The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors and San Diego State Aztecs are set to meet Saturday night in San Diego in the regular-season finale for both squads. Hawaii needed a dramatic comeback, sparked by its backup quarterback, to beat UNLV 35-28 and improve to 7-5 overall and 4-3 in Mountain West Conference play. The much-needed win snapped a four-game losing streak and secured bowl eligibility for the Rainbow Warriors, who play 13 regular-season games annually.
San Diego State fell out of the West Division title race and fell to 7-4 overall and 4-3 in conference with a 23-14 loss at Fresno State a week ago. The Aztecs had won six in a row after a season-opening loss to Stanford but have now lost two straight and three of four.
Hawaii at San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: San Diego State -17
Three Things to Watch
1. A tale of two defenses
San Diego State and Hawaii have reached the seven-win mark in highly contrasting fashion. The Aztecs, a model of consistency under head coach Rocky Long, are known for their strong rushing attack and stingy defense. SDSU leads the conference in total defense (310.3 total yards allowed per game) and yards allowed per play (4.73), numbers that rank No. 12 and No. 19 in the nation, respectively. The Aztecs have also been dominant against the run, having allowed an average of 97.3 rushing yards per game and 2.75 yards per carry, both of which lead the league and rank sixth and fifth, respectively, among FBS programs.
The Rainbow Warriors have struggled mightily against the run and sit at No. 11 on the conference leaderboard and at No. 105 nationally with an average of 206.1 rushing yards allowed per game. Hawaii has surrendered 4.95 yards per carry, which also ranks 105th, and 30 rushing touchdowns — more than any MWC defense and 11th most in the country. The Rainbow Warriors have allowed 35.8 points per game, which ranks 11th in the conference, 111th in the country and most among all FBS teams with a winning record. Hawaii has also surrendered 6.3 yards per play and 441.8 total yards per game, both of which sit in the bottom half in the league and in the triple digits nationally — and the chance of a turnaround isn’t likely with star linebacker Jahlani Tavai (second in school history in career tackles) out with an injury.
2. McDonald vs. Cordeiro
The decision of head coach Nick Rolovich to switch to the Run and Shoot prior to the 2018 season has paid off nicely, and Hawaii has survived its ugly defensive statistics thanks to its explosive offense. The Rainbow Warriors rank No. 13 nationally in passing offense (310.3 yards per game) as a unit, and quarterback Cole McDonald is eighth (303.5) individually. McDonald has started 10 games and has completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns with eight interceptions along the way. However, McDonald has struggled with consistency in recent weeks, and he was relieved in the fourth quarter against UNLV with his team trailing 28-14. True freshman Chevan Cordeiro sparked the offense, completing 4-of-5 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns to lead the comeback.
Rolovich now finds himself in an interesting situation. Cordeiro saved the Rainbow Warriors last week, and he makes a strong case to be the quarterback of the future for the program. But the freshman, who started against Wyoming with McDonald injured (and threw a game-winning TD against the Cowboys), made his third appearance of the season a week ago. Therefore, Cordeiro can play in only more game (with the trip to San Diego and likely the Hawaii Bowl yet to play) and still redshirt under the new rule. If Rolovich turns the offense over to Cordeiro for the remainder of the season, he would enter 2019 as the favorite to start next year and beyond. But if the head coach sticks with McDonald as his starter and refrains from using Cordeiro either against the Aztecs or in the bowl game, he saves a year of eligibility.
3. Hawaii WR John Ursua
With the game tied 28-28, and with under two minutes left in regulation, Cordeiro connected with John Ursua for a 68-yard touchdown that proved to be the game-winner against the Rebels. The catch was the 16th touchdown of the season for Ursua, which leads the nation. The junior now has 85 receptions for 1,309 yards — both of which lead the Mountain West — for an average of 15.4 yards per catch.
Ursua has shown remarkable consistency throughout his junior season. His six-catch, 148-yard performance against the Rebels marked the 11th time in 12 games he has caught at least five passes (he has caught three or more in all 12 contests) and the seventh time he has reached the century mark in yardage. On that note, Hawaii is 5-2 this season and 8-4 in his career when Ursua reaches 100 receiving yards.
San Diego State won six straight games earlier this season despite a series of injuries to key players, including starting quarterback Christian Chapman and running back Juwan Washington. With Chapman and Washington both back in action, it’s surprising to see the Aztecs still struggling to move the football consistently. SDSU has scored just 21.6 points per game, which ranks 115th in the country, and the inability to put the ball in the end zone consistently has kept junior QB Ryan Agnew in the mix for snaps. Therefore, both QBs are likely to see action against Hawaii.
And speaking of the Rainbow Warriors, the UH defense has proven itself to be an elixir of sorts for the opposition all season. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Washington break out for his first 100-yard rushing performance since Week 3, or for the Aztecs to score more than 31 points for the first time all year. Hawaii also finally has the monkey off its back in terms of bowl eligibility, which could lead to a letdown. San Diego State isn’t likely to win in blowout fashion, but the Aztecs should win.
Prediction: San Diego State 34, Hawaii 21
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.