Hawaii football beats UNLV 21-7 to earn shot at West Division title

Hawaii wide receiver Cedric Byrd II looked for yardage after a catch against UNLV on Saturday. / Photo by Steve Marcus, Las Vegas Sun via Associated Press

In the press conference following Hawaii’s win over San Jose State last weekend, Nick Rolovich didn’t want any part of a question about his team’s chances of winning the West Division of the Mountain West Conference. At that point, too many variables.

Well, those variables were greatly reduced with San Diego State’s win over Fresno State on Friday and Hawaii’s dramatic victory over Nevada-Las Vegas today at Sam Boyd Stadium in Henderson, Nev. The 21-7 final score sets up a West winner-take-all game next Saturday at Aloha Stadium between the Aztecs and Rainbow Warriors, with a spot in the MWC title game at stake.

Hawaii can thank junior quarterback Cole McDonald and the defense for that. He came in to relieve Chevan Cordeiro, who struggled in his first road start, completing only four of nine passes along with two costly interceptions. Hawaii has never won the MWC title since joining the league in 2012. In fact, the only two teams to represent the West Division — when divisions were created in 2013 — are the Aztecs and Bulldogs. Hawaii would like to crash that party in a big way.

With the win today against the Rebels, the Warriors are now bowl eligible with a 7-4 record overall and 4-3 mark in conference. The Rebels fell to 2-8 for the season and 0-6 in the MWC. And once again the defense was key. Not only did the unit manage two picks, it limited the Rebels to 235 total yards and a first-quarter touchdown. The offense also did its part under the guidance of McDonald, who not only completed 20 of 26 passes for 211 yards, he also ran it nine times for 49 yards and two tough scores that set the tone.

Miles Reed added 90 yards on 22 carries and Jared Smart led all receivers with nine catches for 106 yards. It was a complete if not spectacular effort.

Hawaii began the fourth quarter with the ball already in UNLV territory and looking to extend its 14-7 advantage. And that’s exactly what the Warriors did on a 2-yard keeper by McDonald with 11:31 remaining in the game. Ryan Meskell added the PAT to make it 21-7. It was McDonald’s second rushing score of the game.

With the score tied 7-7 to start the third, Hawaii got the ball first with McDonald remaining in the lineup. And it wasn’t long before Hawaii was knocking on the door again. The drive stalled, however, and Meskell’s 35-yard field-goal attempt was blocked with 10:30 remaining in the quarter.

With the offense sputtering, the defense gave the Warriors their first lead on a 43-yard pick-six by Cortez Davis. Meskell hit the PAT to make it 14-7 with 1:33 remaining in the period.

Three turnovers in the opening quarter gave the Rebels a 7-0 advantage on a 31-yard scoring pass from UNLV quarterback Kenyon Ablad to receiver Darren Woods Jr. After Cordeiro’s second pick led to a missed Rebels field goal to start the second quarter, McDonald returned to the lineup and quickly led the Warriors into Rebels territory, but couldn’t convert on a fourth-down pass play at the 3.

No matter, Hawaii got even on the ensuing series on a 1-yard run by McDonald with 22 seconds left in the half. Meskell hit the PAT to make it 7-7.