A year removed from a trip to Australia, Rice football‘s furthest road trip in 2018 is a still-lengthy flight to the Pacific to take on the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.
By far the most scenic road trip on the Rice football schedule in 2018 will come in early September when the Owls travel to Oahu, Hawaii to take on the home-town Rainbow Warriors in Aloha Stadium.
Hawaii was an offensive powerhouse under now CFL head coach June Jones, but current headman Nick Rolovich has his eyes set on revamping the offense and returning it to those glory days. The third-year headman played quarterback for Hawaii from 2000 to 2001, seeing the majority of his playing time when Hawaii’s all-time leading passer Timmy Chang went down to an injury.
Rice and Hawaii have met on the gridiron seven times, all occurring in the last 20 seasons. The two squads alternated home games from 1999 to 2004; Rice went 4-2 in those games. The teams then took a break, meeting most recently at Rice Stadium in 2014, a 28-14 victory for the Owls. What will this version of the Rainbow Warriors look like in 2018?
Hawaii was thrown for a loop when Dru Brown announced he would transfer to Oklahoma State for the 2018 season. After joining the Rainbow Warriors from the JUCO ranks, Brown threw for 2,785 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season.
Brown wasn’t perfect, but he was by far the most experienced passer on the roster. Backup Cole MacDonald had more rushing attempts last season (16) than passing attempts (nine). He’ll be in the mix with Sacremento State transfer Kolney Cassel and USC transfer Larry Tuileta.
Whoever wins the job will benefit greatly from a full season with wide receiver John Ursa. Despite missing half of the 2017 campaign, Ursa led the Mountain West in receiving yards and hauled in five touchdowns.
Outside of Ursa, the skill positions are baren. The Rainbow Warriors will have to replace their next three pass catchers and their top two running backs. The departed receivers were nothing special, but running back Diocemy Saint Juste leaves Hawaii as the No. 2 all-time leading rusher with 3,102 yards.
Sophomore Freddy Holly will be given the first crack at the starting tailback role. Blocking for him will be a bevy of JUCO transfers along the offensive line thanks to the departure of all-Moutain West left tackle Dejon Allen and starters John Wa’a and Chris Posa.
Hawaii has always prided themselves on their offense almost at the detriment of their defense. The Rainbow Warriors have allowed fewer than 32 points per game once in the last five seasons and actually showed modest improvement a year ago when they allowed 33.9 points per game (10th in the Mountain West) compared to 37.3 allowed in 2016.
Although they face the same amount of attrition as the offense, the defense could be better prepared to make big strides next season. Linebackers Jahlani Tavia and Soloman Matautia were ballhawks last season, accounting for 209 tackles, 6.5 sacks and four interceptions in 2017. Both return this year and will serve as anchors for a defense with a lot of new faces.
More JUCO transfers were brought in to reinforce the defensive line which returns just one player that saw a significant amount of playing time, Sam Akoteu. Zeno Choi, Blessman Ta’ala and Jeffrey Keene Jr. will round out the front which owns three starts between the quartet.
The secondary will have to replace a pair of safeties. The corners they do bring back were part of a unit that allowed 248.6 passing yards per game and a conference-high 29 touchdown passes. With little reason for increased optimism in the form of a stronger pass rush, the back end of the Hawaii defense could be in for another rough year in 2018.
Teams that can move the ball through the air are going to be able to beat this unit consistenly making shootouts more likely for this squad once again.