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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with Mountain West Connection

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Mountain West Connection’s Hawaii expert, Bryan Doyle, provides his takeaways from the Warriors’ loss to Cal, discusses the effect of Hawaii’s insane travel schedule, breaks down Hawaii’s matchups with Michigan, and produces a score prediction in our Q&A.

Hawaii v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

September has arrived, which means Maize n Brew’s Behind Enemy Lines feature has, too! Each week, we will interview a reporter or analyst that covers Michigan’s upcoming opponent to get the inside scoop on what the Wolverines should expect.

On Saturday, Michigan kicks off its 2016 season against Hawaii — a program that the Wolverines have faced two previous times, winning both games. You probably are already somewhat familiar with the Warriors. You may have watched their 2016 debut against California last week or read Trevor Woods’ introduction of them yesterday. But, today, we will dive even deeper and discuss Hawaii with Bryan Doyle (@bryanmdoyle), who covers the Warriors for Mountain West Connection (@MWCConnection) — SB Nation’s Mountain West Conference site. We asked Bryan whether Hawaii fans believe first-year head coach Nick Rolovich is the right man for the job, what his takeaways were from the Warriors’ loss to California, how much Hawaii’s insane travel schedule will affect them this week, how Hawaii matches up with Michigan, and what he predicts will be the final score. Bryan provided some great insight. Check it out!

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Maize n Brew: Hawaii reached a peak under June Jones when the Warriors were 23-4 in 2006 and 2007 and nearly completed a perfect season in 2007. However, Jones surprisingly left for SMU thereafter, and Hawaii began to descend slowly under Greg McMackin (29-25) before free-falling under Norm Chow (11-39). Why did the bottom fall out for Hawaii? Do Warriors fans believe that former Hawaii quarterback and offensive coordinator and now first-time head coach Nick Rolovich is the man to bring them back?

Bryan Doyle: First, thank you for having me as a guest on your site.

When I first arrived at UH as freshman in 2005, I had no idea the highs I would soon experience thanks to June Jones and a JC transfer named Colt Brennan. Like all good things, it had to end though. Jones left for a school that could actually afford to put soap in the showers, and Brennan had a very brief stint in the NFL. Ultimately, Jones caught lightning in a bottle. He ran a pass-happy spread offense before college defenses fully caught on, was able to keep a lot of Hawaii’s top recruits on the island, and brought in two top-level talents in Brennan and Davonne Bess, both of whom were only available due to past legal troubles. McMackin seemed like a logical hire at the time and brought a sense of continuity, but he failed to identify and recruit the level of talent Jones’ staff routinely brought in. By the time Chow entered the picture, the cupboard was pretty bare and the talent that was left did not fit Chow’s pro-style offense. Despite his reputation, Chow could never recruit or groom a decent quarterback. He burned through transfer QBs and offense coordinators at an astounding pace. Needless to say, it was a frustrating time to be a Hawaii fan.

When the Chow era ended in 2015, Warrior fans were desperate to get back to the exciting video-game offense that spoiled them during the Jones era. While June was on the market and publicly stating his desire to return to his old post, the fan base was divided. On one hand, he was the greatest coach the school had ever known. On the other hand, his system had failed at SMU and it appeared college defenses had caught up to his once-innovative system. Rolovich seemed to be the perfect compromise. He had played and coached under Jones, but also spent time learning the pistol at Nevada. In addition, he was a burgeoning Twitter celebrity and successful recruiter. His laid-back and easy-going personality along with his success as a player and coach under Jones made him a popular figure on the islands. After the Chow years, Rolovich should find some leniency with the fan base if he can put points on the board and bring back an exciting offense. It’s early, but there is a lot of optimism on the islands.

MnB: Hawaii had the luxury of already playing its first game: a 51-31 loss to California last week. Did you like what you saw from the Warriors? What were your three biggest takeaways from that result?

