Football is a game of inches. Mere inches can often determine the fortunes of a football team. That notion was on full display at Aloha Stadium on Saturday night. With time expiring on the clock, Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate made a valiant run for glory. Tate ultimately fell just short. 36 inches short to be exact. One yard made all the difference as senior receiver Cedric Byrd II and the Rainbow Warriors picked up a season-opening 45-38 win over Arizona.
Led by redshirt-junior quarterback Cole McDonald, the offense opened the season with strong numbers. The ‘Bows racked up 595 yards, with 436 of those yards coming via the passing game. However, those numbers were marred by turnovers. The offense was on the field for a total of 14 possessions. Of those 14 possessions, six resulted in turnovers. One could argue that Hawaiʻi played a large role in keeping Arizona within striking distance until the very end. Of those six turnovers, four resulted in Arizona touchdowns
“We had opportunities to put (the game) out of reach,” Rolovich said. “(The turnovers) kept them in the game. A lot to learn for our guys.”
McDonald was responsible for four of those turnovers, throwing four interceptions, a single-game high for him. It was not all bad news for McDonald though, as he finished with a game-high 378 yards and 4 touchdowns to ease the sting of the turnovers.
The unquestioned top performance of the game came from Byrd. He finished the game with an eye-popping 224 yards on 14 receptions for a record-tying four touchdowns. Byrd becomes just the fifth player in UH history to catch four touchdown passes in a single game and the first to do so since Chris Gant accomplished the feat in 2013. Byrd also became the first player since John Ursua in 2017 to accumulate over 200 yards in a single game.
“The coaches did a great job preparing us to read (Arizona’s) defense,” Byrd said of the offensive performance. “Everything they prepared us for, they came out and ran it, so it was easy to read what they were in.”
The first drive of the game began with plenty of excitement in the air. After winning the opening coin toss, Hawaiʻi elected to receive the ball. McDonald opened the game with completions to faces both old and new, with back-to-back completions to transfer Jared Smart and redshirt-senior Jason-Matthew Sharsh. Facing a third down with just one yard to go, the ball was handed to the team’s battering ram, redshirt-senior Dayton Furuta. However, Furuta was stuffed to bring up the team’s first fourth down of the season. Head coach Nick Rolovich’s tendency to gamble on fourth down excited UH fans all last season, and this year proved to be no different. With a fourth and short on their own 35-yard line, Rolovich sent the offense back out. McDonald was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on a quarterback dive, but an extra effort dive gave the ‘Bows a first down. The gamble ultimately proved to be fruitless, as McDonald’s deep pass attempt was picked off.
After two incompletions to start the game for the Arizona offense, Khalil Tate handed the ball right back to Hawaiʻi after ‘Bows redshirt-freshman defensive back Kai Kaneshiro came up with the tip drill interception, the first pick of his career. On the ensuing Hawaiʻi drive, McDonald continued to look for Smart and Sharsh, but it was a familiar face that ultimately broke the game open. McDonald and Byrd rekindled their lucrative connection with a 7-yard touchdown toss and catch for the first ‘Bows touchdown of the year.
Not to be outdone, the defense came up with one big stop after another, forcing the Wildcats into a three and out. After the punt, the ‘Bows offense picked up right where they left off, with a 15-yard completion from McDonald to Byrd for Hawaiʻi’s second fourth down conversion of the night. On the next play, McDonald found senior receiver JoJo Ward deep for a 39-yard touchdown catch.
The defense again held Arizona to a three and out, but the offense couldn’t capitalize as McDonald was picked off by Wildcats defensive back Lorenzo Burns. Tate took advantage of the Hawaiʻi mistake, leading Arizona down the field and putting the Wildcats on the board. Later in the second quarter, McDonald was nearly picked off again on an overthrown ball to Byrd. He made the defense pay for not picking him off, finding Byrd for a 25-yard touchdown pass.
After Arizona scored a touchdown of their own, junior transfer Melquise Stovall returned the kickoff 37 yards to set up the ‘Bows at their own 43-yard line. Another transfer receiver, sophomore James Phillips, got in on the action, catching an 18-yard pass from McDonald for his first career UH reception. The promising drive ended prematurely however, as McDonald was picked off again. A few plays later, Tate found his receiver all alone in the end zone for an easy touchdown to tie the game at 21. Determined to take a lead into halftime, McDonald found Byrd for the third time with a 35-yard touchdown pass. With the reception, Byrd moved to over 100 receiving yards in the game, the third time he had done so in his UH career. The touchdown grab also gave Byrd his first career three-touchdown game
After stifling the Arizona offense to start the third quarter, the ‘Bows offense went 78 yards in less than two minutes to add to their lead. McDonald opened the drive with a beautiful 41-yard completion to Byrd down the left sideline. Furuta later forced his way into the end zone for his third career rushing touchdown. Later in the quarter, Furuta and redshirt-junior running back Fred Holly III each had a 9+ yard carry that resulted in lost fumbles, one of which led to an Arizona touchdown, while another McDonald interception led to another Wildcat score to tie the game at 35 apiece.
To begin the fourth quarter, redshirt-freshman Chevan Cordeiro checked into the game, replacing McDonald at quarterback. The move paid immediate dividends, as Cordeiro led the team down the field for a Ryan Meskell field goal. Later, with Arizona threatening to take their first lead of the game, senior defensive back Ikem Okeke made his first career interception and returned the ball 49-yards to set up the offense in excellent field position. Cordeiro took full advantage, finding Byrd for a 30-yard touchdown catch, his fourth of the game.
“The team believes in both quarterbacks,” Rolovich said of Cordeiro and McDonald. “You can give Cole credit, you can give Chevan credit, and you have to give Craig Stutzman credit for how he’s developed these guys. They’re fully prepared when they get in the game. They believe in the system.”
On the final drive of the game, Arizona steadily drove down the field with good time management. As the clock ticked to zero, Tate took matters into his own hands. 31-yards away from the endzone and needing a touchdown to tie the game, Tate took off running. He was ultimately dragged down at the one yard line as Hawaiʻi narrowly escaped with the upset victory.
“Hawai’i football is back,” Byrd said of the statement win.
The ‘Bows return to Aloha Stadium to face yet another Pac-12 foe, the Oregon State Beavers, on September 7 at 6 p.m. HST.