Perspective is important. After Louisiana Tech dropped Hawaii quarterbacks for an astounding 9 sacks in the Hawaii Bowl in route to a disappointing result for the Warriors, it would be easy for fans to be upset. We often put too much weight on bowl results heading into the coming off-season, so let’s take a spin back to the 2018 off-season to remember where the status of Hawaii football was.
Hawaii concluded the 2017 season in bitter fashion, losing at home convincingly against a Brigham Young team that was having its worst season since the cold war. The overall mood was not positive considering UH had entered that season with high expectations coming off a 2016 season that featured Hawaii’s first bowl berth in nearly six years.
The bad news didn’t end with the final whistle of the 2017 season. In February, quarterback Dru Brown would elect to transfer to Oklahoma State. He wasn’t the only one, with standouts like wide receiver Dylan Collie and defensive tackle Viane Moala also electing to transfer. The transfer exodus would eventually lead to frustration from head coach Nick Rolovich when he made national headlines for calling out Oregon State for recruiting players on the Hawaii roster. Key players transferring after a disappointing 3-9 season shifted the mood drastically among fans. Expectations plummeted, and were validated in the summer when Vegas listed Hawaii’s preseason over/under win total at 3.5 (13 game schedule). Nothing screams , “I’m ready for football!” like neutral experts projecting 3-10 and 4-9 as the most likely regular season records for the home team. /sarcasm
What transpired from the Week 0 opener against Colorado State through the end of the season knocked those pessimistic expectations out. Now, nobody is claiming it was perfect. This wasn’t 1992 all over again, but Hawaii was left for dead in the preseason. Taking a step back and looking at the entire predicament for what it is, it’s fair to say Hawaii outperformed expectations at 8-6.
Where negativity stemmed from losing and transfers, Nick Rolovich countered that by announcing some welcome news for Hawaii fans: the run-and-shoot offense, the offensive system that put Hawaii football on the map from 1999-2011, would return starting fall 2018.
This news came at the perfect time, with Saint Louis star quarterback Chevan Cordeiro set to arrive in the summer after signing with Hawaii the previous December. The local product was molded by the run-and-shoot offense in high school, working under Hawaii high school football legend Cal Lee. Some felt the starting job was Cordeiro’s to lose, but an unexpected star would emerge from an unlikely candidate: redshirt sophomore quarterback Cole McDonald.
McDonald was perceived to be more of a dual-threat quarterback that preferred to run, essentially for the RPO-based offense that he was initially recruited for before Rolovich switched things up with the run-and-shoot. Would McDonald fit in this new system? On paper, skepticism seemed warranted, but McDonald would shelve that debate with a stellar performance in the opener against Colorado State. McDonald torched the Rams for 418 passing yards and 96 rushing yards, leading Hawaii to a surprising 43-34 win. With the Hawaiian islands on one side of the new black helmet, Hawaii reverting back to their run-and-shoot era uniforms, Hawaii football was back.
Wide receiver John Ursua would dominate all of 2018, but the infusion of junior college wide receivers Cedric Byrd and JoJo Ward, the Warriors were tossing the ball all over the rock. The team’s 6-1 start masked defensive issues by lighting up every defense they faced. McDonald spun the ball, the wide receivers made plays, and running backs Fred Holly III and Dayton Furuta kept defenses honest. The Warriors offense and strong start even had Hawaii earning votes in the Top 25 polls.
Then things got weird. In a winning effort for the Paniolo Trophy, Hawaii beat the Wyoming Cowboys 17-13 being led by...Chevan Cordeiro? The move caught fans and onlookers by surprise. Nick Rolovich implemented some tomfoolery into the pregame, using an imposter to confuse the visitors from Wyoming. Cordeiro struggled, but did shine with a game-winning thriller of a pass to JoJo Ward.
#HawaiiFB 's version of "The Catch"...Chevan Cordeiro to JoJo Ward game winning TD! - First career start, first career (2) touchdowns & first career win! #Clutch #HawaiiFB #LiveAlohaPlayWarrior pic.twitter.com/E2UenN8lon— Hawaii Football (@HawaiiFootball) October 9, 2018
Still, the question remained: why did Cole McDonald miss the game? Whatever mysterious illness or injury, Hawaii would travel to Provo, Utah the next week to take on rival Brigham Young. At 6-1 and receiving poll votes, the Warriors were amped. The hype train would come to a screeching halt, as the offense would slow down in those coming weeks against BYU, Nevada, Fresno State, and Utah State. Hawaii would lose four straight going into the bye. Were defenses figuring out the run-and-shoot offense now that they had tape to study? Was the competition just more difficult? Whatever the excuse, Hawaii’s torrid pace on offense stopped.
