The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors are trying to reel in the top spot in the West Division of the Mountain West Conference, while the San Jose State Spartans are trying to stay out of the cellar in the same division. When the two collide Saturday night to round out the Week 11 slate of games, that'll be the storyline in the conference battle at Aloha Stadium.
The Warriors roll in with a 2-3 conference record, hoping to catch the division-leading San Diego State Aztecs, who boast a 4-1 mark atop the Mountain West's West Division. They'll need a victory over San Jose State and help from a pedestrian Nevada Wolf Pack team — who are underdogs against San Diego State this week — in order to keep their division and conference title hopes alive.
Last week, Hawaii lost a tight contest with the visiting Fresno State Bulldogs, 41-38, which marked the third loss in four contests as part of its 5-4 overall record this year. That's not exactly what the Rainbow Warriors expected from this season.
Meanwhile, the Spartans roll into island life after losing at home to No. 21 Boise State 52-42 last week. It was also their third loss in four games and third-straight conference drop, keeping them mired near the bottom of the West Division standings. Only the UNLV Rebels — their next opponent — are worse off in the West, with a 0-5 division mark. The Spartans are 4-5 on the season with a 2-2 record on the road.
Of course, Aloha Stadium, where the Warriors are 3-2, isn't the easiest place for visitors to get a win because of the travel and all the island distractions. But SJSU actually owns a 13-12 series edge in Honolulu. Hawaii, which is on a three-game winning streak in the series after last year's 44-41 nailbiter, leads the head-to-head 21-19-1 overall. This year's meeting features the first battle for the Dick Tomey Legacy Trophy, which was created to salute the longtime head coach of the two programs. Tomey was 80 when he passed away earlier this year.
San Jose State at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 11 p.m. ET
Spread: Hawaii -7.5
When San Jose State Has the Ball
Watch for the Spartans to move the ball quickly and in large chunks. After all, that's what's bred success for them in victories this season — including celebrated road wins over Arkansas and Army — and it's what's hurt Hawaii's defense. San Jose State can bring that up-tempo, over-the-top attack with quarterback Josh Love at the controls. Love, a senior, has thrown for 2,793 yards and 19 touchdowns against only four picks, making him a contender for the conference's offensive player-of-the-year award. That's a pretty prestigious honor for a program that amassed just three wins in the previous two seasons.
So, yes, there's love for Love, who loves throwing to two pass-catchers in particular — junior Tre Walker and senior Bailey Gaither have both collected more than 600 yards on the season. Walker has 758 receiving yards on 49 grabs, while Gaither is the target in the endzone with 601 yards and 5 touchdowns on 35 receptions.
If the Spartans need a change of pace at quarterback, agile Nick Nash can step in. Only running back DeJon Packer has more rushing yards than Nash — 284 to 255 — on the team, but the freshman Nash is gaining nearly the same amount of real estate on 33 fewer carries than the senior Packer, so he's the real threat in SJSU's ground game.
When Hawaii Has the Ball
The Warriors will continue to throw the ball. It's just the way Hawaii works, even after an off-game in last week's home loss to Fresno State. Cole McDonald is, no doubt, one of the nation's top quarterbacks with 2,796 yards and a 25:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio on 226-of-355 passing. But he tried to force too many balls into tiny windows and overthrew too many receivers last week. Then again, his pass catchers — considered a prolific and experienced bunch with four players grabbing 40-plus receptions on the season — didn't help him enough, dropping far too many that came their way.
It's all added up to head coach Nick Rolovich suggesting the offense might be led by freshman quarterback Chevan Cordeiro — if not to start, then at least in a time-share role with the junior McDonald — against the Spartans. Cordeiro came off the bench in the final 3:37 of last Saturday's game to rally the Warriors from 14 points back only to watch Fresno State boot the winning field-goal late in regulation. It's that spark from the freshman pivot that has Rolovich thinking Cordeiro might be the man for the job to keep up a consistent offense sooner rather than later.
Regardless, the Warriors will try to forget last week's sub-par passing performance by rebounding with an aerial assault that many opponents fear. And they'll need it to keep pace in what's expected to be a shootout since San Jose State boasts similar success in the passing game.
Expect McDonald to get the start for Hawaii. After all, he's been money for most of his career, and one blip is hardly reason for panic on the Islands. But the Warriors are running out of time in the chase for division and conference crowns — plus there's bowl eligibility on the line — so Rolovich might pull the trigger on inserting his backup QB into the Week 11 contest earlier than one might otherwise believe.
They need the win — and they'll get it. But it won't come easy against a San Jose State team that's found success in rough places on the road and can keep up offensively with a dynamic Love at the helm. This should be a fun one.
Prediction: Hawaii 43, San Jose State 40
(Top photo by Terrell Lloyd, courtesy of San Jose State Athletics)