What a way to kick off the 2019 college football season for the Mountain West Conference.
Hawaii’s 45-38 win over the Pac-12’s Arizona Wildcats in Honolulu Saturday night had everything: offense, even more offense, touchdown passes, interceptions, fumbles, a benched starting quarterback and a game-saving tackle from a hustling 6-foot-2, 245-pounder at the 1-yard line that would have likely tied the game, sending it to overtime.
For those that missed the game, here’s a breakdown of how the Rainbow Warriors got past Arizona in what might turn out to be the most exciting college football game of 2019 — and that’s not a stretch.
Last year, Arizona was last in the Pac-12 in defending the pass, giving up an average of 269.5 yards per game. Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich knew the Wildcats struggled against the pass, and it was evident early in the game that not much improved over the offseason for Kevin Sumlin’s team, at least not Saturday night.
Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald was moving the ball almost at will, using trademarked route combinations in Rolovich’s offense to pick apart Arizona’s defense, which was getting beat in both zone and man coverage while not really coming close to pressuring McDonald, who had a clear pocket to work with most of his time on the field.
Coming into the game, some around college football thought the loss of uber-talented slot receiver John Ursua would hurt the Hawaii offense. Of course you’d like to see Ursua on the field, but Cedric Byrd proved he’s more than capable of replicating what Ursua did last year as he torched the Arizona defenders for a career-high 14 catches for 224 yards and four touchdowns.
After the game, Sumlin was blunt about how Byrd was able to rack up the production he did.
“He’s fast. I mean, really fast and he got deep on us more than a couple times and he’s got great quickness, he’s hard to tackle — he’s a good player — but they exploited us when we got into some man-to-man and he became the deep guy, I mean, he was running right by us, so he’s a good player,” Sumlin said according to espn.com.
As you can see in the below clip, McDonald — who completed 29 of 41 passes for 378 yards, four touchdowns and four picks in three quarters — and Byrd’s first touchdown connection put Hawaii up 7-0 early in the first. Rolovich loves pick plays, and this was a standard one for an easy score. The way to defend these rub routes while in man is for the defenders to communicate and pass off the receivers. That clearly didn’t happen, and McDonald threw a strike.
On McDonald’s second touchdown pass, he did a great job of looking off the safety in the middle of the field before finding JoJo Ward, who beat his man on a straight go route.
Hawaii went up 21-7 midway through the second quarter on the play below. Notice how Byrd aligns to the inside of teammate Jason-Matthew Sharsh in the formation, then the two crisscross after the snap. That’s all about trying to confuse the defense, and with two vertical routes up the field against one safety, McDonald picked the receiver that the safety didn’t go to. Touchdown.
Hawaii went into halftime leading 28-21. McDonald’s fourth scoring toss just before half was similar to his third — two vertical routes up the field from the slot against one safety. McDonald hit Byrd before Arizona’s other safety could get there.
But if you watched the game, you know it wasn’t all good for McDonald. He made many poor decisions Saturday — more than I ever remember seeing from him — and they wound up getting him benched.
Along with firing strikes all over the field and taking what the Wildcats’ defense was giving him underneath in the short passing game, the 6-4, 220-pound McDonald forced throws and tried to do way too much.
His first pick came on the opening drive that McDonald under-threw. His outside receiver, Ward, breaks off his route to the middle of the field, but McDonald seems to be eyeing the big play, and Arizona’s Jace Whittaker makes up his ground very well and gets the pick.
McDonald threw into traffic for his second interception as you can see below. Either he didn’t see Arizona middle linebacker Colin Schooler dropping into coverage, or he just thought he’d be able to throw into the tight window. Either way, it was a dangerous throw.
McDonald’s third and fourth picks were, well, I don’t know. They were both really bad decisions. I was just a guy sitting on his couch and even saw that those throws were going to be trouble.
McDonald’s fourth interception, the one that rightly got him benched, was an absolutely terrible decision. I know it was fourth-and-10, and I know Rolovich has given him the keys to the offense and freedom to be an athlete, but a quarterback can’t make this throw across his body.
That fourth interception was Hawaii’s third straight turnover — the previous two were a couple fumbles from running backs, one each from Dayton Furuta and Fred Holly. And to make matters worse, Arizona capitalized on Holly’s fumble and that pick with touchdowns that tied the game at 35-all at the end of the third quarter.
Something needed to change at that point in the game, so Rolovich went to redshirt freshman quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, who has a history of saving the day from last year.
Rolovich needed to rely on Cordeiro and sustain a drive without putting the ball on the carpet. Cordeiro did just that, and much more.
After leading the offense to a field goal to put his team up 38-35, Cordeiro got the ball back after a great play on the defensive end from Ikem Okeke, as you can see below. He picked off Khalil Tate at the goal line and brought it back 50 yards. It was great to see that from a much-maligned defense.
Okoke’s defensive play gave way to this 30-yard touchdown from Cordeiro, who led Byrd perfectly and threw it to the spot Byrd would be.
After Arizona nailed a 53-yard field goal and forced Hawaii to punt, Tate led the Wildcats down the field to put his team in position to tie the game or win it.
But on the final play, Hawaii’s Manly Williams, a redshirt senior defensive lineman, never stopped pursuing Tate on his run to the goal line and got the tackle along with senior Kalen Hicks before Tate could score.
For those of you who missed the game, hopefully this helped detail what an awesome night of college football we had Saturday in Honolulu. Hawaii will get another Pac-12 opponent, Oregon State, at home two weeks from now on Sept. 7.
Hawaii’s defense, which was without starting middle linebacker Penei Pavihi and later Jeremiah Pritchard, stepped up against Arizona and got enough stops, which should surprise many people around college football. As for the quarterback situation, it’s my opinion that McDonald has nothing to worry about. Rolovich will sit him down and have the “don’t try to do too much” talk.
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