In a football shootout that exhausted the new Aloha Stadium scoreboard, it was the last defense standing that made the difference.
Safety Kalen Hicks and defensive lineman Pumba Williams tackled Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate a yard short of the end zone to preserve Hawaii’s season-opening, 45-38 victory before 20,572 fans on Saturday night.
“It was unbelievable,” UH rush end Kaimana Padello said of the Rainbow Warriors’ first victory over a Pac-12 team since 2015. “I can’t even explain it. When the clock hit zero, after (Tate) almost scored, and being able to celebrate with my teammates, that’s something I’ll never forget the rest of my life.”
The Warriors’ night to remember could have turned into a nightmare to forget. All but the Warriors’ 14th — and last — drive ended with points (six touchdowns and a field goal) or turnovers (four interceptions and two lost fumbles).
UH starting quarterback Cole McDonald was 29-for-41 for 378 yards and four touchdowns — connecting on three of slotback Cedric Byrd’s four scores. But after McDonald’s fourth pick, on a fourth-and-10 throw into the middle of the Wildcats’ defense late in the third quarter, second-year freshman Chevan Cordeiro was told to take warm-up throws on the UH sideline.
“They told me to get ready,” Cordeiro recalled. “I was taking mental reps the whole game anyway.”
Rolovich praised McDonald for making “great plays,” but said the change was necessitated after the fourth interception. Rolovich said two lost fumbles — by running backs Dayton Furuta and Fred Holly III in the third quarter — were “disappointing. We had a chance to put that game away. I know we like the drama so much, but we need to learn how to win and put away games.”
Cordeiro entered on the final play of the third quarter, then led a 10-play drive resulting in Ryan Meskell’s 34-yard field goal to break a 35-all tie.
The Wildcats, who operate a no-huddle offense, accelerated the pace to drive to the UH 13. Tate then threw a pass that safety Ikem Okeke stole at the 3. Okeke raced 49 yards to give the Warriors possession in Arizona territory.
“I was just doing my job, playing my coverage,” Okeke said. “The quarterback probably wasn’t even seeing me. I just shuffled over there. I saw him throw the ball. I went for it. I picked it. I should have gone to the house. I should have stayed on the sideline. I got too excited (cutting inside). It is what it is. I’ll get the next one.”
Four plays later, Cordeiro looked for wideout JoJo Ward on the right side. “I looked at the front side, and that wasn’t open,” Cordeiro said. “I looked quickly and I found Byrd.”
Cordeiro lasered the 30-yard pass to Byrd at the end of a post route. “When he’s open,” Cordeiro said, “I can’t let that go.”
The Wildcats then closed to within a score on Lucas Havrisik’s 53-yard field goal, an attempt that did not have to be that difficult. He initially was set from 38 yards, but three consecutive Arizona penalties lengthened the distance.
The Warriors’ final drive ended with Stan Gaudion’s only punt of the night, a 39-yarder that gave the Wildcats the ball with 51 seconds to play.
With the Warriors retreating into prevent coverage, the Wildcats chipped away on Tate’s scrambles and short tosses. The Wildcats advanced to the UH 31, with 10 seconds remaining, when the Warriors signaled for their final timeout.
The Wildcats went into a clear-out formation designed to create one-on-one situations for the receivers or open the middle for Tate. With the receivers blanketed, Tate took off. As Tate neared the goal line, Hicks sprinted across to target the hip or football. Williams then helped complete the tackle.
“I was playing the post and started running,” Hicks said. “It was a heat-of-the-moment thing. I did what I always do. I ran and I tackled. I had to get him down. I went to punch out the ball, and I hit him in the hip.”
Padello said: “That quarterback was smart. He took a risk. He saw the clock was hitting zero already. I mean, shoot, he tried to make a big play. But our guys made a bigger play.”
In his 15th game as a Warrior, Byrd caught 14 passes for 224 yards.
“Man, it was really like playing catch out there,” Byrd said. “They were playing man out there. We had to execute our assignments.”
Byrd even set up Ward’s 39-yard touchdown. Byrd cut across, enabling Ward to sprint along the right sideline on a go route.
“That’s a player who’s bought into the system,” Rolovich said of Byrd’s four-TD game. “He’s unselfish. That how it happens. When you run every route (hard), even though you’re not getting the ball, you tend to get the ball. It was one of those games for him.”
Rolovich said defensive coordinator Corey Batoon was deserving of the game ball. Twenty minutes before kickoff, UH announced starting middle linebacker Penei Pavihi would miss the season because of a knee injury. During the game, the No. 2 middle linebacker, Jeremiah Pritchard, left with an ailment. Batoon was able to play a match-up defense when the Wildcats tried to alter the tempo and strategy.
Batoon “had the defense ready,” Rolovich said. “We can’t expect to win many games when we turn it over six times. But I love how this team stuck together. It was complete adversity. They could have folded. But when things got tough, they didn’t (fold). They stuck together because they love each other and they love playing for this state and this university.”