UH aims for faster start against San Diego State

  • Courtesy of the University of Hawaii University of Hawaii wide receiver Jared Smart catches a pass in open space during a game against University of New Mexico on Nov. 7 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.

  • Courtesy of the University of Hawaii University of Hawaii wide receiver Zion Bowens reaches for a reception in a game against University of New Mexico on Nov. 7 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.

CARSON, Calif. — The University of Hawaii football team’s starts have not been appetizing.

“That’s an understatement, ” said UH head coach Todd Graham, whose Rainbow Warriors play San Diego State today in their third road game in 22 days.

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UH’s three opponents have scored touchdowns on their opening drives. The Rainbow Warriors fumbled away the season-opening kickoff against Fresno State. Their first series against Wyoming ended on a lost fumble on the second play. The Warriors scored on their first drive against New Mexico to tie it 7.

“I think we’ve had a slow start because we have not been very disciplined as we started the games off, ” said Graham, who has emphasized ball security and avoiding penalties in practices and meetings.

“With the no-huddle, ” Graham said about the run-and-gun’s targeted pace, “you usually start fast. Our tempo (was ) non-existent (against Wyoming ). Last game (against UNM ), we got in a rhythm. … This is a new thing to be starting that slow. We cannot have it. We want to play from ahead. The statistics (show ) if you score first, especially if you score a touchdown first, big-time percentage of your winning percentage goes up.”

The Warriors are facing an Aztec defense that has held three opponents to a combined one first down and zero points on opening drives.

HAWAII OFFENSE

Graham said the goal is a mashup of the first game’s rushing (323 yards ) and last week’s passing (410 yards, four TDs ). In the first two games, Chevan Cordeiro connected on 16.7 % of passes that were airborne at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. Against New Mexico, Cordeiro hit four of five deep passes in the second half, including two TDs to Zion Bowens, the speediest Warrior (4.33 in the 40 ). Bowens has become a postmaster (43.0 yards per catch ), which should set up quick-cut outs. While boundary wideout Rico Bussey has been the busiest (8.7 targets per game ), slotback Jared Smart’s leg-strengthening workouts have materialized into post-catch yards (7.1 average ) and after-contact gains (3.6 ). The Warriors committed eight offensive penalties, including four false starts, in the first two games. Last week, the offense was penalized once, for a lineman drifting too far downfield.

SAN DIEGO STATE DEFENSE

It will be deja vu for the Warriors, who will face a similarly structured alignment for the second week in a row. Rocky Long implemented a 3-3-5 scheme at New Mexico that he initiated at SDSU. The difference is the Aztecs have more talent and a different approach to countering Cordeiro. Instead of flushing the QB, the Aztecs’ inverted goal is to keep Cordeiro—who is effective on scrambles, keepers and rollouts—in the pocket. With twists and loops, the Aztecs can apply pressure with three down linemen. Strong-side linebacker Caden McDonald can play on the line as an edge setter. While the secondary is a collection of moving parts, the Aztecs often go with a five-across alignment to protect against deep passes, especially to the post. The umbrella scheme resembles a frown emoji, with Dwayne Johnson, a rock-solid hitter, in the middle. Linebacker Seyddrick Lakalaka, a Punahou grad and younger brother of former UH running back Steven Lakalaka, roams as a stand-up nose to perimeter defender.

HAWAII DEFENSE

Graham built the odd-front defense from the middle ground. Nose tackle Blessman Ta ‘ala has been disruptive in getting a 2-yard push to clog the pulling guard’s alley. Linebacker Darius Muasau, who averages 12.3 stops per game, has used visualization techniques—in film sessions and in his living room—to attack targeted spots, the defensive equivalent of a quarterback throwing to an area where a receiver eventually will reach. From the mid-range middle, hybrid Khoury Bethley has the same angles to defend both flats. Up front, the Warriors create pressure with boundary-side ends Justus Tavai and Djuan Matthews storming the guard-tackle gap in their version of “Red Rover.” Tavai, at 6-3 and 295, also can drop into check-down coverage. Hybrid linebacker Quentin Frazier and cornerback Cortez Davis often align in the box as blitzers or to press receivers.

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SAN DIEGO STATE OFFENSE

The Aztecs strayed from their usual power-run game, which overwhelmed Utah State two weeks ago, to a spread attack in an upset loss to San Jose State last week. The Aztecs are at their best when they run to set up … more runs. Greg Bell. who began his career at Nebraska, missed 2019 because of an eye injury suffered after transferring from a JC. Bell, a two-grip, one-cut runner, is averaging 125.7 yards per game and 5.7 per carry. Chance Bell is equally elusive with a low-leverage style, and Jordan Byrd provides quickness (4.46 seconds in the 40 ). The Aztecs’ base is a one-back formation, but extra pass protection comes from tight end Nolan Givan, who is exclusively a blocker, and the right guard or tackle detouring into the backfield instead of pulling. Daniel Bellinger is a versatile tight end who can align in a three-point stance, pair with Givan on the perimeter, or dash on 30-yard routes. Carson Baker is accurate early and late : 74.2 % on first down, 73.3 % in the fourth quarter.

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