The Wildcats and Rainbow Warriors meet in Honolulu on Saturday night
Arizona takes on Hawaii on Saturday night in a potential high-scoring affair to conclude the first weekend of college football action for the 2019 season. With quarterback Khalil Tate back to 100 percent, the Wildcats aim to rebound after a disappointing 5-7 record in coach Kevin Sumlin’s first year in Tucson. The Rainbow Warriors were one of the most-improved teams at the Group of 5 level last fall and look to build off last season’s 8-6 finish.
Saturday’s game with Arizona marks the first of three Pac-12 teams Hawaii will play in 2019. The Rainbow Warriors take on Oregon State on Sept. 7 and make a trip to Washington on Sept. 14. It’s no secret this is a tough start for coach Nick Rolovich’s squad, but Hawaii brings back 17 starters from last season, including one of the top Group of 5 quarterbacks in Cole McDonald. The junior battled injuries in the second half of 2018 but still finished with 3,875 passing yards and 36 passing scores. The Rainbow Warriors returned to their run-and-shoot roots last fall, which helped to spur the 8-6 record – a five-game jump from 3-9 in 2017.
As mentioned previously, the 2018 campaign was a disappointing one for Arizona. With Tate under center, the Wildcats had hopes of improving on 2017’s win total (seven). Tate was injured early in the year and never returned to 100 percent, while the defense finished 10th in the Pac-12 in points allowed (32.6). Those two factors dropped Arizona to 5-7 and just 4-5 in Pac-12 play. With Tate back to 100 percent and six starters back on defense, there’s optimism for improvement in 2019.
Arizona and Hawaii have played five previous times on the gridiron. The Wildcats have won all five, including a 47-28 matchup in 2016.
Arizona at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 24 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Arizona -11
When Arizona Has the Ball
A healthy Khalil Tate should make a big difference for Arizona’s offense this season. Tate burst onto the scene in 2017 by throwing for 1,591 yards and 14 touchdowns to nine picks and running for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns. The California native posted six games of at least 100 rushing yards that year and gashed Colorado for 327 in a 45-42 win by Arizona. After averaging 9.2 yards per carry in 2017, Tate’s average dipped to 3.03 last fall. While an ankle injury limited his movement and overall ability to make plays with his legs, Tate still threw for 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns to eight interceptions. Entering his senior year, Tate should be at his best and one of the Pac-12 top quarterbacks in 2019.
Tate isn’t the only weapon for Sumlin on Arizona’s offense. Running back J.J. Taylor is only 5-foot-6, but he ranks among the nation’s best in all-purpose production. He averaged 175.6 all-purpose yards a game last season and recorded 5.6 yards per pop over 255 carries. The offensive line is a little thin when it comes to proven depth, but some additions via the transfer ranks (Robert Congel from Texas A&M) and junior college (Paiton Fears and Josh Donovan) have added talent and competition. With three players back in starting roles from last season, this unit is poised to take a step forward. The biggest question mark for Sumlin’s offense has to be at receiver. This unit lost its top four options – Shun Brown, Shawn Poindexter, Tony Ellison and Devaughn Cooper – from last season. Senior Cedric Peterson (18 grabs) is Tate’s most-experienced option, but there are promising playmakers in the form of sophomore Drew Dixon, true freshman Jalen Curry and converted quarterback Jamarye Joiner.
With Tate’s dual-threat ability and Taylor’s penchant for breaking big plays on the ground, Hawaii’s defense is going to have its hands full on Saturday night. The Rainbow Warriors surrendered 35.1 points a game last season, gave up over 200 rushing yards a contest and allowed 25 plays of 40 yards or more. On the positive side for Rolovich, this defense returns nine starters. Can Hawaii’s defense translate that experience into improvement? Containing Tate on the ground and limiting the big plays allowed have to be a priority on Saturday night.
When Hawaii Has the Ball
Hawaii averaged only 22.8 points a game during its three-win campaign in 2017, which prompted Rolovich to return the offense to the run-and-shoot last fall. That switch paid big dividends for the Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii’s offense averaged 30.8 points a game and scored at least 42 points in five out of the first six contests last fall.
In addition to the tweak in scheme, McDonald’s emergence under center helped jumpstart this offense. The Rainbow Warriors paced the Mountain West by averaging 310.3 passing yards a game in 2018, as McDonald threw for 3,875 yards and 36 touchdowns to only 10 picks. Injuries and a tougher schedule in the second half of last season slowed McDonald’s production just a bit. However, with a full offseason to return to 100 percent, the junior seems to have held off a charge from redshirt freshman Chevan Cordeiro for the starting nod and is poised to challenge for All-Mountain West honors.
McDonald’s supporting cast remains strong despite the departure of No. 1 receiver John Ursua. JoJo Ward and Cedric Byrd combined for 18 touchdown catches last season and will be featured even more in 2019. Senior Jason-Matthew Sharsh had a productive offseason and seems poised to slide into the spot vacated by Ursua. The Rainbow Warriors won’t run it much (125th nationally in attempts per game), but Fred Holly III (468 yards) and Dayton Furuta (459) are steady options.
Hawaii’s offense will put pressure on an Arizona defense that ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in points allowed (32.6) and yards per play (5.73) last season. Additionally, the Wildcats finished 11th in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense. Those numbers are obviously a concern for Sumlin against Hawaii’s high-powered attack. Arizona isn’t going to transform its defense into one of the best in the Pac-12 this fall, but there are some reasons for optimism. The Wildcats should get a boost with sophomore Jalen Harris developing in the trenches, and linebacker Colin Schooler is likely to challenge for All-America honors in 2019. The return of cornerback Jace Whittaker after missing last season due to injury should be a boost for the secondary.
Slowing down McDonald and Hawaii’s receivers is no easy task for Arizona’s defense. However, even with all five starters back in the trenches, this group is a concern for Rolovich. The Rainbow Warriors gave up 46 sacks in 14 contests last season. Can the Wildcats generate a little pressure up front to throw off McDonald’s timing? And when Hawaii does make plays through the air, limiting the run after catch is a priority for Sumlin’s defense.
With two high-powered offenses and questionable defenses trying to get stops, there should be no shortage of fireworks on Saturday night in Honolulu. Both teams are going to land their share of punches in this one, with one or two timely stops in the second half proving to be the difference. With Tate healthy and motivated after a difficult junior year, a fast start in the opener seems likely. The guess here is that’s the difference. The Wildcats and Rainbow Warriors trade scores into the second half, but Tate makes a couple of plays late to seal it.