Dave Reardon: Hawaii kept swinging all the way to the end

Aug. 27—When Hawaii played Vanderbilt to open last season, we saw an evenly matched first quarter of competitive football. Then the rest of it was dominated by the visitors from the SEC.

This time, the Warriors were in it until the last 103 seconds, as the host Commodores ran out the clock and escaped, 35-28.

We've always been told there's no such thing as a moral victory in football, that a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But, after the sting of dropping one they had many chances to win fades a bit, second-year head coach Timmy Chang's team can eventually add an e, and call this a morale victory.

Or, look at it this way: This will be a lot easier to build from than that 63-10 train wreck that started Chang's debut campaign a year ago.

UH was crushed by Vanderbilt in 2022 largely because when things started to go wrong, nobody made them right.

This time, the Warriors still made plenty of mistakes, but they picked each other up after some crucial miscues that could have been game-over. They didn't look around for somebody else to do something to stop the bleeding.

This time they punched back.

They were error-prone throughout the game, but they also never stopped making big plays to stay in it, to keep it competitive.

I doubt UH still looks like a team destined for 10th in the 12-team Mountain West to very many who watched all of Saturday's game.

Roman Harper was asked afterward what Vanderbilt can take away from its Week Zero win.

"When you get turnovers, you can win games," said Harper, an analyst for the SEC Network.

Obvious, sure ... but so very true.

Harper knows this from playing in hundreds of high school, college and NFL games. One of them was when he was an all-conference safety at Alabama in 2003, and the Tide lost ... at Hawaii. The Warriors won 37-29 partly because their defense generated three turnovers to one by the Tide.

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And turnovers were the difference Saturday between Vanderbilt and Hawaii. The Commodores made none and the Warriors two. It's not impossible to win if you lose the turnover battle, and two giveaways can sometimes be the cost of doing business with a successful run-and-shoot offense.

But, it's often a matter of where and when they happen, and on Saturday they were both crucial.

Brayden Schager was intercepted twice, both times by De'Rickey Wright. Once was in the end zone, after the Warriors had driven to the Vandy 1 with UH behind 21-14 in the second quarter. The other sealed the 'Dores win, coming with 1:43 to go and Hawaii — with no timeouts but plenty of momentum — needing a touchdown to complete a 21-point, fourth-quarter comeback.

Other than that, Schager was great. He completed his first eight passes, and was 27-for-35 for 351 yards and three touchdowns in his first game at the helm of Chang's run and shoot.

Hawaii wasn't overwhelmed this time. Yes, there's still plenty of improvement needed, especially on special teams, if UH is to upset Stanford in Friday's home opener. (The Cardinal opened as 9-point favorites; that's down to 7.5 after Saturday's game.)

The Warriors defense had many fine moments, but also missed opportunities. The biggest was late in the third quarter with Vandy operating from its own 13.

Caleb Brown positioned himself perfectly to intercept an AJ Swann pass for what would have resulted in a UH touchdown and made it a one-score game. But Brown dropped the ball, and on the next play Swann scrambled to complete a 41-yard pass; an on-field ruling that he had passed beyond the line of scrimmage was overturned.

That drive continued and resulted in Vanderbilt's last score, 12 seconds into the fourth quarter, making it 35-14.

It set up a display of what the run and shoot can accomplish in a short amount of time, and the Warriors really were still in it, until that decisive interception.

"Hawaii fought," Commodores coach Clark Lea said. "We knew they would. And hats off to Timmy and his crew. That's an improved group; made a long trip and they made it really hard for us."

It sounds like typical coach-speak, but this time it really means something. Unlike last year's game, when things went bad for the Warriors on Saturday they kept fighting back. This time, it was the losing team that gained confidence with nearly every play.

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