The University of Hawai‘i football team is officially bowl eligible after a crucial road victory over UNLV 21-7 on the ninth island. The win, which was the seventh of the season for the program, ensured that the Rainbow Warriors (7-4, 4-3 Mountain West Conference) would qualify for a bowl game for the second consecutive season. The team has played in the SoFi Hawai‘i bowl in three of Nick Rolovich’s four seasons as the ‘Bows’ head coach. But Hawai‘i might not be joining BYU in the Hawai‘i bowl just yet.
This victory sets up a rarely-seen West Division title game next Saturday at Aloha Stadium. San Diego State, who stands one game ahead of the ‘Bows in the division standings, make the trip to Pride Rock. If Hawai‘i is able to pick up a win, it would move ahead of the Aztecs in the standings with the head-to-head tie breaker, which in turn could send the team to its first conference title game in program history.
The team, which was established in 1909, spent their first 69 years as an Independent team. In 1979, they made the move to the WAC, where they were thrice named the co-champions, while winning the honor outright once. However, outside of the 1996-1998 seasons, the WAC did not employ the use of a Conference Championship game. After joining the Mountain West in 2012, Hawai‘i toiled away, never making another conference title run. However, the team has the opportunity to change that narrative next weekend after taking down UNLV.
Defense ruled the day for the ‘Bows against the Rebels. The oft-criticized unit put in a stellar performance, holding the Rebels to 235 total yards while picking up two turnovers. Both takeaways came in the form of interceptions. Junior defensive back Cortez Davis picked up his first UH interception, taking it 43 yards to the house for a touchdown. Later in the game, with UNLV driving and threatening to make it a one score game, redshirt sophomore Paul Scott made his first career interception, a clutch takeaway on the goal line.
Meanwhile, the quarterback “controversy” rages on, as quarterback Cole McDonald stepped up off the bench to lead the ‘Bows to a win. Redshirt sophomore Chevan Cordeiro started for Hawai‘i for the second straight game. He struggled this time around, tossing a pair of interceptions in the first quarter alone. McDonald was called on to take over to begin the second quarter. He finished with 211 passing yards, while also picking up 43 yards on the ground. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but he did rack up two touchdowns on the ground, the only offensive touchdowns for the ‘Bows.
His 211 yards through the air pushed McDonald over the 3,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season. He joins Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan as the only UH quarterbacks to achieve the feat in two or more seasons.
The defensive unit began their lights-out performance right from the opening kickoff, forcing a punt on each of the Rebels’ first three possessions. The game remained scoreless however, as the offense turned the ball over twice in the opening frame. After a four minute, 37-yard drive on the ‘Bows’ opening possession, Cordeiro’s throw to the end zone was picked off by UNLV for a touchback. They were forced to punt on the next possession, before junior receiver Jared Smart’s fumble made it three scoreless drives.
UNLV finally broke through with a 31-yard touchdown completion to make it 7-0 Rebels. Hawai‘i couldn’t respond, as Cordeiro threw another interception on just the second play of a 19 second drive. The Rebels returned it 35-yards for excellent starting field position, but the damage was ultimately mitigated by a 42-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide right.
Rolovich decided he’d seen enough of Cordeiro, sending McDonald into the game to start the second quarter. McDonald promptly led the team down to the red zone, with completions to receivers Smart, Jason-Matthew Sharsh, JoJo Ward, and Cedric Byrd II. McDonald also picked up two fourth down conversions with his feet, before the drive stalled out with a less successful fourth down attempt on an incompletion intended for redshirt junior running back Fred Holly III.
The next drive turned out to be much more lucrative for the ‘Bows. Hawai‘i leaned on the run game to start the drive, as redshirt sophomore running back Miles Reed and McDonald combined to pick up two first downs on the ground. McDonald followed that up with a pair of long completions to Byrd (20 yards) and Ward (18 yards) to march the ‘Bows down the field. Eventually, on third and goal on the 1-yard line, McDonald powered his way through for the equalizing touchdown.
Redshirt senior Ryan Meskell’s field goal attempt from 35-yards out was blocked to open the second half. That play kicked off a slow quarter where neither team scored for nearly 14 minutes. With a minute and a half left in the frame, Cortez Davis finally broke the stalemate with a 43-yard pick-six to put Hawai‘i up by seven.
The ‘Bows extended the lead with another McDonald rushing touchdown after a 58 play drive to open the fourth quarter. The team wouldn’t score again in the game, nor would they need to. A five minute Rebel drive to try to make it a one possession game was abruptly stopped after Paul Scott’s goal line interception. Hawai‘i promptly took off on a seven minute, 81-yard drive to run out the clock. Freshman receiver Lincoln Victor’s 42-yard jet sweep carry capped off the long drive, before McDonald took a knee twice to end the game.
The season all comes down to next Saturday, as the ‘Bows take on San Diego State for the right to play in the Mountain West Conference Championship game. Hawai‘i controls its own destiny, as a win would ensure the West division title.
The Rainbow Warriors host the Aztecs at Aloha Stadium on Nov. 23 at 6 p.m. HST.