There were no secrets going into the day for Hawaii football. Sitting at 6 wins this season and suffering on a 4-game losing streak, the Warriors needed one more win to become bowl eligible due to playing 13 regular season games. With a home game vs. UNLV and a season-concluding road game at San Diego State the two remaining regular season games, most would consider the home contest Hawaii’s last realistic chance at clinching a bowl berth (Yes, I’m aware the Rebels beat the Aztecs just last week).
There needed to be a sense of urgency from the Warriors, but it certainly didn’t show early on vs. UNLV. After taking a 3-0 lead early, Hawaii sputtered on offense and watched the Rebels maul them via the running game. After Hawaii trailed 3-7 headed into the second quarter, Rebels star running back Lexington Thomas dominated Hawaii, scoring two touchdowns in the quarter, one from 12-yards out and another from 45-yards. The Rebels were up 21-3 and pessimism began to sweep over Hawaii fans again. Hawaii did manage to squeak in one more Ryan Meskell field goal to close the deficit to 6-21 at halftime, but the damage was done.
Hawaii’s defense has been getting mashed for weeks, but defensive coordinator Corey Batoon made some excellent adjustments at halftime and the Warriors managed to keep the Rebels off the scoreboard in the third quarter. An option keeper from quarterback Cole McDonald from 3-yards out closed the gap to 13-21 and Hawaii was back in it headed into the fourth quarter.
Then Hawaii gave it all back. Quarterback Cole McDonald had a rough day at the office, headlined by throwing an ugly interception in the early fourth quarter. UNLV would instantly capitalize with a 16-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Armani Rogers to Evan Owens. Rebels led 28-13 and that appeared to be that.
Then the magic happened.
In a somewhat shocking move, Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich benched Cole McDonald. You don’t often see a quarterback with 3,000+ passing yards getting yanked, but that’s exactly what happened at Aloha Stadium on the evening. True freshman Cheven Cordeiro stepped into the spotlight and immediately threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver JoJo Ward.
The Rainbow Warriors are keeping things close! @HawaiiFootball is back within 7 after converting the 2-pt conversion! #MWLateNight #MWFB pic.twitter.com/c0BnSM2R0v— Mountain West (@MountainWest) November 18, 2018
After converting the two-point conversion, Hawaii was suddenly within 7 points of UNLV. No comeback would be possible without the defense stepping up, and that’s exactly what they did. After being gashed on the ground earlier in the game, Hawaii clamped down on the Rebels in the second half. Hawaii would get the ball back and the Cordeiro-to-Ward connection would prove fruitful once again. The game was tied 28-28.
TIE. BALLGAME. @HawaiiFootball and @UNLVFootball knotted up at 28. #MWLateNight #MWFB pic.twitter.com/cjKMHnttFe— Mountain West (@MountainWest) November 18, 2018
Again, it’s been a rough season for Corey Batoon’s defensive unit. In this case, they would be called upon, and once again they came up big by stonewalling the Rebels offense. Hawaii would unfathomably have a chance to take to take the lead. That’s when the Saint Louis School product found wide receiver John Ursua for a 68-yard touchdown that had Aloha Stadium shaking in a way it hasn’t in some time.
.@HawaiiFootball takes the lead! #MWLateNight #MWFB pic.twitter.com/zV7zfX7hAN— Mountain West (@MountainWest) November 18, 2018
Hawaii’s defense would stop the Rebels one more time and seal the victory, winning 35-28 over UNLV and clinching a bowl berth at 7-5 with one game remaining, likely Hawaii Bowl bound. It was far from pretty, even ugly at times (much like this game), but in the end the 2018 Hawaii Warriors did something neutral observers didn’t project: they solidified a winning record for the 2018 regular season.
NEXT UP: Hawaii will travel to San Diego State to take on an Aztecs team that has shockingly been eliminated from the West Division race.