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Hawaii’s comeback falls short in 35-28 loss to Vanderbilt

Special teams mistakes prevent Hawaii from scoring a surprise opening day upset

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

This time last season, Hawaii opened the 2022 season in humbling fashion. Merely two-possession underdogs, hype and fanfare disappeared as Vanderbilt’s 35-point third quarter led the way to a shocking 53-point victory for the Commodores. The message was clear for Hawaii fans: curb your enthusiasm.

Fast forward to the present, and this edition of Hawaii vs. Vanderbilt produced a different reaction: cautious optimism. Stupid special teams mistakes and breakdowns in the secondary prevented Hawaii from upsetting 17.5-point favorite Vanderbilt, losing 35-28 despite the reinvented run-and-shoot offense thriving in its 2023 debut.

Mind you, everyone in the building got off to a slow start thanks to a near two-hour delay because of lightning in the area. Hawaii won the box score and will be annoyed they didn’t win on the scoreboard.

The run-and-shoot offense is back

Back in the preseason, we noted that the Warriors might start slowly on offense. Most run-and-shoot teams typically take a few games or even longer to truly get into a rhythm. Not the 2023 Hawaii Warriors, and not Brayden Schager.

The junior quarterback from Dallas, Texas went 27-35 for 351 passing yards, 3 touchdown passes and two interceptions. One of those interceptions was incredibly costly, coming at the 1-yard line after a Hawaii touchdown was reversed by replay. It was the difference on the scoreboard. However, for much of the night Schager dazzled with incredibly accurate deep passes.

Hawaii’s leading receiver was redshirt freshman Pofele Ashlock, who recorded 7 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown in his college football debut. Ashlock’s name was a surprising sight on the preseason depth chart. It’s not every day a player with no college football experience makes the starting lineup. Ashlock did not forsake that starting nod and very much appears to be a future star for the Warriors.

Star running back Tylan Hines was surprisingly quiet, splitting time with running back Landon Sims, although an injury might’ve played a role. If Hawaii’s running game can aid the passing game going forward, this offense can be one of the best in the Mountain West.

Special teams were a disaster

Beware of those hidden yards. The goal line turnover will sting for the Hawaii offense, but the real culprit of this Vanderbilt loss was the special teams. After failing to move the ball on the first offensive drive, Hawaii’s punt by Matthew Shipley went for zero yards. Yes, zero yards. The ball was snapped over Shipley’s head and he did well to prevent further disaster before shanking the punt.

After the offense evened the score up at 7-7, Vanderbilt responded with a 97-yard kickoff return from Jayden McGowan. In a game where it felt like the offense dominated and the defense performed well enough, especially in run support, one cannot help but feel like these special teams miscues decided the outcome.

The secondary disappointed

In maybe the most surprising development of the evening, Hawaii’s defense largely thwarted the Vanderbilt rushing game. The Commodores finished with 70 net rushing yards on 20 carries after removing the nonsense sack totals (I hate that college football scoring does that). Maybe that pursuit came at a cost, cause the hyped Hawaii secondary struggled in game one.

Cornerback Virdel Edwards II was picked on several times, although to Edwards’ credit he also made some solid plays late in the game. Whatever the case, things were far too easy for Jayden McGowan and Will Sheppard as quarterback AJ Swann found wide open wide receivers too often on Saturday evening. The Vanderbilt passing game accounted for 258 of their 302 total offense yards. Not a disastrous evening on defense by any means but considering the secondary it supposed to be the strength of team, they’ll be disappointed they didn’t play better.

Final Thoughts

Saturday evening’s loss will frustrate the Warriors. The game was there to be won. Correctable mistakes were the difference between winning and losing. Hawaii won the box score and passed the eye test, two unexpected developments.

The revelation of the evening was the offense. I expected growing pains and instead Schager appears poised for a breakout season. Hawaii will host Stanford, a program from a dead conference, on Friday night at Manoa on national television. It’s a real opportunity for a signature win for Timmy Chang’s program.

Hawaii vs. Stanford will start at 5 pm HT on Friday, September 1st on CBS Sports Network.