LAS VEGAS >> There were second chances and second efforts and, in the jubilation of Saturday’s 21-7 victory over UNLV, Hawaii football coach Nick Rolovich did not hesitate to second that emotion.
“The wins are great, the losses are tough, but the greatest deal for this is seeing young men really dig down deep,” Rolovich said.
The story line was about redemption.
It was Cole McDonald, who was unseated as starting quarterback a week earlier, coming off the sideline to rush for two touchdowns.
It was a Rainbow Warriors defense that was toasted for 490-plus yards in each of the five previous games limiting the Rebels to only a short-field touchdown in 10 full possessions. Cornerback Cortez Davis scored on a 43-yard interception return to break a 7-all tie, and linebacker Paul Scott made a pick at the end zone’s doorstep.
And it was the Warriors, in the self-styled “Phase II” of Rolovich’s four-season tenure, remaining unfazed during recent setbacks to become bowl eligible for the third time and set up a high-stakes showdown next week. A victory over San Diego State would secure the West Division title and vault the Rainbow Warriors into the Mountain West championship game.
“We know what’s at stake,” said UH running back Miles Reed, who rushed for 90 yards and served as a decoy on McDonald’s second touchdown. “We’re not thinking about that. We’re thinking about San Diego State. We’re thinking about winning next week.”
The Warriors pleaded amnesia entering Saturday’s game at Sam Boyd Stadium, their house of horrors for nearly a decade. The Warriors had lost five road games in a row to the Rebels.
It appeared the Warriors’ “Ninth Island” woes would continue when their four first-quarter drives ended in two interceptions, a lost fumble and a punt. The fumble — created when strong safety Evan Austrie knocked free the football from wideout Jared Smart’s grip — was parlayed into a three-play, 42-yard scoring drive.
When Chevan Cordeiro’s pass was wind-directed into cornerback Jericho Flowers’ hands with 1:47 left in the opening quarter, McDonald began warming up behind the UH bench.
“It just came out ugly,” Cordeiro said of the pass.
McDonald’s 1-yard scoring run tied it at 7 with 22 seconds left in the first half. His 2-yard run, on a sleight-of-handoff with Reed, made it 21-7 in the fourth quarter.
“I let him know on the sideline, he’s not getting that touchdown if I don’t get banged like I did,” said Reed, whose role as decoy opened an inside lane for McDonald. “I told him, ‘You’d better score.’ I got hit real hard. Real hard.”
Reed added: “I commend Cole McDonald. That’s not an easy role coming off the bench, especially for being a starter for over a year and half. He’s a leader on this team. He took a leadership role on this team when he came in, and he got the job done.”
Quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann said McDonald, who has started 21 games the past two seasons, remained engaged when he was pulled in the fourth quarter against Fresno State two weeks ago and replaced in the opening lineup against San Jose State last week.
“That’s the thing about Cole,” Stutzmann said. “He’s very competitive. He was very good for the last two weeks. He was supportive of Chevan on the sideline. … It’s got to be hard to be in that position. But we kept telling him the last week and a half to just be ready. ‘If your time comes, be ready.’ He said, ‘Coach, you know I’m going to be ready. I’m always ready.’ ”
McDonald was 20-for-26 for 211 yards. He was neither sacked nor intercepted. He kept a drive alive with a 10-yard keeper on fourth-and-2.
“It wasn’t something I was expecting,” McDonald said of being summoned, “but something I was getting ready for. We’ve both had games we’ve struggled in. We’ve had to come off the bench and complement each other. … If I’m having a bad game, he can finish it out and win. And if he’s having a bad game, I can do the same.”
Similar to Rolovich’s decision after UH won the pregame coin toss, McDonald also deferred to the defense.
“Honestly, I don’t think we could have won if the defense didn’t get those stops, didn’t get that pick. They won this game for us.”
UH’s defense faced two challenges. The Warriors’ best pass rusher, Kaimana Padello, was unavailable to play because of an ailment. The Warriors moved strong-side end Pumba Williams to Padello’s spot as a hybrid end. On third-and-long situations, Andrew Choi was brought in as a pass rusher. Choi made a key sack.
There also was the possibility quarterback Armani Rogers would play. Rogers missed five games because of a knee injury, but appeared to be feeling better. But Rogers did not play, not even as a second-half spark. Kenyon Oblad, a second-year freshman, was 10-for-22 for 118 yards.
Late in the third quarter with the score tied at 7, Oblad tried to find Darren Woods Jr. Eugene Ford, who moved from nickelback to safety, was in front of Woods. “Gene undercut the route, and I was playing behind it,” Davis said. He missed the ball, and it fell right into my hands and I took off. It felt like slow motion. It felt like it took forever to get (into the end zone). I have to see it on film to see if I was running fast enough.”
With 6:45 to play, Oblad rolled to his left and tried to force a third-down pass from the 6 into tight coverage. Linebacker Paul Scott intercepted at the 3.
“I was just thinking, ‘Go get it,’ ” Scott said. “That was all on my mind. I bobbled it a little bit. But I surely caught it. I don’t know why the quarterback tried to squeeze it in there.”
Rolovich said the defense “kept us in the football game. How do you have three turnovers plus a fourth-down (stop) on the goal line and go in (to halftime) not down 21? They held us in this football game. Credit to Corey (Batoon, UH’s defensive coordinator) and his staff.”