RENO, NEV. >> Defying history and meteorology, the Hawaii football team conquered Nevada, 54-3, in Saturday’s Mountain West opener.
The Rainbow Warriors dominated all phases on a day that began with snow flurries and ended in the chill that turned the mercury blue.
Pick an area? They were all productive. The Warriors had five scoring passes. Their defense smothered the Wolf Pack into 3.0 yards per play. Special teams produced points on a scoop-and-score off a blocked punt, a safety on an errant long snap, and Ryan Meskell’s 44-yard field goal.
“I knew we were going to win before the game,” said UH head coach Nick Rolovich, who returned to the campus where he spent four years as an offensive coordinator. “I just felt it from the way our guys were focused, why they came up here. It’s not easy to be in a casino (hotel) for a day and a half, two days, but our guys handled it right. They came here for the right reasons, and I’m happy for them.”
Cole McDonald, who threw for four touchdowns while completing 83.3 percent of his passes, had pledged not to let history have a hana hou.
“I’ve heard how tough it was to win here,” McDonald said, referring to the Warriors’ eight losses in the previous nine meetings in Mackay Stadium. “We talked about Nevada bending a knee. We were on our ‘Game of Thrones’ — cold weather, winter’s coming, Jon Snow-type of stuff. We were all saying, ‘Nevada is going to bend a knee. Surrender. They’re going to bend a knee.’ We talked about it all week. We executed today, and they bent a knee.”
The Warriors lost the coin toss, but owned everything after that. McDonald nested in the pocket, hitting 25 of 30 passes, including his first seven, and being struck only once.
“The O-line blocked, and Bubba (Wa‘a) stepped in as a first-year player,” McDonald said. “The rest of the guys handled business. The receivers ran great routes and made great reads. It just made my job a lot easier.”
Wa‘a, a true freshman, played right guard in place of Solo Vaipulu, who missed his second consecutive game. “(Wa‘a has) been moving like this lately,” said Rolovich, motioning his hand in an upward direction. “He got some reps (in practice). We got him off the scout team. He’s starting to get it.”
McDonald and Cedric Byrd collaborated on scoring plays of 36, 2 and 20 yards. Their most creative play came with the Warriors ahead 28-3 near the end of the first half. The Warriors went into victory formation, with the appearance of McDonald taking a knee to siphon the clock. Instead, McDonald handed the ball to Byrd, who scooted 29 yards. That set up Meskell’s 44-yard field goal with two seconds left before the intermission.
It was a play the Warriors had rehearsed for two years. “I’ve been waiting for the opportunity,” Byrd said. “I wish I could have scored.”
In his three quarters of play, McDonald kept the Wolf Pack guessing for the right shell. Twice he faked throwing a pass after handing off to running back Miles Reed.
“It’s just watching film,” McDonald said of his ability to roll one way while a running back is carrying the football the other way. “I always watched Peyton Manning growing up, and he was always like fakes, fakes, fakes. Sometimes I get a little lazy on my fakes, but I try to stay locked in and give good fakes for the back-side reads so (defenses) can’t make a play from the front side.”
In the first four games, McDonald’s nine interceptions were the most among FBS passers. But the Warriors, who entered with a minus-12 turnover margin, did not commit a giveaway on Saturday. Running back Fred Holly III weaved into the lanes with two-handed carries.
“Ball security,” Holly said. “Gotta take care of it. I’ve got to take care of the prized possession. Everybody wanted what I’ve got in my hands. I had to make sure (the football) was secure and safe.”
The Warriors also came up with three takeaways. Kalen Hicks intercepted a pass in the end zone. Ikem Okeke, who returned after missing two games because of an ailment, also had a pick. And Rojesterman Farris II recovered a fumble after quarterback Cristian Solano absorbed a tag-team blast from defensive linemen Mason Vega and Jonah Laulu.
“I think we came out with a lot of energy,” said Hicks, who added seven tackles to his first UH interception. Nevada players “were instilling in our minds it was going to be cold. They thought we were going to come out weak or soft because it was cold. Stuff like that. It just made us want to prove we could win on the road.”