There were more twists to come for the offense. Coming off the bye in the home finale vs. UNLV, the offense staggered through three quarters, only scoring 13 points vs. the hapless Rebel defense. Nick Rolovich would pull...yes, pull...starting quarterback Cole McDonald in favor of Chevan Cordeiro. From there, Cordeiro would work his magic.
Cordeiro would rally Hawaii from 13-28 down to beat the Rebels 35-28, scoring 22 points in the fourth quarter. In the process, locking up a bowl berth. Was a quarterback controversy brewing for the Warrior offense? The following week, Nick Rolovich faced a complicated decision. Sure, Cordeiro had played well, but McDonald had been excellent in his debut season. An added element was that the new redshirt rules allowed teams to redshirt a player if he appeared in 4 or fewer games. Cordeiro sat on 3 appearances entering the regular season finale. McDonald would get the start and immediately seize the quarterbacking momentum back from Cordeiro, rallying Hawaii to what was arguably the best win of the Rolovich era to this point.
The go-ahead, game-winning overtime touchdown from Cole McDonald to JoJo Ward. Is there any pass @YeahJoe_ can't catch? Catch full game highlights from @HawaiiFootball's win over San Diego State tonight on The @RolovichShow at 10:30 p.m. on KGMB! pic.twitter.com/v5X7hFBqge— Nick Rolovich Show (@RolovichShow) November 26, 2018
Surely this tremendous result would end the drama on offense, right? McDonald would unquestionably be the starter in the bowl game vs. Louisiana Tech, correct?
First, wide receiver John Ursua would be ruled out prior to the game with an injury. McDonald would start against the Bulldogs, but Hawaii then substituted in Cordeiro in the first half. Both QBs would share the workload (which consisted of being sacked over and over) for four quarters, leaving fans to believe that somehow, despite an excellent season on offense, a quarterback controversy would extend into the off-season. It’s undoubtedly the headline of the spring: McDonald vs. Cordeiro.
For now, Hawaii must appreciate the contributions of several offensive talents. McDonald finished the season with 3875 passing yards, 36 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions. The offensive line played well at times but ended with an awful performance against a nasty Louisiana Tech defensive line, but Solo Vaipulu and Ilm Manning handled the tremendous pressure of starting as true freshman as well as one could hope, Vaipulu receiving honorable mention for conference honors. Ursua was tremendous in what ended up being his final season for the Warriors, finishing first-team all-conference with 1343 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches. A ridiculous stat line. His presence will be missed in 2019, but Cedric Byrd and JoJo Ward’s stellar debuts as juniors should soften the blow.
Bottom line for the 2018 Hawaii Warriors offense: the run-and-shoot is back and while not perfect by any measure, still beats whatever you want to call the 2017 offense. The arrow is pointing up.
Change was coming for the Warrior defense, whether they wanted it or not. Defensive coordinator Legi Suiaunoa would pack his bags and leave for Oregon State, leaving Hawaii in need of a new defensive coordinator...again. Roloich would hire Saint Louis grad Corey Batoon away from Florida Atlantic. The Warriors did receive good news with the return of linebacker Jahlani Tavai for his senior season, but the task ahead would be daunting for the Warriors. The Warriors would return only five starters on defense, the situation on the defensive line being pretty stressful, forcing true freshman Blessman Ta’ala into starting at nose tackle. Batoon would have to rely on linebackers Solomon Matautia and Jahlani Tavai, and cornerbacks Rojesterman Farris and Eugene Ford for experience.
The offense’s epic turnaround from 2017 was not replicated by the defense. Hard to blame them, the unit was incredibly inexperienced and in some scenarios, just plain not good. In the first few weeks of the season, Hawaii would concede 34 to Colorado State, 41 to Navy, 29 to Rice, and 41 to San Jose State. This wasn’t a problem at first, because in classic run-and-shoot fashion, the offensive explosion would mask the defensive issues in the win-loss column. That wouldn’t last, as Hawaii would concede 49 points to a Brigham Young offense that scored 27 points total in its two previous games. The following week, the Cougars would score only 6 points at home against MAC foe Northern Illinois. Run, pass, it didn’t matter: offenses were having their way with the Warrior defense.
Prior to the bye week, Hawaii would concede 50 points on the road to Fresno State, then 56 points at home to Utah State. The Aggies would score 28 points in the first and third quarters, but attempt to chill on running up the score. There is no sugarcoating it: Hawaii gave up points and yards in bunches in 2018. The Warriors concluded 2018 101st in total defense, ranking 106th in rushing defense, and 77th in passing yards allowed.
You get it. Overall, things weren’t good. If Hawaii wants to genuinely contend for a Mountain West championship in the future, this problem will need to be rectified. That said, here’s some positive moments from this unit:
-Considering how dominant Army was in 2018, holding the Black Knights to 28 points was actually not bad.
-All hope appeared to be lost for a bowl game vs. UNLV. Cordeiro was magical, no doubt, but his comeback required the defense is stiffen up against Armani Rogers and co., and they did! A pair of 4th-and-1 stops were required for the comeback, and the defense deserves recognition for that stellar fourth quarter.
-Over the years, the San Diego State Aztecs have bulldozed the Warrior defense with their vaunted running game. It wasn’t always pretty, but the defense forced enough stops to cap off a special win in San Diego.
Game. Over. Hawai’i wins!!!— Hawaii Football (@HawaiiFootball) November 25, 2018
All that said, let’s keep it real: this defense took its lumps in 2018. Typically, if a defense is poor, one way to mitigate the issue is to be good at forcing turnovers, at the very least. The Warriors ranked 116th in turnovers gained this season. Their efforts were good enough for an 8-6 record in 2018, but with a much more daunting schedule in 2019, this unit needs to improve in the off-season. Offense can make a team relevant, but defense wins championships.
This seems to be the case for most programs, but special teams were a mixed bag for the 2018 Warriors. However, one of the biggest problems for teams is the kicking game, and that was not a problem for Hawaii. Kicker Ryan Meskell finished tied for 20th nationally in field goal percentage at .833, making 15/18 kicks. Punter Stan Guadion averaged 40.8 yards per punt, good for 107th nationally. Hawaii isn’t big on punting, though. Hawaii took the approach many programs elected for with the new fair catching inside the 25 yard line rules and settled for the ball at the 25, so there was no real impact in the return game.
The leading kick returner was Cedric Byrd, and he ranked 215th nationally among kick returners. Justice Augafa ranked 76th nationally in punt return yardage. Bottom line: while special teams might not have been a huge asset for the Warriors, it wasn’t a major hindrance either. Biggest area they might want to improve on how 2019 is punting. Overall, not standing out isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The positives aren’t plenty, but neither are the negatives.
@ Colorado State W 43-34
Warriors opened the season with a big win in front a national audience. Despite being heavy underdogs, the Warriors unveiled the run-and-shoot offense in style storming the Rams defense in route to a 37-13 lead late in the third quarter. Rams staged a furious comeback that came up just short.
vs. Navy W 59-41
The party continued for the Warriors in their home opener against a strong program in the Navy Midshipmen. JoJo Ward victimized the Midshipmen defense as Hawaii led 38-14 at half, and for the second straight week the Warriors held off a comeback from their opponent.
vs. Rice W 43-29
The Warriors would start the season 3-0 for the first time in years, defeating the Rice Owls, albeit not as impressively as the first few games. Fred Holly III rushed for 100 yards on the day. Defense failed to dominate one of the worst offenses they would see all season.
@ Army L 21-28
Hawaii made a trip that few programs will ever be able to relate to, travelling all the way to West Point to face the Black Knights. Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins would dominate the ball, leading the Knights to an insane 41:18-18:42 time of possession edge. Hawaii nearly tied the game on its final drive, but stalled in the red zone.
vs. Duquesne W 42-21
The Warriors came into the Duquesne contest in a rare situation: absolutely massive favorites. As high as 40-point favorites for some, Hawaii would only lead 21-14 at half, looking a tad sluggish coming off a trip to the East Coast. Hawaii would separate themselves from the Dukes in the second half.
@ San Jose State W 44-41 5OT
In what might have been the game of the season, Hawaii went toe-to-toe with San Jose State in a five overtime thriller. Both team’s kickers would trade made and missed field goals in overtime, Hawaii’s Ryan Meskell emerging the winner of that battle.
vs. Wyoming W 17-13
After enjoying a drama-less start to the season, Hawaii faced adversity in the form of Cole McDonald missing action due to undisclosed reasons. True freshman Chevan Cordeiro would make his debut and struggle vs. the daunting Cowboys defense, but Hawaii’s defense would keep the poor Cowboys offense in check. Cordeiro’s game-winning bomb to JoJo Ward was one of the highlights of the season.
@ Brigham Young L 23-49
The reality check game. After starting the season off 6-1, well enough to be receiving Top 25 votes, the Warriors were destroyed by the ground game of the Cougars. Down 28-3 at half, the Warriors offense arrived in the second half, but by then it was far too late. The losing streak begins.
vs. Nevada L 22-40
Hawaii would look to get right at home vs. a Nevada team that derailed the Warriors 2017 season. Nevada’s 3-3-5 defense would cause problems for the Warrior offense. A 6-point game at half, a series of failed 4th down attempts by Hawaii would plague the team in what was the most bitter loss of the season to that point.
@ Fresno State L 20-50
With fights against two ranked teams on the horizon, Hawaii’s loss to Nevada had observers wondering if Hawaii’s 6-1 start might not be enough for bowl eligibility. Hawaii would prove no threat to the brutal Bulldogs, the Warriors being mauled from kickoff to final whistle.
vs. Utah State L 17-56
No rest for the weary. Hawaii, who started its season in Week 0 back in late August, had played every single week through early November. The fast-paced, Jordan Love-led Aggies were a recipe for disaster for the tired Warriors. Hawaii would be blown to bits, just thankful the Aggies weren’t hungry for 60+ points.
vs. UNLV W 35-28
After a week off, Hawaii knew what it needed to do: win the home finale vs. UNLV, clinch a bowl berth. The urgency didn’t show early on, Hawaii trailing much of the game. Down 13-28, all hope appeared lost. Head Coach Nick Rolovich made a tough decision to pull quarterback Cole McDonald in favor of Chevsn Cordeiro. Cordeiro would rally the team to a 35-28 win in the fourth quarter, clinching a bowl berth and inciting a quarterback controversy.
@ San Diego State W 31-30 OT
Possibly protecting the redshirt status of Chevan Cordeiro, Cole McDonald would reclaim his starting spot and lead Hawaii to arguably the brightest moment of the Rolovich era. Hawaii would lead the reeling Aztecs 24-14 at half, but fail to score in the second half. San Diego State would shockingly miss what appeared to be a chip shot game-winning field goal as regulation expired. Hawaii would score in overtime on a pass from McDonald to wide receiver John Ursua. The Aztecs would score immediately, but would fail on the two-point conversion looking to ice the game as Hawaii left San Diego with an 8-5 record few expected in the preseason.
vs. Louisiana Tech L 14-31
The storybook ending was not to be. Louisiana Tech and freak defensive end Jaylon Ferguson would humiliate the Warriors offense line to the tune of 9 sacks. 9!!! It appeared Hawaii expected to be overwhelmed, as they preferred to play Cordeiro more than McDonald in the hopes that Cordeiro could evade defenders. The game served as the reminder that while the 2018 season was unquestionably a positive one for Hawaii football, this team still has a long way to go.
Look Ahead to 2019
The full schedule doesn’t come out until March, but here are the 2019 opponents for the Warriors:
Aug. 24 - vs. Arizona
Sept. 7 - vs. Oregon State
Sept. 14 - @ Washington
Sept. 21 - vs. Central Arkansas
Nov. 30 - vs. Army
Conference Road Opponents: Boise State, Nevada, New Mexico, UNLV
Conference Home Opponents: Air Force, Fresno State, San Jose State, San Diego State
We will expand on this in the off-season, but briefly: Unexpected transfers aside, Hawaii is expected to return 9 starters on offense, early draft entrant John Ursua and senior wide receiver Marcus Armstrong-Brown being the two talents that exit. On defense, the Warriors will lose three starters in linebacker Jahlani Tavai, defensive end Zeno Choi, and nickel Manu Hudson-Rasmussen. That means the Warriors will return an insane 17 total starters next season, surely to rank highly in the 2019 Mountain West. That said, the losses are big ones. Ursua, Tavai, and Choi in particular were some of the team’s best players.
The quarterback battle between Cole McDonald and Chevan Cordeiro will be the single biggest headline of the off-season. No telling how Rolovich and co. will play this.
Schedule wise: the training wheels are coming off. After playing zero Power 5 opponents in 2018, Hawaii will play three Pac-12 programs, including Rose Bowl participant Washington in Seattle.
The conference play shifts in 2019. Hawaii will swap out Colorado State, Utah State, and Wyoming for Air Force, Boise State, New Mexico. Mostly a draw on that front. That said, the boost in difficulty in out-of-conference play means guaranteeing that the 2019 team improves on the 2018 team’s win total might be a tad optimistic.
Nick Rolovich and his Warriors beat expectations in 2018. Wins over the likes of Navy, San Diego State were unexpected. There were some serious downs, but overall fans must appreciate following up a 3-9 2017 season with a winning season in 2018, especially after all the negativity in the off-season.
Next step, or as Rolovich calls it, “Phase Two”, is for Hawaii to compete with the Mountain West’s best. The Warriors graduated from being bad to good, but aren’t great. They’ll need to be significantly better on defense to win 8+ games in 2019. Also, time to diversify on offense. The run-and-shoot is no longer brand new to Mountain West defenses. Teams will adjust. Is Hawaii prepared for that? Plenty of questions to cover in the coming quiet off-season months, but for now Hawaii fans can relish in the fact that the debate has shifted from, “Will Hawaii ever dig themselves out of this hole the program is in?” to “Just how good is Hawaii?” For that, Rolovich and co. should be commended.
We’ll be following all the big topics on Hawaii football in the off-season. Big thanks to all of our readers this season.