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Navy Midshipmen vs. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors Prediction and Preview

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The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors kicked off the 2018 college football season in dramatic fashion with a shootout victory over Mountain West rival Colorado State and now return home to host Navy. Hawaii entered as a 17-point underdog but controlled the game in the first half, built a 30-point lead in the third quarter, survived a furious comeback attempt in the fourth and held on to win 43-34.

Meanwhile, Navy had an opportunity to watch the goings-on from across the country. The Midshipmen have had the trip to Hawaii circled on their calendars all winter, spring and summer while the Rainbow Warriors spent the vast majority of their time focused on Colorado State. What advantage UH may have gotten by shaking off the rust from a long offseason is likely offset by the advantage Navy gained by watching the 2018 Warriors in action and studying the film from last week, and not solely the film from last year.

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 11 p.m. ET

TV: CBSSN

Spread: Navy -10.5

Three Things to Watch

1. A contrasting yet also similar style of play

After slumping to a 3-10 record and watching his scoring offense drop from 28.3 points per game during the 2016 bowl season to 22.8 last year (and just 19.8 over the final 11 games), Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich opted to take his offense in a new (or old) direction. Remembering how the Rainbow Warriors once lit up scoreboards and set passing records, Rolovich installed the Run and Shoot offense he played in under June Jones and also coached as an assistant at the school during two separate stints.

Conversely, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has long relied on the triple-option offense he played in, and later helped coach, at Hawaii under head coach Bob Wagner. Niumatalolo’s offensive coordinator when he was a quarterback at UH was Paul Johnson, whom Niumatalolo re-connected with in Annapolis and later replaced as Navy head coach in 2007. Though Niumatalolo’s belief in the system might have cost him opportunities at a higher-profile job, it has also helped the Midshipmen become a consistent bowl team and annual contenders in the AAC West.

As different as they are on the surface — the pass-heavy Run and Shoot and the run-dominant triple option — the two offenses share some interesting similarities. The triple option is relatively self-explanatory in that it gives a quarterback three options on one play: to give the ball to a fullback, keep it and run himself, or pitch it to a slot back outside (and even a fourth if tagging a pass option as well). The Run and Shoot also gives its playmakers options, but it’s the receivers who choose a route based on the defense they see. Both are system offenses that are simple to learn but difficult to master because they force players to make a series of reads and split-second decisions. When at their best, both systems can rack up huge yardage totals and score gobs of points, and both can also help an undersized and less talented group of players neutralize opponents who are bigger, stronger and faster.

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2. The quarterbacks

The Run and Shoot and triple option both need a capable quarterback to operate smoothly, and Hawai’i and Navy appear to have found the perfect triggermen for their respective styles. Cole McDonald, an athletic, dreadlocked sophomore, exploded onto the scene in his first career start in which he completed 26-of-37 passes (70.3 percent) for 418 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Also, thanks McDonald’s running ability and Rolovich’s experience with the Pistol and run-pass option/read option plays, McDonald added 96 rushing yards and two scores on 13 carries.

Navy also found its ideal QB in Malcolm Perry, who surged to the top of the depth chart late last season because of his explosive running ability. The coaching staff is so high on Perry that it moved 23-game starter Zach Abey — who ran for 1,413 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior — to receiver. Perry attempted just two passes (a five-yard touchdown and an interception) in 12 games, but he averaged an electric 8.6 yards per carry while splitting time at slot back and quarterback. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior racked up 1,182 net rushing yards and scored 11 times on the ground.

3. Tavai or not Tavai?

Hawaii held a talented Colorado State offense to just seven points in the first half despite playing without its best defender. Jahlani Tavai, a rare defensive bright spot over the last few seasons as a two-time All-Mountain West selection, was suspended for the opener for a violation of team rules. One of the most productive linebackers in college football, Tavai amassed 124 total tackles, 11 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks for the Warriors last season.

Running mate Solomon Matautia led the team with 10 tackles against the Rams, and stand-in Penei Pavihi contributed eight stops in place of the senior, but the unit struggled in the second half and will gladly welcome its leader back into the starting lineup in Week 1. 

Final Analysis

What appeared to be a mismatch in the preseason suddenly looks like an evenly matched battle after the Rainbow Warriors’ impressive performance last week. The Run and Shoot is an early success, and McDonald emerged as the top performer of the opening weekend. The Hawaii defense, which allowed 33.9 points per game and 6.8 yards per play in 2017, was outstanding in the first half against Colorado State. However, once the dust had settled, the unit had surrendered a Week 0-worst 653 total yards — including 537 passing yards — and 8.59 yards per play.

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The Rainbow Warriors aren’t likely to be threatened through the air, but the Navy triple option rushing attack, and its maestro Malcolm Perry, could have a big day. The return of defensive standout Jahlani Tavai would offer a huge boost in the front seven for the UH defense, but the Midshipmen should score plenty. If McDonald can continue to build upon the success he forged with receivers John Ursua and Cedric Byrd (both of whom surpassed 100 yards in the opener), the Rainbow Warriors could find themselves in another shootout. However, a second straight upset may be too much to ask for.

Prediction: Navy 49, Hawaii 31 

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.

(Top photo courtesy of hawaiiathletics.com)