The Huskies faced a Cal team that was at its best keeping the ball on the ground and finding cutback lanes when the Washington linebackers overpursued. Now they face a vastly different challenge with a high flying passing offense taking its first trip to the mainland this season. Here comes Hawai’i.
Key Stats (2019)
Pass yards per game: 428.5
Pass yards per attempt: 8.6
Cole McDonald INT %: 5.4%
Rush yards per game: 113.0
Rush yards per carry: 4.1
The Rainbow Warriors have a proud tradition of throwing the ball around the yard and this team is no different. Hawai’i under head coach Nick Rolovich subscribes to the Run and Shoot offense and have been able to put up prolific passing numbers so far against a pair of Pac-12 opponents in Arizona and Oregon State. Although it must be noted there’s a decent chance those are the two worst defenses in the conference this season.
Hawai’i likes to spread the field and attack with 4 wide receivers. They throw a lot of shorter routes but aren’t afraid to also take the deep shot. The team lost now-Seahawk WR John Ursua who led the country in touchdowns last season with 16 coming out of the slot.
Instead, the Rainbow Warriors are led by the dynamic duo of Cedric Byrd II and JoJo Ward. In a standard 12 game regular season the pair are on pace to combine for 210 receptions, 3,444 yards, and 54 TDs. Ward is the primary deep threat averaging 18.5 yards per reception on the year. Those numbers are certainly going to come down as we continue on through the season but there’s no question that they will be the biggest challenge through the air that the Huskies have encountered so far this season.
The man getting them the ball is going to be Hawai’i redshirt junior QB Cole McDonald (had a farm ei-ei-o). The best thing about McDonald is his hairstyle which looks exactly as you’d hope from a Hawaii quarterback. The second best thing is that he’s an old fashioned gunslinger. McDonald had a breakout season last year throwing for almost 4,000 yards and adding another 359 on the ground. He got off to a rocky start throwing 4 picks against Arizona which led to a benching. However, he played the entirety of the game against Oregon State and will be the clear starter for them in this game.
Despite dropping back more than 100 times already this season the Hawai’i QBs have been sacked only 4 times. That’s because Hawai’i returns all 5 starters along its offensive line. Over half of their O-line starts went to freshmen and sophomores last season and they took their lumps. But now this is an experienced veteran unit that has a great deal of continuity. It will be a big challenge for the Husky line to get to the quarterback.
That line will primarily be pass blocking because they very rarely call a running play. Only about 20% of Hawai’i’s offensive plays this season have been carries by their running backs. #1 running back Miles Reed has fewer carries than total scrambles by QBs Cole McDonald and Chevan Cordeiro combined. The attempts from Reed plus converted backup RB Dayton Furuta have gone for nearly 5 yards per carry so they’ve had some success surprising teams with the running game. But it would be a major philosophical shift if we see more than just the occasional run to throw the Huskies off balance.
It’s clear that receivers Byrd II and Ward are the primary two options on this Hawai’i offense. But with this many passing attempts they’re still able to spread the ball around and #3/#4 receivers Jared Smart and Jason-Matthew Sharsh each are averaging more than 5 catches for 45 yards per game. If the Husky corners are focusing their attention on Byrd II and Ward it may lead to big games from Smart and Sharsh. Also expect to see some of ex-Cal receiver Melquise Stovall.
There’s no time for the Huskies to linger on the Cal game, especially with such a different opponent coming to town on Saturday. While the Rainbow Warriors won’t attempt to pound the rock and exploit that apparent Husky weakness, there are still vulnerable areas they can exploit. The Huskies struggled to contain Chase Garbers scrambling around against Cal and Cole McDonald has the ability to hurt them with his legs. He had 3 games of more than 50 yards rushing a season ago and it wouldn’t surprise me if he is quick to bolt with the Husky secondary blanketing his receivers.
Hawai’i’s offense is different from the Air Raid of Mike Leach but both are spread offenses focused on passing the ball. Washington has shown the ability to largely shut them down in the past and it will be interesting to see if the Huskies go to a “3 rushers and then 8 dropped back in zone coverage” look like they do against Wazzu. If so then the Washington defensive line will need to find a way to collapse the pocket without allowing free escape lanes for McDonald. Regardless, the Husky secondary and linebackers will need to do a much better job tackling than they have through the first two games as Hawaii has the playmakers necessary to take one to the house if the first defender there comes up empty.