BD: First and foremost, it has been a long time since I’ve had so much fun watching Hawaii on offense. Sure, there were mistakes, and the defense looked downright terrible. But there were also big plays, and the schemes seemed to play to the Warriors’ strengths, which is something rarely seen during the Chow era.

Takeaway #1: The new coaching staff understands how to use its personnel. Rolovich and his young coordinators have traditionally had a pass-first mentality, but after arriving at Hawaii, they declared that running back was a position of strength and adjusted the offense to utilize their deep stable of backs.

Takeaway #2: This team’s strength is the ground game. The offensive line is experienced and looking strong. Additionally, there is no shortage of talent in the backfield. After years of injury, Diocemy St. Juste showed what he can do when healthy. Steven Lakalaka complemented St. Juste’s shiftiness with his power running and added another 61 yards on 8 carries. Last year’s 1,000-yard rusher, Paul Harris, barely even got into the rotation.

Takeaway #3: The defense needs work. Good thing the offense is showing signs of life because Hawaii may need to score 40+ points week in and week out if they expect to get some wins. Depth is the biggest concern, especially on the line where UH lost its best player in Kennedy Tulimasealii. I expect to see some strong first halves, but as the line tires, teams may be able to break the games open in the fourth quarter.

MnB: Usually Hawaii racks up more air miles during the season than every other college football team. That may be the case even more in 2016, particularly in August and September. The Warriors traveled from Hawaii to Australia for the Sydney Cup against California and back to Hawaii last week before they took off for Ann Arbor, Michigan yesterday. Plus, this Saturday’s game will kick off at noon ET (or 6:00 a.m. Hawaii time). How much of an effect do you think that all of this travel (and the early kickoff) will have on Hawaii?

BD: The travel slate is downright brutal. Hawaii was 3-4 at home last year and 0-6 on the road, so playing off the island has not historically been Hawaii’s strong suit to begin with. As if it wasn’t hard enough to play Cal, Michigan and Arizona, to do it on the road (including in Australia) in the first four weeks without a bye is particularly daunting. I think most fans just want to keep it respectable on national TV and make it to conference play without injuries. Traveling to San Diego State doesn’t seem so bad when you’ve gone from Sydney to Ann Arbor. I think Hawaii will be hindered by the travel on Saturday, but Hawaii has had trouble playing off the island even when flying to California.

MnB: Hawaii's rushing attack sputtered in 2015 (106th in YPC; 109th via S&P+), but, with Diocemy Saint Juste back from injury, the Warriors moved the ball on the ground in explosive spurts against California, generating 248 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries (6.53 YPC). However, California's defense (84th in 2015 via S&P+) is not near the same caliber as Michigan's (2nd in 2015 via S&P+). What do Saint Juste and Hawaii need to do to find success on the ground against Michigan's run defense?

BD: It was great to see St. Juste finally play to his potential after three tough years that were plagued by injuries. I believe he will be the playmaker Hawaii has been missing. Yes, Cal has a terrible run defense, but a lot of credit should go to Rolovich and his staff, which built a game plan to attack that weakness. Rolovich coached under gurus of the Run n’ Shoot (Jones) and Pistol offense (Ault), so he knows how to draw up run and passing schemes that negate some of the talent gaps. I don’t expect the same amount of offensive production against Michigan’s defense, but I do expect Rolovich to adapt his game plan. Expect to see Woolsey rolling out with the option to run or pass. Woolsey is not a great downfield passer, so Hawaii has to get him going in the running and short- to mid-yardage passing game if they are to create any semblance of a multi-pronged attack that keeps Michigan from keying in on St. Juste.

MnB: Hawaii, particularly its quarterbacks, was very sloppy with the football last season. Both Max Wittek, who graduated, and Ikaika Woolsey, this year's senior starter, completed less than half of their passes, while combining to throw 21 picks to just 12 touchdowns. Add in that the Warriors put the ball on the ground and lost it 13 times, and they committed 34 turnovers in 2015 -- the third-most. It didn't get much better in this year's opener either as Woolsey completed only 50 percent of his throws and Hawaii gave up the football three times. Why have the Warriors had such a difficult time possessing the football?

