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Opponent Defense Preview: Hawaii

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The Rainbow Warriors try to make it 3-0 against the Pac-12.

Oregon State v Hawaii Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

Oh hey, welcome to your Thursday defensive preview. After last week’s soul-crushing loss to Cal, the Dawgs try to rebound like a broken-hearted high school sophomore against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.

Does that analogy make sense? Honestly, I don’t know. So let’s just get to it:

Personnel and What to Expect

For starters, it’s not like Hawaii is particularly well-known for their defense. But, for what it’s worth, they’re not completely one-sided either.

That being said, statistically they’re pretty boom or bust; against Arizona, they played bad enough to give up 35 points in two quarters, but good enough during the other two to otherwise concede only three. Against Oregon State, they promptly gave up 28 points the first half, only to shut out the Beavers the rest of the game.

In other words, if you’re an opposing offensive coordinator, step on the gas pedal while you can.

Their base is a nickel defense, but it’s worth noting that Hawaii mixes up their personnel liberally. Against Arizona they played a 3-3-5, 2-3-6, 4-3, and 4-2-5. Against Oregon State, there was 3-3-5, 4-3, even a 4-4 in an obvious running situation, 4-2-5, 2-4-5, and so on. It should be noted that, against Arizona, they played a (relatively) lot of dime, especially to begin the game. However, equally outstanding is the variability of their fronts. Regardless of their personnel, the Rainbow Warriors are sure to show up a few plays a game in fronts that make you go, “Uh, what’s that?” and otherwise to play around with what they show pre-snap often.

The backend of the defense is interesting in that they for the most part do their job pretty well until, all of a sudden, they don’t. Busted coverage or poor execution has resulted in a handful of touchdowns against them already after two weeks — against Arizona, at least two touchdowns were to guys who were wide open. Cortez Davis and Kalen Hicks, a corner and safety, respectively, have stood out both for the good and bad in this regard as a kind of microcosm of the boom or bust tendencies of this defense. Also to look out for is Rojesterman Farris, who had 11 PBUs last year and should be continuing that consistency as a senior. That brings us to the fact that all their listed starters in the secondary are upperclassmen, with two juniors at nickel and CB and three seniors filling out the rest. Of the whole two-deep, there’s only one freshman, redshirt nickel Kai Kaneshiro.

Behind them, the linebackers are a group that’s neither intimidating nor awful at their jobs. From my perspective what this has boiled down to in their first two games is that they’re usually in the right position (or at least, close enough) but they’re rarely strong enough to make forceful tackles and thus either give the ball-carrier an extra couple yards for them to fall forward or miss tackles completely. This wouldn’t be a great sign, but it’s especially not great for Hawaii given that all four of the players listed in their 4-2-5 base depth chart — rSO Paul Scott, rSR Kana’i Picanco, rSr Solomon Matautia, and rJr Jeremiah Pritchard — have at least three years of college experience and so these kinds of weaknesses are probably more or less final.

Lastly, on the defensive line, defensive end and Burlsworth Trophy nominee, Kaimana Padello, had 8.5 sacks last year and will likely have a larger role this year. Otherwise, I didn’t see a lot of pressure from the line so far this season, especially in the pass rush. Mason Vega is a junior college transfer on the other end of the line who’s hoping to complement Padello, but overall I didn’t see overwhelming success in this area for the Rainbow Warriors’ first two games.

Overall, this defense rarely looks lost but they also aren’t intimidating or likely to make huge lays. They’re not super eye-disciplined and consequently aren’t very reliable at containment, read option, you name it. Exacerbating this is that they aren’t the best tacklers either — although they’re far from the worst. Arizona had a lot of success on short routes spread wide where the goal was just to get the ball to a playmaker as quickly as possible and let them make plays and evade/break tackles in space. Related, Jermar Jefferson for Oregon State absolutely crushed them. Given these circumstances, Hawaii often has little choice but to commit more players to the box once its become apparent their opponent is gonna heavily utilize a back that can exploit these weaknesses.

What also stood out was how physically unintimidating Hawaii was against Arizona; they were better against Oregon State — especially in regards to the pass rush — but not to the point where it felt like a strength. They appear to create little havoc other than via interceptions, have little pressure from the defensive line, and rarely drive ball-carriers backward in the tackle. Distilled into one sentence, Hawaii’s defense doesn’t control the game, rather the game comes to them and they delay it.

Bottom Line

Generally, Washington’s success on Saturday is likely to come in big spurts, then be shut down, then come in another bunch again, and back and forth and so on.

As an offensive coordinator, I’d want to avoid pressing for longer routes until well into the game; Richard Newton is powerful enough to move the ball between the numbers while Salvon Ahmed’s athleticism in space can complement that in the flats or with pitches outside the hashmarks. Both should be able to break off some decent-sized runs, especially if they’re utilized together and often.

That should probably be the core of the offense given Hawaii’s fine-not-great angles, spacing, and tackling. Essentially, you know these plays will more often than not keep you ahead of the chains (if they don’t break off for bigger chunk plays) — why not just take advantage of that since it’s guaranteed free money?

Which brings us back to “avoid being pass-heavy until well into the game.”

Passing lanes will open up, they’re just gonna be a lot riskier to begin with. With Hawaii’s weaknesses up front, a Newton and Ahmed-emphasis attack all but ensures the Rainbow Warriors will begin stacking the box at some point or, at least, that linebackers and safeties will be too eager to come up for the run. Then it’s just a matter of time until there’s a coverage bust for Eason and Co to exploit against a secondary that’s (again, relatively) the strength of this defense.

If Bush Hamdan remains disciplined, especially the first half or so of the game, you can expect at least one passing touchdown where a receiver has lots of space. And, honestly, you might even get to see that if the play-calling gets impatient, too.

Oh, and the offensive line better look good.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.