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Oct. 3—Against long odds and in an on-campus stadium without fans, the University of Hawaii football team produced a dramatic Manoa Valley theater performance.
Quarterback Brayden Schager, who participated in his high school graduation ceremony four months ago, guided the Rainbow Warriors to Saturday night's 27-24 upset of 18th-ranked Fresno State at the Clarence T.C. Ching Complex.
For the third consecutive home game, a state emergency order barred UH from hosting a fan-attended sporting event. But a national television audience saw Schager, an understudy to No. 1 quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, lead three scoring drives in the final 12 :06 to vaporize the Bulldogs' 24-10 advantage.
"I don't know if we've had a better win, " said Todd Graham, in his second season at UH of a 30-plus-year coaching career. "Amazed by the heat these guys played with."
The Warriors, who were installed as 11-point underdogs, learned on Tuesday that Cordeiro would not be available because of ailments suffered in last week's road victory over New Mexico State. In a team meeting in which players swore to cross-their-heart secrecy, it was announced the offensive keys would be handed to Schager, a freshman from Dallas.
"I was pretty nervous going into it, " Schager admitted. But he was encouraged with a game plan that would emphasize the run against the Bulldogs' six-man box, a promise of security from the offensive line, and the we-got-your-back assurances from the UH defensive players.
"We had faith in Brayden, " linebacker Quentin Frazier said. "We knew we could help, as a defense, to play fundamentally sound and just do what we know we can do."—RELATED :
The Bulldogs countered with a balanced but explosive offense. In the first five games, they had six one-play touchdown drives. Jake Haener entered the week leading the FBS in passing yards on 73.1 % accuracy. The Bulldogs also defeated UCLA, which smoked the Warriors in week zero.
"We believed in ourselves, " Frazier said. "Even in our losses, we knew we had a chance to win if we brought it all together and stayed together."
The Warriors suffered a setback on the opening kickoff when cornerback Cameron Lockridge was injured on the coverage. Lockridge, who defends wideouts on the wide side, was named the Mountain West Conference's Defensive Player of the Week for his scoop-and-score and interception against New Mexico State. Hugh Nelson II, a transfer from Georgia, was the replacement at boundary cornerback.
Graham, who calls the defensive plays, showed an alignment in which the corners pressed Fresno State's wideouts, and Eugene Ford, Kai Kaneshiro and Khoury Bethley set up in a three-safety formation. But then Bethley, who was in the middle, had the all-direction options to move into the tackle box, defend the flats or blitz. "Coach Graham does a great job of getting me around the ball to make plays, " Bethley said.
Bethley made two interceptions and forced Haener to lose possession on a strip-sack. In all, the Warriors created six takeaways—the most since the 2013 game against Fresno State. Haener finished 28-for-50 for 388 yards. Zane Pope caught five passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns, including a 65-yard pass play. Haener was sacked twice and intercepted four times—the last on the Bulldogs' final possession.
Matthew Shipley's 33-yard field goal put the Warriors ahead 27-24 with 3 :33 to play.
Then it was Haener's turn to respond. With a succession of quick out passes, the Bulldogs advanced just outside the UH 10. Haener threw a pass that ricocheted off wideout Ty Jones. The football then sailed toward Nelson.
"I saw the ball, and it was all instincts, " said Nelson, who intercepted at the UH 3 with nine seconds to play. "We were gassed on the last drive. It was a way to pull it out. So tired. It was a battle all game. We had to make a stop."
Despite adventurous run-out-the-clock plays, the Warriors managed to secure their first victory over a ranked team since defeating Nevada in 2010.
Bethley was handed the sledgehammer to break the celebratory rock, but it was Schager who had the break-through performance. Schager completed four of his first six passes to stake UH to a 10-0 lead. But then he struggled with his connection, completing 20 % on his next 15 throws. During one stretch, running back /receiver Turner took snaps as the wildcat quarterback to give Schager a break.
"I kind of got out of rhythm a little bit, had my footwork messed up, " Schager said. "I couldn't take advantage of those deep throws."
But Schager said the offensive linemen, receivers and backs were "telling me to keep going the whole time, and it really paid off."
Down 24-14, Schager appeared to focus on his go-to receivers—Turner and Nick Mardner—on the left side. Then Schager threw to tight end Caleb Phillips crossing into daylight on the right side. Schager's pass was true, and Phillips completed the 26-yard scoring play to close UH to 24-17 with 12 :06 to play.
After Fresno State's ensuing possession stalled, with Ford defending on the incomplete fourth-down pass, the Warriors drove 60 yards to tie it. The final 18 yards came on Turner's acrobatic catch in which he managed to land with his right foot inbounds on the left side of the end zone.
Bethley's sack on a backside blitz freed the football from Haener. Defensive end Jonah Laulu recovered at the Fresno State 44 with 6 :27 to play. Schager then led the Warriors on a 28-yard drive punctuated with Shipley's tiebreaking field goal.
When Schager was 10, he was nearly perfect in predicting ESPN's 2013 NCAA Tournament basketball pool. Of Saturday's game, Schager said, "I go into every game thinking we're going to win. I had 100 % confidence in our guys. I absolutely predicted we were going to win this."—For more Hawaii football, visit the.