BD: I think there are a couple of things that contributed to the low completion percentage and turnovers. First and foremost, Chow tried his hardest to install a pro-style passing game that relied on play action, but he did not have the personnel to execute it. Hawaii is never going to bring in the kind of receivers that consistently get open in man coverage, and the offensive line can only hold for so long. Wittek may have been a prototypical pocket passer, and, if surrounded by elite personnel, he might have been serviceable. However, he took too long to find the open man (if there even was one) and his accuracy was wildly inconsistent (we’re seeing this now in the NFL preseason).

Woolsey on the other hand was never meant to be a pocket passer. He actually was a Rolovich recruit from 5 years ago (you can read our Woolsey profile here). In the proper scheme, I believe Woolsey can complete 55% of his passes, add yards on the ground, and buy additional time with his feet. If he can do that, it will open up the offense and give Hawaii’s backs and slots a chance to make plays. Last year, defenses stacked the box and challenged Hawaii to throw down field, which led to overthrows and picks.

MnB: One of Michigan's biggest question marks will be how its offensive line opens holes for its running backs. My belief is that Michigan will want to pound the rock against Hawaii to keep pressure off of its new starter at quarterback (likely Wilton Speight). When I watched Hawaii-Cal, it seemed that Hawaii's defensive line was being shoved off the line of scrimmage consistently and particularly as the game wore on. How would you evaluate Hawaii's line and their ability to stop Michigan's running game?

BD: This concerns me a lot. Hawaii has a strong group of linebackers, but the front four is incredibly thin. I think the starting four are going to have trouble battling Michigan in the trenches. If the D can’t make some early stops, the line is going to get run down, and Hawaii does not have the depth to keep up. Even if Hawaii can keep it respectable in the first half, I’m worried Michigan may run this team over in the third and fourth quarters.

MnB: California's Davis Webb picked apart Hawaii's secondary last week, completing 38-of-54 passes for 441 yards (8.2 YPA), four touchdowns, and zero interceptions. It would be shocking if Jim Harbaugh opted to air it out that many times, even with a receiving trio of Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt. Nonetheless, what did Cal and Webb do to exploit the Warriors' weaknesses in pass defense?

BD: Hawaii’s starting safety was held out of the Cal game for breaking team rules. This hindered what was already a pretty inexperienced secondary. I think we are going to be talking about Webb as a high NFL draft pick before the season is over, but Hawaii didn’t make it very hard for him to display his talent. Going into the game, I was worried about the pressure (or lack thereof) that Hawaii could put on Webb, but they actually got in his face more than expected. It was Webb’s fast release and ability to quickly identify who was getting separation that torched Hawaii. Unfortunately, the lack of experience in the secondary and disparity in talent left Webb with multiple options when progressing through his reads.

MnB: Very few people, if anyone, are giving Hawaii any shot to upset Michigan. The spread currently favors Michigan by 40.5 points. Will the Warriors stun the Wolverines? Who wins? And what is the final score?

BD: The Warriors are going to keep this one close in the first half. Much like they did against Wisconsin and Ohio State last year, they will find a way to make some stops in the first quarter. I expect to see the offense move the ball a bit early in the game and have some success keeping their defense off the field. The second half will likely be a different story as Hawaii’s lack of depth becomes apparent. I think Michigan starts lighting up the scoreboard in the third , but run out of time to cover the spread.

I predict Michigan takes this one, 51-23.

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Well, there you have it! Bryan believes that Hawaii will put up some fight in the first quarter behind the strength of its rushing attack before Michigan overpowers them down the stretch and runs away with a 28-point win. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Bryan’s answers and prediction? Please leave your comments below.

And a big thanks to Bryan for taking the time to answer our questions. Please make sure to check him out on Twitter (@bryanmdoyle) and read his Hawaii coverage on Mountain West Connection in the lead up to this Saturday’s matchup and beyond!