SAN DIEGO ST. VS. HAWAII
Location: Honolulu, Hawaii (Aloha Stadium)
Date/Time: Saturday, November 23rd at 6:00 p.m. (Hawaii Time)
Television: Spectrum Sports (PPV in the islands only, so no TV channel for mainlanders). Yes, you read that correctly. One of the biggest games of the Mountain West slate won’t be televised on the mainland.
Streaming: Facebook for mainland viewers. Links should be available at Hawaii and San Diego State athletics websites.
Radio: ESPN Honolulu
Head-to-Head: San Diego State leads this series 21-10-2. Yes, these two programs tied each other twice in a three year span (1983 and 1985). The Aztecs have thoroughly dominated the series. The two programs have met 22 times since 1986 and the Rainbow Warriors have only won five of them. Fortunately for the Warriors, one of those wins was last season’s seminal moment against the Aztecs, a 31-30 win in overtime in San Diego.
Three things to look for:
1. In the way of glory: the San Diego State defense
Saturday’s showdown at Aloha Stadium will decide who represents the West Division. Somehow, someway, Hawaii controls their destiny. A win sends them travelling somewhere to face the Mountain Division representative in December. To earn that opportunity, Hawaii must beat San Diego State. We know how Hawaii ended up in this bizarre position, but how did the Aztecs earn this chance?
Defense. That’s how they earned this chance.
San Diego State head coach Rocky Long and his 3-3-5 defense have uniquely foiled offenses for decades. Exotic blitzes and weird coverages make this system difficult to parse through. The Aztecs dominate opposing run games. San Diego State ranks 2nd nationally (2nd!!!) out of 130 teams in rush defense. Opponents are averaging 2.43 yards per carry against the Aztec defense. Remarkable numbers.
Surely as a result, that means the Aztecs give up majority of their yards through the air? Yes, and no. With a rush defense stat as dominant as 2nd, obviously there is little room for the pass defense to best that. That, however, doesn’t mean the Aztecs pass defense is poor. They rank 32nd nationally in pass defense, conceding 6.21 yards per catch. That’s really good. Overall, the Aztecs rank 8th nationally in total defense. Top-to-bottom, this is probably the best defense in the Mountain West, and maybe the Group of 5.
Good news: this isn’t Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald’s first rodeo. McDonald absolutely scorched the Aztecs defense last season for 452 passing yards and three touchdown passes, and a fourth touchdown overall on the ground. The numbers for the San Diego State defense are scary good, but Hawaii fights unique (the run-and-shoot) against unique (the 3-3-4 defense) and it worked last season.
2. The path to glory: the San Diego State offense
Oh no, all is lost. How can Hawaii compete when San Diego State has such a ruthlessly dominant defense? Quite easily, actually. While San Diego State’s defense gives their team a shot to beat any opposition, their offense unfortunately opens the door for any opposition to beat them (see home loss to Nevada).
The Aztec offense has done their defense no favors. The Aztecs rank 111th in total offense. To be truthful, Long’s teams have never been known for elite offense, but their typical strong point is the run game. Donnell Pumphrey, Rashaad Penny, you know the names. This edition of the Aztecs ranks 93rd nationally in rushing offense. An astounding number for an offensive group hell bent on establishing the run. The passing game ranks 100th overall. You get the point: the Aztec offense is not to be feared.
The numbers suggest Hawaii is unlikely to pop off for 40+ points this week. That said, even for a Hawaii defense that has struggled this season, it would be surprising if the Aztecs scored north of 24 points this weekend. The Aztec defense gives San Diego State legitimate hope of beating Hawaii, but the Aztec offense gives Hawaii legitimate hope of beating San Diego State.
3. Is this the biggest game of the last decade for Hawaii?
Since the Mountain West’s creation of the divisional system, every single Mountain Division team except for Colorado State and New Mexico has at some point participated in the conference championship game. The West Division, however, has not sported such parity. One of San Diego State or Fresno State has occupied the West Division’s slot in the championship game every single year. You’ll notice, that does not include Hawaii.
Let’s cut the crap and be honest: the last 10 years of Hawaii football have been brutal. Former head coach Greg McMackin did an admiral job keeping June Jones’ progress going after Jones left for Southern Methodist, but after the athletic department deemed McMackin’s 6-7 season not good enough and fired McMackin, the Chow era tore it all down. I do not think Norm Chow is a bad man, he truly tried his absolute best, but he chased off success and more importantly...fans. Hawaii did not eclipse the three-win ceiling from 2012-2015. Then Nick Rolovich took over in 2016, and rehab started.
Fast-forward to 2019. Yes, yes. Only once has a Mountain West championship participant qualified for the championship game with three conference losses (2014 Fresno State). Hawaii is benefitting from some uneven play in the 2019 West Division. That said, math cannot be argued with here. If Hawaii beats San Diego State, they’ll play in the Mountain West championship game, likely on the road somewhere. After the struggles of the last decade, it would be hard to blame any fan for wondering if such an opportunity would arrive for Hawaii anytime soon. This is why we watch the games. If you’re on Oahu or one of the neighboring islands, or are a mainland UH fan with deep pockets, I highly suggest you attend this game. It’s for all the marbles against a tough team and UH will need all the help they can get, and there is no telling the next time the stars will align like this.
Last week’s game in Las Vegas turned out to be a defensive struggle, something nobody expected. Ugly or not, Hawaii found some defensive confidence and won the game, putting them in position to compete for a championship. San Diego State’s defense is a really good, but I think Hawaii’s quick passing game can have some success this week. The Aztecs defense will have success too, but as long as Cole McDonald and the offense keep turnovers in check, I don’t think the dreadful Aztec offense has enough juice to win this one. Give me Hawaii 24, San Diego State 17.