Christmas came one day early for the University of Hawai‘i football team at the SoFi Hawai‘i Bowl. Engaged in a classic bowl shootout, the game predictably came down to one scoring drive and one defensive stop. The University of Hawai‘i football team found both under the Christmas tree in a 38-34 win over the BYU Cougars.
In a game that saw two 140+ yard receivers, with another just missing out on 100 at 90, it was a relatively unknown deep threat that put the Rainbow Warriors (10-5, 5-3 Mountain West Conference) over the top. Redshirt freshman receiver Nick Mardner made just two catches in the game, with both coming within the final two minutes of the game. And without either catch, the ‘Bows would not be Hawaii Bowl victors. The first reception went for 38 yards. The second, which went for 24 yards, put Mardner squarely in the end zone for the go-ahead score. The touchdown came with more than a minute to play, which meant that Hawai‘i needed to check one more box on the late game checklist.
Defensive back Khoury Bethley took care of that. In two seasons with the team, the sophomore had never picked up an interception. That all changed tonight. On BYU’s second drive of the game, Bethley found himself in the right place at the right time, as an overthrown ball sailed into his arms. His first career interception led to a quick ‘Bows touchdown and an early 14-0 UH lead. But it was his second that (literally) sealed the victory for the Rainbow Warriors. With the team holding on to a slim 38-34 lead, and with less than a minute on the clock, Bethley jumped in front of a Zach Wilson pass, giving him his second interception of both the game and his career.
With one scoring drive, and one defensive stop, and the Rainbow Warriors found themselves lifting the SoFi Hawaii Bowl trophy.
With the win, Hawai‘i achieves its first 10-win season since 2010, and just the seventh in program history. And it only took them 15 games to get there. All kidding aside, the ‘Bows’ 15 games played also marks the longest season in program history, and it all came to a fitting end against its most storied rival.
The latest chapter in the rivalry shifted Hawai‘i's way for the first time since 2001. That last Hawai‘i also featured head coach Nick Rolovich, albeit in a very different role. The last time the ‘Bows overcame the Cougars, Rolovich led the team as its starting quarterback. Ever since that 2001 victory, Hawai‘i has fallen victim to BYU in 5 consecutive losses. This game took on the added significance of being the first bowl meeting between the two teams. Despite the loss, BYU still boasts a 23-9 all-time record against Hawai’i. But Hawai‘i can now claim a 1-0 bowl record against their rivals.
In possibly his final collegiate game, Cole McDonald shone brightest with a 493 yard 4 touchdown performance. His 493 yards were good for second best in Hawai‘i Bowl history, trailing only ‘Bows legend Colt Brennan. Perhaps more importantly, McDonald played a clean game, with his fifth 0-interception game of the season. He also accounted for the team’s only rushing touchdown, diving into the endzone on a quarterback sneak. Following the game, McDonald was named the team’s MVP, alongside BYU MVP Zach Wilson. This marks just the third time in Hawaii Bowl history that the two respective quarterbacks have both won MVP.
With the season now wrapped up, McDonald has a big decision to make. As a redshirt junior, McDonald is free to pursue the NFL draft. At the same time, he still has a season of eligibility remaining after redshirting his freshman season. Early this season, McDonald expressed his desire to return to the University of Hawai‘i for one more season. But now, McDonald holds the rare opportunity to leave UH on a high note, with a bowl victory in his pocket. Only time will reveal his decision, as McDonald admitted at the postgame press conference that even he does not yet know his next move.
Meanwhile, McDonald’s big game was aided by the aforementioned 140+ yard receivers. With game high 159 yards and 142 yards respectively, senior JoJo Ward and junior Jared Smart joined Cedric Byrd as 1,000 yard receivers this season. Hawai‘i becomes just the sixth team in NCAA history to field three 1,000-yard receivers, and the only school to do it twice. Smart also finished with two receiving touchdowns, with both coming in the first half. Senior Jason-Matthew Sharsh nearly made it three UH receivers over the 100-yard mark on the game, finishing with 90 yards and a touchdown. McDonald’s other touchdown went to Mardner.