Nevada’s struggles extended to special teams. Trailing 14-0 in the second quarter, Nevada was forced to punt. UH’s Andrew Choi was aligned as an inside rusher. When a Nevada player turned to block Lincoln Victor, Choi stormed through the vacated area to get his right hand on Quinton Conaway’s punt. Justice Augafa picked up the football and somersaulted into the end zone for a 21-0 UH lead.
In the postgame celebration, Augafa was awarded the game ball. Soon after, Augafa met with reporters outside the locker-room building. He was wearing a tank top.
“I love this weather,” said Augafa, who grew up in Anchorage. “It reminds me of home. I appreciate Reno for giving me a little flashback to my hometown. I haven’t been home in three years. This was a homecoming.”
>> Cedric Byrd 36 pass from Cole McDonald. Ryan Meskell kick.
>> Drive: 5 plays, 62 yards, 2:19 elapsed time.
>> Time: 8:17
>> Score: Hawaii 7, Nevada 0
>> Byrd 2 pass from McDonald. Meskell kick.
>> Drive: 9 plays, 80 yards, 4:22 elapsed time.
>> Time: 10:40
>> Score: Hawaii 14, Nevada 0
>> Justice Augafa 2 blocked punt return. Meskell kick.
>> Time: 9:11
>> Score: Hawaii 21, Nevada 0
>> Miles Reed 9 run. Meskell kick.
>> Drive: 3 plays, 47 yards, 1:22 elapsed time.
>> Time: 5:33
>> Score: Hawaii 28, Nevada 0
>> Field goal Brandon Talton 36.
>> Drive: 14 plays, 61 yards, 4:53 elapsed time.
>> Time: :36
>> Score: Hawaii 28, Nevada 3
>> Field goal Meskell 44
>> Drive: 5 plays, 45 yards, :28 elapsed time.
>> Time: :02
>> Score: Hawaii 31, Nevada 3
>> Jason-Matthew Sharsh 12 pass from McDonald. Meskell kick.
>> Drive: 5 plays, 63 yards, 2:26 elapsed time.
>> Time: 11:02
>> Score: Hawaii 38, Nevada 3
>> Byrd 20 pass from McDonald. Meskell kick.
>> Drive: 8 plays, 80 yards, 3:52 elapsed time.
>> Time: 2:57
>> Score: Hawaii 45, Nevada 3
>> Safety, snap out of end zone.
>> Time: 9:20
>> Score: Hawaii 47, Nevada 3
>> Robert Funkhouser 14 pass from Justin Uahinui. Meskell kick.
>> Drive: 9 plays, 75 yards, 5:33 elapsed time.
>> Time: 3:42
>> Score: Hawaii 54, Nevada 3
First downs 27 16
Rushes-yards 27-139 34-110
Passing 373 105
Comp-Att-Int 31-36-0 18-31-2
Return Yards 42 91
Punts-Avg. 2-36.0 4-26.6
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 6-70 10-82
Time of Possession 31:11 28:49
RUSHING—Hawaii, Holly 11-63, Byrd 1-29, Keliiliki 5-26, Reed 6-26, McDonald 3-1, Cordeiro 1-(minus 6). Nevada, Taua 17-72, Solano 9-26, K.Moore 1-5, D.Lee 1-4, Neal 6-3.
PASSING—Hawaii, McDonald 25-30-0-312, Cordeiro 5-5-0-47, Uahinui 1-1-0-14. Nevada, Solano 11-17-1-59, Strong 7-14-1-46.
RECEIVING—Hawaii, Sharsh 9-123, Byrd 7-87, Ward 5-68, Funkhouser 4-36, Smart 3-28, Ealy 1-19, Reed 1-6, J.Johnson 1-6. Nevada, Cooks 5-38, Doubs 2-25, Christian 2-4, K.Moore 2-(minus 3), Humphrey 1-18, Neal 1-8, Lappin 1-5, Melqua.Stovall 1-5, Putman 1-3, K.Williams 1-2, Fossum 1-0.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—None.