Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Hawaii

After ending the 2021 season on a seven-game losing streak, Vanderbilt will look to flip the script with a win against Hawaii.

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Arianna Santiago

Mike Wright scrambles out of the pocket during Vanderbilt’s spring game on April 16, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Arianna Santiago)

Aiden Rutman, Sports Podcast Producer

After a 273-day break, the wait is finally over: Vanderbilt football is back. The team is in Honolulu, Hawaii, to take on the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors in what should be an exciting matchup. Stakes are high as Vanderbilt will look to win their season opener for the first time since 2018 against Middle Tennessee State

The Commodores enter the game as eight-point favorites against a Hawaii team that ended last season in complete disarray. Head coach Todd Graham resigned amid a scandal, and the Rainbow Warriors saw their starting quarterback, running back, top three wide receivers and top seven tacklers all depart, whether through graduation or the transfer portal. Hawaii brought in former legendary quarterback Timmy Chang to take the head coach position and right the ship. 

This week, The Hustler takes a look at what it will take for Vanderbilt to get back in the win column and kick 2022 off on the right foot. 

Vanderbilt vs. expectations

The start to the 2021 season was, in a word, disastrous. Vanderbilt entered their matchup against Eastern Tennessee State as a 21-point favorite, but the Commodores were held out of the end zone completely, dropping their season opener by a score of 23-3. The Commodores will likely continue to struggle against the rest of the SEC this season, but it’s games like these that they simply cannot afford to fall flat in. If Clark Lea wants to prove that Vanderbilt is moving in the right direction, his team needs to be able to dominate in the non-conference portion of their schedule, especially against non-Power Five teams. 

The expectation is that Vanderbilt will win this game with ease. The Commodores can make a strong statement early in the season with a blowout win. 

Quarterback Mike Wright vs. the Hawaii secondary 

Mike Wright has officially won the starting job under center this year and for good reason. The junior quarterback showed a propensity for running the offense successfully last season, doing damage both in the air and on the ground. Wright started five of the final six games last season, posting a 115.2 passer rating in those matchups. He also threw for 177.8 yards per game and ran for 51.6 yards per game in that stretch. He added six total touchdowns while throwing five interceptions. 

Wright will start the season with perhaps the best matchup he could ask for, as he faces a Hawaii secondary that was one of the worst in all of FBS. The Rainbow Warriors allowed 290.0 passing yards per game, the fourth-worst in the nation. To compound a bad situation, the secondary didn’t improve at all. In fact, it got worse, as defensive back Khoury Bethley left for Arizona State via the transfer portal. Bethley led the team in interceptions—notching five—and added 99 total tackles and two forced fumbles. If the Commodores want to win this game, they must do their damage in the air, and it is the perfect opportunity for Wright to prove that Lea made the smart choice in enlisting him as the starter.

Vanderbilt running backs vs. Hawaii’s interior defensive line 

Running back is perhaps the Commodores’ deepest position group this season, as Re’Mahn Davis has returned from his season-ending toe injury from last year to lead the unit. Davis ran for 211 yards and a touchdown in the three games he played before going down with his injury last season. Sophomore Patrick Smith sits at No. 2 on the depth chart with Rocko Griffin Jr. at No. 3. Freshmen Maurice Edwards and Chase Gillespie round out the running back room.

Griffin Jr. and Smith both filled in nicely in Davis’s absence, rushing for 517 and 360 yards on the season, respectively. While Davis will fill in the role of lead back, expect all three to get work throughout the season.  

On the other side of the ball, two 300-pound defensive tackles in Blessman Ta’ala and John Tuitupou anchor the Rainbow Warriors defense. Both players stand above 6’2 and could pose a problem for the undersized Commodore running backs. How the battle up front settles out will be a key factor in deciding the outcome of the contest. 

The Commodores and Rainbow Warriors will kick off this Saturday at 9:30 p.m. CDT at Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex.