The Rainbow Warriors meet the Minutemen on Saturday night in Amherst.
The five-game slate of college football’s first Saturday of action in the 2017 season doesn’t feature many marquee matchups, but the meeting between Hawaii and UMass at McGuirk Alumni Stadium could provide its share of fireworks. The Rainbow Warriors and Minutemen met in the final regular season game for both teams in 2016, with Hawaii pulling out a 46-40 victory. The win over UMass clinched a spot in the Hawaii Bowl for the Rainbow Warriors in coach Nick Rolovich’s first year at the helm. The visit to Amherst, Mass., is the furthest east the Rainbow Warriors have traveled to play a game. The trip from Hawaii to Massachusetts for the Week 0 matchup is over 5,000 miles.
Hawaii certainly can’t say 2016 lacked intrigue. The Rainbow Warriors started the season in Sydney against California, followed by road trips to Michigan and Arizona in the month of September. After a 1-3 start, this team improved throughout the year, eventually winning three out of their last six games – including a road win at Air Force – to finish with six victories and a spot in the Hawaii Bowl. Hawaii capped off a standout debut for Rolovich by handling MTSU 52-35 on Christmas Eve. As a former quarterback and assistant with the Rainbow Warriors, Rolovich knows what it takes to win at Hawaii and clearly has this program trending in the right direction.
After four years as a football-only member of the MAC, life in the independent ranks wasn’t any easier for UMass. The Minutemen finished 2-10, with its only victories coming against FIU and Wagner. However, coach Mark Whipple’s team played Mississippi State (47-35) and South Carolina (34-28) tough. Whipple won a FCS championship at UMass in 1998 but has a tough task ahead after winning just eight games in the last three years. The schedule isn’t going to get much easier for 2017, but the Minutemen could double last season’s win total.
As mentioned above, Hawaii and UMass squared off in Honolulu last year. That’s the only previous matchup between these two teams in their program history. These two teams do not have a scheduled game for 2018 or 2019.
Hawaii at UMass
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 26 at 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ELVN/NESN+ (623 and 628-1 on Direct TV)
Spread: UMass -2
Three Things to Watch
1. UMass’ Passing Attack
After a 2-10 record last season, UMass coach Mark Whipple has a lot of work to do in order to get the Minutemen into contention for a winning record. But one area that won’t require a ton of tweaks is the passing game. UMass averaged 256.7 passing yards per contest last year, with Andrew Ford throwing for 2,665 yards and 26 touchdowns. While Ford was solid (60.8% completion percentage) in his first season in Amherst, junior Ross Comis is back from injury and is slated to play against Hawaii. Comis was just 28 of 63 for 370 yards in his limited action last fall, but a good chunk of his snaps came against Florida and Boston College – two standout defenses that ranked inside of the top 25 in fewest yards per play allowed. Regardless of whether Comis or Ford takes the majority of snaps on Saturday night, look for both quarterbacks to target tight end Adam Breneman early and often. In his first year with the Minutemen after transferring from Penn State, Breneman grabbed 70 passes for 808 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s a third-team All-American by Athlon Sports for 2017 and should be the go-to target once again. He’s joined by junior Andy Isabella (62 catches for 801 yards last season) and sophomore Sadiq Palmer (nine catches) as the main pass catchers. In last year’s game, UMass threw for 342 yards on Hawaii’s secondary. The outlook for the Rainbow Warriors’ secondary is a little cloudy heading into 2017, as four key defensive backs in the rotation expired their eligibility. If Ford and Comis have time to throw, they should have plenty of passing lanes and opportunities to take advantage of downfield.
2. Hawaii’s Defense (Especially the Front Seven)
As mentioned above, Hawaii’s secondary is the team’s biggest concern on defense for 2017. But the Rainbow Warriors could alleviate some of their concerns on the back end by elevating the performance of the front seven. New coordinator Legi Suiaunoa’s group returns five starters, including All-Mountain West linebacker Jahlani Tavai and senior end Meffy Koloamatangi. Hawaii registered 24 sacks last year but ranked ninth in the Mountain West against the run. This unit also allowed 37.3 points per game and gave up 13 plays of 40 yards or more. While this group has a ways to go, the matchup on Saturday should provide plenty of opportunities for Tavai and Koloamatangi to make plays. UMass gave up 45 sacks last season and struggled to generate a push on the ground (3.3 ypc). Winning first and second downs will be critical for the Rainbow Warriors. If Suiaunoa’s defense can force the Minutemen into long-yardage situations, they should be able to generate pressure on Ford or Comis and limit the damage in big plays through the air. But if UMass has success picking up the pressure up front, Hawaii's defense will have to force turnovers - something this group only managed to do 17 times in 2016.
3. The Development of Hawaii’s Offense
Hawaii finished eighth in the Mountain West in scoring offense last year, but this group looks poised for a significant step forward on the stat sheet in 2017. Coach Nick Rolovich and coordinator Brian Smith return eight starters, including quarterback Dru Brown, a 1,000-yard rusher in Dicoemy Saint Juste and two out of the top three receivers from last year. Brown provided a spark for the Rainbow Warriors’ offense in his first year on campus and closed 2016 by torching UMass and MTSU for a combined nine touchdowns. In the 46-40 victory over the Minutemen, Brown accounted for 311 yards through the air and 44 more on the ground. Will UMass do a better job of containing Brown on Saturday night? The Minutemen struggled mightily on defense last fall, but this unit is in good hands under the leadership of veteran coordinator Ed Pinkham. After guiding Western Michigan's defense in 2016, Pinkham inherits a group that returns seven starters and has an experienced core to fill out the depth chart. But Pinkham’s defense could be a little shorthanded on Saturday, as senior lineman Sha-Ki Holines is a game-time decision due to an injury. Considering the firepower on Hawaii’s offense, as well as the ability to beat opponents through the air or on the ground, UMass needs a full complement of options to slow Brown and the Rainbow Warrior attack.
Just like last year’s matchup, expect plenty of offense. Both teams enter the opener with question marks on defense, especially when it comes to stopping the pass. The Rainbow Warriors are a team on the rise under Rolovich, and he should squeeze more production out of an offense on the verge of a breakout under Brown’s direction. The Minutemen will connect on their share of big plays, with Breneman likely to post huge numbers against the Hawaii pass defense. However, Brown and the Hawaii front seven on defense do just enough to leave Amherst with a victory and plenty of good vibes for the long flight back to Honolulu.