Game Day Preview: Hawaii vs. Fresno State

Hawaii’s Chevan Cordeiro is 64 yards away from 1,000 career rushing yards. He also ranks fourth nationally in passing yards with 1,410. (Briana Sanchez/The El Paso Times via AP)


The Bulldogs use at least three methods to lower the heat on Jake Haener, FBS’ passing leader (1,842 yards). A receiver will go across the formation — in front of Haener on a jet sweep or behind him on an orbit motion — to force a tracking defender away from the pocket. Tight ends Juan Rodriguez or Raymond Pauwels will align as a third tackle or slot blocker to seal the edge or join the caravan on pulls. The offensive line is equally efficient on pass protection and drive-pounding. “We make sure we’re two-dimensional, so people can’t just bring the same thing to us every time,” left tackle Dontae Bull said. Guards Mose Vavao and Dante Adkins have not surrendered a sack. Bull, at 6-7 and 326 pounds, is nimble — a skill developed growing up as a stretch-four in basketball. The unit provides enough time for Haener, who doesn’t need much time (average snap-to-throw is 2.5 seconds on blitzes). Haener is accurate on screens (95.5%), play-action (83.9%) and deep (54.8% on passes airborne for 20-plus yards from the line of scrimmage). Wideout Jalen Cropper (4.51 seconds over 40 yards) is a threat on jet sweeps and swing-and-sprints (team-high 39 catches, eight TDs). Running back Ronnie Rivers, who opted to return as a super senior, has produced a school-record 46 career TDs. The Bulldogs can play at an accelerated pace, with six sub-minute scoring drives, including going 75 yards on six plays and 40 seconds against UCLA.



This is the second year in defensive coordinator William Inge’s 4-2-5 scheme. Or is it a 2-4-5? Tackles Kevin Atkins and Leonard Payne each set up with a hand on the turf, while interchangeable David Perales and Arron Mosby are stand-up ends. Perales, who transferred from Sacramento State two years ago, was brought in to amplify the pass rush. Mosby is playing his third position at FS, beginning as a DB and then moving to outside linebacker. At rush end, Mosby has six backfield tackles and 10 QB hurries. Mosby often flexes wide to jam a slotback and tussle with a tight end. At 307 pounds, Atkins’ diet is quick loops, stunts and swim moves. “Funny story, when I was younger, I was a track star,” said Atkins, who competed in 200 and 400 meters. “I played quarterback, safety, d-end, tight end, everything you could think of. I ended up getting bigger as I got older. I settled on d-line, and fell in love with it,” Of Atkins’ 16 tackles, six have been for negative yards, including 4.5 sacks. Atkins considers Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones as his style model. And similar to Jones, Atkins has made cameos at end. But Atkins’ preferred spot is the interior. “That’s where the big boys get dirty,” Atkins said. “That’s where you get down. You’ve got to get your hands dirty in the trenches.”


Cesar Silva and Anthony Montano have alternated on place-kicking duties. Montano has converted all five of his FG attempts; Silva is 3-for-4. Neither has attempted a trey longer than 39 yards. Silva has forced touchbacks on 58.3% of kickoffs to Montano’s 14.3%, but the latter has made a coverage tackle. Backup linebacker Tanner Blount leads with five coverage stops.


Entering the season, there were concerns about the offensive line. Center Taaga Tuulima graduated, and left guard Michael Eletise medically retired. But all doubts were put to rest when center Kohl Levao was handed the sledgehammer to smash the victory rock last week. “Kohl has stepped up his senior year with his leadership,” head coach Todd Graham said. “I wanted to recognize him.” Levao was considered the Warriors’ top draft prospect ahead of the 2019 season. But he suffered a preseason injury, and played in only four of the final 15 games. Another injury kept him to one game in 2020. But Levao has provided a physical presence at center, his third UH position, This year, the Warriors are averaging 6.6 yards on rushes between the guards. Micah Vanterpool has played well as Eletise’s successor, and Eliki Tanuvasa, the backup center, filled in when right guard Solo Vaipulu missed two games. Right tackle Gene Pryor has relinquished one sack since the opener, and Ilm Manning has allowed no sacks in 202 pass plays. In the days leading to the early signing period in December 2017, there was heavy debate on which receivers to sign. Jason Cvercko, who was the recruiting coordinator at the time, lobbied strongly for Nick Mardner, a 6-foot-6 receiver from Canada. Mardner redshirted in 2018 and caught five passes in 2019. But he worked his way into the rotation last year, and this year has emerged as the Warriors’ top wideout. Mardner is averaging 20.9 yards per receptions. On short patterns, his yards-after-catch average is 10.3. He also is sure-handed on slants, posts and crosses, securing 14 of 17 targets to the middle. This week, he was added to the watch list of the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.


In three decades of coaching defenses, Graham is known for a two-deep coverage with the safeties and in-your-facemask cornerbacks. The shortness of breathing room allows boundary cornerback Cortez Davis and field corner Cameron Lockridge to bump receivers off their starts and eliminate the cushion on quick-cut routes. “Just getting to really smash somebody every play, and just being violent,” Lockridge said of the position’s attraction. Lockridge has allowed one TD in 29 passes thrown to receivers he was guarding. Khoury Bethley easily transitions between safety and quasi-linebacker. Up front, defensive lineman DJuan Matthew is having a breakout season. At 5-11 and 275 pounds, he is undersized compared to the prototypical rush end and underweight as a hold-the-point nose. But Matthews uses his speed and leverage to crash the backfield, amassing two sacks, two QB hits and 16 hurries. “It’s all your mental focus,” Matthews said. “If you really love the game, like Coach Graham says, you’re going to study the game. You’re going to do what you need to do to put your team in the best position to win.” Of the 27 times he was in position to make a stop, only once did a ballcarrier break free. “That just comes from the struggle,” Matthews said of his adhesive grasp. “I feel if I’m missing a tackle, then I’m missing an opportunity, so why miss tackles? I need to make every tackle I can. I’m undersized. Every tackle that comes to me, I need to make.”


As an Allen High (Texas) senior a year ago, Jordan Johnson averaged 9.5 yards per carry and 17.4 yards per catch, rating No. 21 among all-purpose backs in the 2021 recruiting class. With the rotation crowded in the backfield and at receiver, Johnson has made an impact on special teams. He has a team-high three solo coverage tackles. With an average hang time of 4.01 seconds, opponents have returned only five of Matthew Shipley’s 23 punts.

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