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Film Study: Hawaii’s McDonald and Ward find their connection

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The Warriors take down another Power Five foe in Oregon State

Oregon State v Hawaii Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

The Hawaii Warriors claimed their second Power Five opponent Saturday night with a 31-28 win over the Oregon State Beavers in Honolulu.

In this edition of the Mountain West Connection’s Film Study, we’ll detail how Hawaii pulled it off.

Really, the Warriors’ win can be chalked up to three things: the connection between quarterback Cole McDonald and receiver JoJo Ward, head coach Nick Rolovich’s confidence in his offense (or lack thereof in his field goal kicking) on fourth down and something quite unusual for Hawaii football — strong second half defense.

McDonald-to-Ward connection

Hawaii racked up 488 total yards on offense, and Ward tied the school record with four touchdown catches in a single game — just like Cedric Byrd did a couple weeks ago against Arizona. Ward finished his night with 10 catches for 189 yards.

After getting benched against Arizona after throwing four interceptions, I was really interested to see how the 6-foot-4, 220-pound McDonald would respond against Oregon State. The verdict: pretty dang well.

The official stats have McDonald going 30 of 52 for 421 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. But on my rewatch of the game, the Hawaii receivers — especially Byrd, which was shocking to watch — were plagued with drops in the game. I charted them with seven on the night. If you also take out the intentional throwaways, McDonald completed 75 percent of his true passes, going 30 of 40.

After the first drive of the game ended with a missed field goal from Ryan Meskell (more on him later), McDonald finally found a good connection with JoJo Ward. Ward had only four catches against Arizona, but against Oregon State, he was the featured receiver.

Here’s the first McDonald-to-Ward touchdown, a 29-yard straight go route that tied the game at 7. This had to be a pretty easy read for McDonald. Oregon State’s 6-4 corner, Nahshon Wright, was in tight man-to-man coverage, and with trips to the field side, Oregon State’s safety gets drawn to the middle of the field due to Jason-Matthew Sharsh’s vertical route from the slot. Ward had no problem burning Wright for the easy pitch and catch:

With Hawaii’s defense struggling, Oregon State tacked on a couple touchdowns, but Hawaii cut the Beavers’ lead to 21-14 early in the second quarter on this play below.

Ward and Byrd run a switch route, with Ward becoming the No. 3 receiver and Byrd the No. 4. Ward appears to be running a sluggo route, or a slant and go. Oregon State’s boundary safety in its zone coverage, Shawn Wilson (2) breaks on the intital slant from Ward, but again, Ward’s straight-line speed was too much for Wilson, who couldn’t catch up:

Look at the ball and footwork skills from Ward on this catch. For him to have the awareness to move his body in a way that allowed him to get his feet down in bounds is just amazing stuff. This offense is truly one of the must-sees in college football:

On this 5-yard touchdown pass from McDonald to Ward that cut Oregon State’s lead to 28-21 just before halftime, McDonald was probably making Rolovich pull his hair out. This is the ultimate no-no-no-YES! play. It’s pretty much backyard football, with improvisation all over the place.

McDonald looked at the out route to the field side first, but didn’t throw it. He scrambled to the boundary, where his slot, Byrd, got stuffed at the line of scrimmage and was taken out of the play. But he found Ward, who originally ran an out route but broke it off and found an open area, in the back of the end zone. I don’t blame that Oregon State corner at all for not keeping up with a jitterbug like Ward. Look how McDonald fits this strike in an incredibly tight window:

On Ward’s fourth touchdown that tied the game at 28, McDonald is reading the field safety. Oregon State goes with quarters coverage, and with two vertical routes coming up the field, the safety chooses to go with the slot, Byrd, who bends his route towards the middle of the field.

That leaves Ward with a one-on-one against a corner, David Morris (24), who started out with outside leverage. Ward runs a simple post route, and beats Morris easily. Credit Hawaii’s offensive line for keeping the pocket clean for McDonald. Also, Ward pointing to the girl filming the highlight was awesome:

Confidence in the offense on fourth down

It’s no secret that Rolovich is OK going for it on fourth downs. But Saturday night against Oregon State, there were some really key conversions in the first half that I think helped Hawaii win the game.

Ward’s 5-yard touchdown catch before halftime wouldn’t have been possible if not for two catches on fourth down from Jared Smart, who seems to be getting really comfortable in the offense.

Here’s Smart’s first grab for the conversion on fourth-and-2 at the Beaver 49. Smart has inside leverage on the corner, and with the Oregon State linebacker green-dog blitzing (blitzing once he sees the running back staying in to block), there’s no one in the middle of the field for Smart’s skinny post route. McDonald fires a strike:

On Smart’s second conversion catch on fourth-and-4 from the Beaver 17, it appears that Oregon State went Cover-2, with two high safeties and tight man-to-man coverage underneath.

Smart is the No. 1 receiver to the field side and runs a slant. Wright, that tall corner we mentioned earlier, was hoping to stuff Smart at the line to disrupt his route by sticking his left arm in Smart’s chest. But as you can see, it doesn’t look like Wright even touched Smart, who used his quickness to beat Wright. Nice job of Sharsh rubbing the middle linebacker, too:

Rolovich’s confidence on fourth down really helped the Warriors get the win. Hawaii wound up going 3 for 3 on fourth downs on Saturday.

Second-half defense

Hawaii’s defense gave up 432 total yards — 263 rushing — in the game and 28 points in the first half. But the Warriors continue to show heart on defense and shut out the Beavers in the second half.

Oregon State shot itself in the foot, too. The Beavers committed three costly penalties that stopped would-be scoring drives in the second half, one of which was this offensive pass interference by receiver Isaiah Hodgins, who pushed off Hawaii corner Cortez Davis:

Oregon State punted four times in the second half and turned the ball over on downs twice. Some of the key plays during that stretch was this quarterback pressure from captain Kaimana Padello on third-and-16. Rushing the passer is what the 6-foot, 220-pound Padello is best at, and on this play he bends around the Oregon State tackle to force quarterback Jake Luton out of the pocket:

This first-down tackle after Hawaii’s offense tied the game at 28 seemed to swing the momentum. Judging by the broadcast, it sounded like the hit got the crowd into the game, too.

Watch how the nickel, Eugene Ford, comes in to force the ball carrier to the outside after a receiver attempts to crack block him. Ford over pursues, but that gives time for safety Kalen Hicks (3), who rotates down to replace Ford, and Davis to come up in run support and lay a solid hit:

This play below by the defense was also huge. It was third-and-3 from the the Hawaii 29 after the Beavers had forced a fumble by sacking McDonald.

Watch how the 6-1, 300-pound Blessman Ta’ala (55) completely disrupts this outside zone run by winning the A gap over the center. Padello (96) sheds his block and forces the runner back inside, where 6-1, 280-pound defensive end Makai Manuwai (51) cleans it up. Oregon State had to punt shortly after:

And lastly, check out this play in the A gap by true freshman linebacker Darius Muasau on third-and-2 with five minutes left in the fourth. This stop led to a fake punt attempt from Oregon State that failed:

Six plays later, Meskell hits the game-winning 28-yarder after missing his previous three attempts from 48, 27 and 47 yards:

Meskell redeemed himself, and after he nailed it, gave a light-hearted wave to the crowd. I love college football:

Hawaii improves to 2-0 and travels to Seattle this Saturday to play No. 23 Washington, which was just upset 20-19 at home to Cal last week. Will Hawaii make it three consecutive wins over Power Five opponents to start the season? I’ll take a stab at this and say no.

Washington obviously has the best defense Hawaii will see this season — although Boise’s defense is loaded — and will likely not sit back in zones for McDonald to pick apart. Look for the Huskies to really pressure him on Saturday.

McDonald has the capability to win Hawaii the game and lose Hawaii the game. If he keeps the interceptions to a minimum in Seattle, who knows. Maybe the Warriors can make things interesting. But he needs to take care of the ball and make smart decisions.

Here’s McDonald’s lone interception he threw against Oregon State. To me, it’s hard to put that pick on him because he wasn’t able to step into the throw due to the pressure right in front of him, which led to a severely underthrown pass:

Should McDonald even have attempted that throw? Only he and Rolovich know. But if the Warriors want to fly home with a win, these type of plays can’t happen.

The offense also needs to find some sort of running game. Against Oregon State, the Warriors rushed for just 67 yards and 2.7 per carry. That needs to be better if the Warriors want a shot at this win.