HONOLULU — BYU Cougars renew an old rivalry as they take on the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at Aloha stadium Saturday night. Strange things have happened over in the islands during these games in past years, so what can we expect this Saturday?
Hawaii doesn’t look to have all that much on paper, but this is their bowl game and they’ve historically given BYU their best effort of the year whenever they match up. BYU, meanwhile, is locked into the Armed Forces Bowl and will be bringing back Riley Nelson at the quarterback position for the first time since his injury sustained against Idaho.
So what does all of this mean? We looked at the matchups, but more importantly, got the opinion of players leading up to the game.
BYU rushing attack vs. Hawaii
While Michael Alisa has emerged as a top running back option for the Cougars, it’s still old, reliable Bryan Kariya that they count on when they need to make critical yardage. Whether ii be third-and-short situation or near the goaline, it’s the veteran senior that will be getting the football.
“I don’t have the shake or the speed to go outside. I just know how to do one thing,” said Kariya. “I guess that’s served me well when the team needs to get one or two yards, and I’m happy to do it. I can’t do a lot of the other things the other guys can. But I know what I can do, and if it’s to get a critical yard, then I can do that.”
He’s done it very effectively so far this season as the Cougar ground attack has continued to thrive after the changes offensive coordinator Brandon Doman installed following the Utah State game. The run-blocking schemes have been stripped down and they’ve added the talents of Alisa to the rotation — all seen with success.
“You’re not able to do much of anything if you can’t run the ball and our offense has gotten better and better with us running it better and better in each game,” said Kariya.
They’ll be matching up against a Hawaii team that yields 140 yards per game on the ground on a 3.9 yards per carry average. They’ll present a 4-3 base defensive system that features its linebackers, most notably their two senior linebackers Corey Paredes, 6-0, 235, and Aaron Brown, 6-1, 225.
Paredes will man the middle, backing up the defensive line, with Brown playing out of the buck position. Both players lead the Rainbows in total tackles this season.
Along the defensive front, they’ll feature three experienced seniors and are particularly strong up the middle with Vaughn Meatoga, 6-2, 295, and Kaniela Tuipulotu, 6-2, 300, leading the way as their two starting defensive tackles.
“They have a good defense,” observed Kariya. “They’re strong, they’re big, they play physical and they’ll be a challenge.”
BYU will add the services of Riley Nelson and what he brings to the Cougar ground attack, and they should see some good gains because of it. Look for JJ Di Luigi to have a good game with his ability on the edges, which is where Hawaii looks to be vulnerable. BYU should be able to approach 200 yards rushing in the game.
BYU passing attack vs. Hawaii
The Cougar passing game changes quite a bit with Nelson under center as opposed to Jake Heaps. Fans can expect a lot of short and long passes with not much in between with Nelson directing the offense.
Coaches have tried to get the tight ends more involved all year long, but were served a huge blow in that regard with the injury to Austin Holt. Marcus Mathews and Hawaii-native Kaneakua Friel now stand as the top options and they’ll both need to step up come Saturday.
The Rainbow Warriors give up 235.1 yards per game through the air and an average of 7.3 yards per pass attempt.
Their biggest threat in defending the passing attack may come from outside linebacker Art Laurel, 6-0, 235, who has accounted for nine sacks on the season. Hawaii likes to bring a variety of blitzes throughout the game, and the Cougar offensive line will have to be on their toes throughout the game.
Their secondary is a bit small, with two 5-10 cornerbacks and a 5-8 as their starters, which should have both Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo licking their chops.
It’s hard not to like both Hoffman’s and Apo’s abilities to not only stretch a defense, but win balls in the air against what Hawaii presents defensively. Look for the amount of passing attempts to go down with Nelson at QB, but also look for a good share of big-gainers down the field.
BYU rush defense vs. Hawaii
The Cougar ground defense has been solid throughout the final half of the season. They’ve seemingly cleaned up a lot of mental errors that allowed teams to go for big-gainers around the edge, although they haven’t faced a prolific running attack since the Utah State game.
They’ll be facing a decent and unique running attack against Hawaii. The Warriors average 101.9 yards per game on a 4.3-yards-per-carry average and will be running almost exclusively out of a single-back set.
“They spread you out, but they’ll run it on you,” said cornerback Corby Eason. “They have a good running back that we’ll have to be watching for on every play.”
Their primary running back will be America Samoa’s freshman Joey Iosefa, who packs a punch at 6-0, 240.
“He’s a big, physical runner,” observed Eason. “They have some other good running backs, but he’s the guy who handles the runs for the most part.”
BYU hasn’t struggled this year and don’t typically struggle with big, bruising running backs, and they shouldn’t come Saturday. Iosefa does have a lot of talent, however, and will have to be accounted for.
They’ll also have to account for a running quarterback in David Graves, 6-0, 195, but overall, BYU should be well-prepped to defend this type of spread offense, considering how well they’ve done with their nickel package which has all but become Bronco Mendenhall’s base-defensive alignment over the past two games.
BYU pass defense vs. Hawaii
The Cougar defensive backs haven’t been challenged much all season, but will get a big challenge from Hawaii this Saturday. The Warriors like to throw the ball often, averaging 311 yards and almost 50 pass attempts per game this season.
“They’ll be throwing it around on us all day, we know that,” said Eason. “I’m excited for it. It’s going to be a true test for us, but I think we’re good and should be fine if we stay disciplined in our assignments.”
Hawaii doesn’t have just one go-to guy at receiver, but like to spread it around pretty equally, judging by their stats.
Billy Ray Stutzman, 6-0, 175, is their leading receiver on the year with 71 catches for 860 yards, but their big-play guy looks to be senior Royce Pollard, 6-1, 175, who has 66 receptions for 963 yards and eight touchdowns on the year.
“They’re all good,” observed Eason. “They’re quick, they’re fast, they can stretch the field. They’re going to give us a big challenge and they’re definitely the best passing offense that we’ve faced for a while, probably the toughest that we’ve faced all year.”
It’s a good thing that the Cougars have practiced a lot of nickel defense as of late, because they’ll need that alignment to have a chance in stopping Hawaii. Look for Hawaii to approach their season average as a result, with a lot of quick-hitters on slant and short out-patterns, congruent to how Mendenhall likes to set up his coverages.
Prediction: BYU 42, Hawaii 34
It’s difficult to predict anything but a barn-burner, considering not only the teams but the venue, and what this game means to Hawaii. It is their bowl game, and they’re sure to bring their best effort of the year against BYU.
BYU is simply the better team, however, and with it being the final regular season game for the seniors, they should be able to meet Hawaii’s effort, coming away with a victory.
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