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The UH defense takes the field during the Rainbow Warriors' 63-10 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday, August 27 at the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletic Complex.

For the University of Hawai‘i football team, stopping the run has been one of the focal points for the defense.

“It’s been an emphasis since Vanderbilt, we gave up 400 rushing yards against them,” linebacker Penei Pavihi said after Wednesday’s practice. “Michigan, (New Mexico State) — it’s not so much about them, but about us.”

Hawai‘i (1-4, 0-0 Mountain West) is currently ranked 130th out of 131 FBS teams in rushing defense allowed, giving up 260.8 yards per game on the ground. The Rainbow Warriors were gashed for 357 rushing yards and five touchdowns by New Mexico State in a 45-26 loss two weeks ago.

“Most of our mistakes are why they got their chunk runs and all those big play touchdowns,” Pavihi said. “We just need to fix us and we’ll be good.”

The bye week gave the Rainbow Warriors some time to make corrections and improve skills such as open-field tackling, according to Pavihi, but UH has to prepare for another run-heavy offense ahead of them as they open conference play against San Diego State (2-3, 0-1 MW) at 4:30 p.m. HST on Saturday.

“Since Coach Rocky’s (former Aztecs coach Rocky Long) been there and now Coach (Brady) Hoke, they pride themselves on defense, running the ball, and special teams,” UH coach Timmy Chang said on Tuesday. “We got to get in there, stop the run, and understand their fits.”

San Diego State is ranked 33rd in the FBS in rushing yards per game, but last in passing yards per game with 65.6. The Aztecs fired their offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski on Sunday after a 35-13 loss to Boise State in which three different quarterbacks combined to complete two of their 16 total pass attempts. Running backs coach Jeff Horton — SDSU’s offensive coordinator from 2015 to 2019 — takes over as offensive coordinator.

“They’re going to stick to what they know, that’s just who they are,” Pavihi said. “They can’t install a new offense in one week. They might install new plays but everything’s going to be what they’re showing.”

Run-and-shoot... with a tight end?

Run-and-shoot concepts are not new in Hawai‘i, but implementing them while keeping the tight end in play might be.

“It’s easy to say that it’s leaning towards the run-and-shoot, but we still have a really good mix of things in there to utilize the tight end bodies,” tight end Caleb Phillips said about the UH offense. “(The coaches) are doing a really good job of using the personnel they have to the best of their ability and utilize certain guys in certain positions to make plays.”

In an effort to open up the passing game and with a lack of healthy bodies, UH tight end Jordan Murray was flexed out as a wideout against New Mexico State. The expanded passing game benefitted Phillips the most, as he had a career-high 138 receiving yards on eight receptions.

“I’m really excited about the direction this offense is going. Coach Chang and Coach Shoemaker have a really good plan in place,” Phillips said. “We just got to keep developing it, keep working on our fundamentals — route running, pass catching, blocking. I’m excited about it, I think it’d be a great offense for years to come.”

Brayden Schager appears to be in line to start at quarterback for the Rainbow Warriors after throwing for 261 yards and a touchdown against New Mexico State. Schager and Joey Yellen are the two Hawai‘i quarterbacks to have made starts this season.

"Whoever the coaches decide to put out there, I trust wholeheartedly,” Phillips said. “It’s obviously good that things settle down a little bit and get solidified, but all those guys can go out there and ball.”

Hawai‘i also gets wide receivers Zion Bowens and Chuuky Hines back from injury, which helps supplement a UH offense going up against an Aztec defense that historically, has been one of the top defensive units in the Mountain West.

“They do a lot of different choices up front and can do a lot of good things on the back end,” Schager said. “They’re known for having great defenses from all the way back, so it’s a good challenge for us. We just have to execute our offense and more than anything, worry about us.”