I've been trying to think of the best way to express this thought I keep having about Thursday night's opener at Aloha Stadium. This game feels somewhat akin to what Jon Embree wanted 2011's contest in Honolulu to represent. He referred to that match up as a potential "brick" game, one to build a foundation on and to set a new tone with. That result didn't come to pass, but four years on, after hitting the hard reset button and keeping it firmly depressed, the Colorado program finally has the foundation and the depth it lacked back at the dawn of its Pac-12 history. Now, this team comes to the Islands prepared to make a confident, and critical, first step.
Colorado's Defense vs. Hawaii's Offense
We'll start here, as this matchup will prove the most intriguing in the game's early stages. As I wrote last week the Buffalo defense comes into this season with quite a lot to prove. They have an immediate opportunity to make a statement against what promises to be a pass-centric attack led by USC transfer Max Wittek and new offensive coordinator Don Bailey.
Last year in Boulder, the Rainbow Warriors were stifled offensively. Quarterback Ikaika Woolsey was ineffective through the air, eventually being replaced twice over and Hawaii struggled to gain any consistency on the ground. It was Colorado's most complete defensive performance and one of the Warriors' worst offensive showings. The Buffs won't learn anything watching film of that team however, as Norm Chow has completely revamped his offense beginning with the hiring of Bailey.
Previously at Idaho State for four seasons, Don Bailey's teams kept the ball airborne longer than it was ever touching the ground. They led FCS in passing yards per game (348) and were sixth-best in scoring offense (40.3 PPG) while putting up some of the highest pace numbers in all of college football. Chow may be getting up there in years but he knows offensive brilliance when he sees it. The Warriors' attack will look night and day different from last season, and you can bet on Wittek hurrying the pace and racking up 40-50 pass attempts.
Fortunately for the Buffaloes, their greatest strength lies in their secondary. Returning talents Kenneth Crawley and Chidobe Awuzie will draw the outside assignments, covering returning starters Quinton Pedroza and Marcus Kemp. Both are dangerous but I anticipate Wittek encountering some difficulty in getting them the ball. Tedric Thompson and Ryan Moeller will be patrolling the middle of the field, keeping an eye on freshman slot receiver Dylan Collie (of Austin Collie fame) and looking to finally create some turnovers.
While Hawaii will likely be looking to pass first, push the pace, and ask questions later, they will also try to test Colorado's notoriously leaky run defense, especially if it's raining at game time. This is where the Buffalo linemen and linebackers can really begin to prove that progress has been made. If the front seven can cause some amount of havoc at the line of scrimmage, slow down junior running backs Diocemy Saint Juste and Steven Lakalaka, and force the Warriors into obvious passing downs this unit should be able to hold Hawaii's offense to mediocre and manageable levels of production.
Colorado's Offense vs. Hawaii's Defense
The strength of Hawaii's defense resides in their linebacking corps, and to a lesser degree their secondary. They return five starters across those two units, highlighted by senior linebacker Julian Gener, junior safety Trayvon Henderson and senior defensive back Ne'Quan Phillips.
The Rainbow Warriors were about average across the board defensively last season but the one area they truly excelled in was their red zone defense, and that strength was evident in Boulder last year as they held the Buffs scoreless in the second half. I don't expect the 'Bows to keep Colorado out of the end zone so effectively this go around, for a couple of reasons. Hawaii loses three of their most important down linemen coming into this season, I expect them to have difficulty putting consistent pressure on Sefo Liufau. This is also a perfect opportunity for Colorado's offensive linemen and tailbacks to prove they're ready to account for more production. Hawaii's linebackers will prove a stiff test, it will be a very positive sign if the Buffalo ball carriers are reaching the second level frequently.
Everyone knows about Colorado's aerial attack coming into this season, the big question is who will stand out game to game. (Although the bigger question on Thursday night might be how much the wet conditions will affect this passing game.) When asked about all of the attention Nelson Spruce will receive, Shay Fields, Devin Ross, and the other Colorado receivers are practically salivating when they say they can't wait for Spruce to get keyed on. It's cliche but this really is a pick your poison scenario. Fields, Ross (Devin is unproven but does possess the athleticism and speed to be a game changer), Bryce Bobo and Donovan Lee can all stretch the field and are capable of beating man coverage deep. But, to divert resources away from Spruce is to almost guarantee he'll get the ball in space. I expect Liufau and his receivers to pick up where they left off last season and to put together a solid opening performance, weather permitting.
Herein lies the true wild card, a phase of the game that we really have no idea about at this point and if the clouds open up forget about any sense of normalcy. The Buffs possess three unproven kickers, one being true freshman punter Alex Kinney, and the other two being placekickers Diego Gonzalez and Chris Graham. Kinney has the leg, he'll need to build his confidence and improve his timing in his first few college starts. Gonzalez has been named the starter to begin the season as he's proven to have the bigger leg, the question is whether or not he can become consistently accurate. Kicking at sea level, on the road, in a wet environment will be a very tall task right out of the gate.
For Hawaii, the player they may miss most this season is Scott Harding. (I think we'll all miss watching him play.) Harding was almost a defense (and an offense) unto himself for the Warriors, averaging 41 yards per punt and placing Hawaii second in the country in punt efficiency. Thus the Warriors were usually working with a field position advantage, it will be interesting to see how effective new punters Rigoberto Sanchez and Alex Trifonovich can be in game one. Pedroza and Collie will be doing the return work to begin the season, they should prove a substantial first test for Toby Neinas' coverage unit.
Ultimately, for Colorado this game comes down to how well they're able to pressure Wittek and defend the run and whether they themselves can effectively move the ball on the ground. If conditions aren't slippery, I'd expect the Colorado offense to get most all of what they want through the air. If things are wet, this one will stay close and possibly turn on a special teams miscue or a timely turnover. I think Colorado's offense outdoes Hawaii's attack and the Buffaloes make their opening statement, winning this one 38-27.