, especially when Arizona is nearing the end of a drive. That means a fair-to-good offensive line will have to be on their A-game, but it also means that Khalil Tate will have a lot of favorable matchups both in the air and on the ground.

Overall, Hawaii is a team that Arizona should beat—hence why the Wildcats are a two-score favorite—but should also probably make UA fans at least a bit nervous.

McDonald is just the kind of mobile gunslinger that has plagued Arizona defenses for seemingly decades, and he’s got an alarming amount of upperclassmen surrounding him. The Hawaii defense is not great and should get torched by an explosive offense like Arizona’s, but aggressive defenses rely on luck a lot, and just a bit of good luck for them could tilt this shootout in Hawaii’s favor.

After Hawaii, Arizona gets a bye week and hosts NAU before Texas Tech comes to visit. This will be a stressful Saturday in Tucson, and a game Arizona probably needs to win to reach a bowl game, but if it can escape with a victory there’ll will be reasons to be optimistic.

Ronnie Stoffle contributed to this story