Perhaps playing in a Hawaii uniform for his final time, junior quarterback Cole McDonald completed a heart-stopping comeback with a 24-yard touchdown pass to freshman Nick Mardner as the Warriors secured a 38-34 victory over Brigham Young University to win the Hawaii Bowl.
The Cougars had a chance to win it, taking over at their own 22 with 1:12 left in the game, but the Warriors defense held as BYU quarterback Zach Wilson’s final pass was intercepted by Khoury Bethley with 25 seconds left at the UH 38 to seal the deal before an ecstatic Aloha Stadium crowd of 19,539. It was his second pick of the game.
McDonald hit 28 of 46 passes for 493 yards and four touchdowns as UH beat BYU for the first time since 2001 and picked up its first 10-win season since 2010. His top two targets were JoJo Ward, who caught seven for 159 yards, and Jared Smart, who pulled down another seven for 142 to lead an offensive attack that scored 31 points in the first half and only seven in the second.
But as well as those two proven products played, it was two completions on the final drive to the little-used Mardner that made the difference. The first went for 38 yards to convert a huge third-down play and the second for 24 to win the game. His two catches for 62 yards won’t crack the top receivers for the night, but his were the two that mattered most.
BYU, in danger of being run out of town in the first half, rallied for a 34-31 lead in the second it just couldn’t hold, even with the defense forcing four consecutive three-and-outs in the second half. The Cougars finished the season 7-6, and the Warriors 10-5.
Down 34-31 early in the fourth quarter, Hawaii finally got a first down in the second half on a 46-yard completion from McDonald to Ward to give UH the ball at BYU’s 26. Three snaps later, out came UH field-goal kicker Ryan Meskell, who missed a 40-yarder wide right to keep BYU up by three.
BYU place-kicker Jake Oldroyd had a chance to make that lead six for the Cougars, who drove into field-goal range on the ensuing series, but the kick was wide right, keeping the score at 34-31 with 9:03 remaining.
Hawaii put together a nice drive on the ensuing series, but faced a critical fourth-and-3 at the 46 that the Warriors converted into a first down on a 20-yard completion from McDonald to Jason-Matthew Sharsh. But BYU held, forcing a punt.
With 2:19 remaining, Wilson went incomplete on third-and-2 in Cougar territory after UH burned the last of its timeouts. It allowed UH to make one last drive starting from its 29. UH went 71 yards in four plays and 44 seconds elapsed.
After both teams were forced to punt to start the second half, BYU struck first to draw even at 31-31 on a 2-yard keeper by BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. The easy score was set up on a 52-yard punt return by Aleva Hifo as Oldroyd hit the PAT with 11:58 remaining in the third quarter. Wilson hit 24 of 40 passes for 274 yards and no touchdowns. He almost almost scored again on BYU’s ensuing series, but he fumbled as he was crossing the goal line with UH recovering in the end zone.