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The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors’ ultra-fun offense is worth losing sleep to watch

Head coach Nick Rolovich’s offense is both lethal and enjoyable.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Colorado State
Hawaii QB Cole McDonald.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Most years, there’s at least one Group of 5 school that has a blistering and fun offense, puts up tons of points, and is just a delight to watch in general. Think in the mold of UCF in 2017 or Boise State pretty much any other year. The runaway favorite to fill that role in 2018 is Hawaii, one of the most watchable teams in the country.

The Bows started the year with a 43-34 win at Colorado State and a 59-41 win at home against Navy. Sophomore QB Cole McDonald, who got the job after Dru Brown transferred to Oklahoma State, threw for nine touchdowns, no interceptions, and 846 yards in those games to claim SEPTEMBER HEISMAN honors.

The Warriors were a combined 30.5-point underdog in those two fun wins. They did things like throw 34-yard touchdown passes on fourth down ...

... and mix in some new wrinkles we haven’t seen out of their run-and-shoot offense.

This Hawaii team was one of the hardest to see coming, both because of its roster composition and offensive scheme.

When two-year starting QB Brown transferred, the Warriors had to figure out a replacement. McDonald was a two-star “pro-style QB” who didn’t do much as a California high school passer until his senior year, when he threw for 2,313 yards and rushed for another 1,091.

The offensive line has four new starters, including true freshmen at left tackle and right guard and a JUCO transfer, Kohl Levao, at right tackle. Levao is one of the featured players on this team — a 6’6, 340-pound behemoth who’s aided the Warriors in building the kind of run game their offense has normally lacked. Three of the four starting receivers are JUCO transfers, and one (Marcus Armstrong-Brown) is in his second year in this option route-oriented system. Redshirt junior John Ursua was breaking out when he got hurt in 2017.

The Warriors’ run-and-shoot relies on chemistry between the QB and his wideouts (who have to figure out routes as they go) and good protection up front. With so many new and young faces at these positions, this team looked much more likely to flounder than to come out and start landing haymakers. Yet here we are.

The Bows can rip off big chunks of yardage in the passing game.

Like any spread passing team worth their salt, they love to take deep shots. They have all the standard corner-route, slot-fade, and four-vertical passing concepts that other teams of their ilk have used over the last 15-20 years to wreck opponents.

This is the four-verts play, which they call regularly and will tag with route adjustments for their receivers based on the coverage. As a result, sometimes it plays out like the QB finding the right matchup and just throwing to his guy open down the field.

They’re also willing and eager to take deep shots when you’re not supposed to take deep shots. Like, say, on fourth-and-1,:

They run a shallow/fade combo here, get a rub on the fade to create space, and take the six points. The Bows don’t want to stay on schedule or manage the game. They want to score as many points as possible. That makes them dangerous, and that makes them fun.

Some twists make the Hawaii offense even more of a blast. Have you seen the vaunted Rainbow Warriors shovel pass?

One of the most enjoyable things Hawaii does serves as a helpful constraint against teams that back defenders off to constrain McDonald. Hawaii is very good at the shovel, better than many other college teams that make you hold your breath when the QB attempts it. But it’s not just that Hawaii has good technique. It’s that the ball might go to their 5’7, 250-pound wrecking ball of a running back, Dayton Furuta.

As a linebacker or DB facing this offense, you’re trying to get depth on your drops and communicate with your teammates to make sure deep routes are covered properly.

Then you look back at the backfield and see a bunch of massive guys in green running right at you, with another one behind them toting the ball. What a scary sight.

The Bows mimic their slide protection scheme on this play, with the back helping away from the slide before executing a little spin move back to the QB to receive the ball. Then he can run behind the releasing OL. It’s a joy to watch and arguably even more devastating (though less amusing) when they run it to speedy back Fred Holly III.

Finally, Hawaii’s unique gap and QB running schemes set it apart.

Against a spread run game, many teams like to have their DEs and inside LBs take on a pulling blocker by hitting them on the inside shoulder and forcing the ball to go wide, so the RB has to turn his shoulders laterally and the spread out secondary has a chance to run to the football. Hawaii’s O-linemen have clearly been taught how to deal with those attempts to “spill” blockers and send the ball wide.

Hawaii wants to run the ball downhill and off tackle, where the treasure is typically found in a spread run game. So watch big RT Levao allow the spilling Navy LB (No. 56) to jump uselessly inside as Levao turns upfield and looks for a new target up the middle:

This forces defenses to either teach their guys to be very careful about getting their hands on the Hawaii blockers or just box the play in, rather than trying to spill it outside.

That effect is even more pronounced in Hawaii’s QB run game, which employs the same pulling tactic with the added wrinkle of running “bash” concepts, where the RB goes one direction while the QB and his blockers go in another:

Colorado State’s right DE wants to spill the ball to his right, toward the free safety. But then the pulling Hawaii RG jumps past him while the DE dives for nothing. The RG goes and clears out the FS, who was supposed to be coming free to make the tackle.

After getting gashed by that approach all day long, eventually Colorado State adjusted and had their unblocked DE look to box the ball back into the LBs and safety.

But now that FS has quite a different task on his hands, looking to fill downhill between the tackles against a square runner, rather than rugby-tackling a guy moving laterally. It works out this time, but notice the FS was still playing the edge, and Colorado State only avoided a big gain because another DL managed to work off a down block and help make a stop. Even still, the Bows got 4 yards out of the play.

The Rainbow Warriors have a lot of ways to burn you and be fun doing it.

Between McDonald’s explosive and physical style and their advanced run-game concepts, Hawaii has a considerably more potent rushing attack than you tend to find from these wide-open passing offenses. That’s going to make UH really dangerous for a lot of teams this year.