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Hawaii — especially John Ursua — had high hopes of overcoming LaVell Edwards curse

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Michael Shelton (18) brings Hawaii Warriors wide receiver John Ursua (5) down after a catch and run as BYU and Hawaii play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.
Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Michael Shelton (18) brings Hawaii Warriors wide receiver John Ursua (5) down after a catch and run as BYU and Hawaii play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — Saturday night, after BYU’s 49-23 victory, Hawaii’s football coach humorously began his comments with a sarcastic remark.

“Damn you LaVell Edwards and your curse,” the Rainbow Warriors’ Nick Rolovich wryly said.

Rolovich was trying to be somewhat lighthearted in the aftermath of his team’s latest loss to the Cougars, but this was a game Hawaii wanted badly to win, so his disappointment couldn’t be hidden.

BYU has long been considered Hawaii’s biggest rival by those associated with the Honolulu-based program, and the visitors were hoping to win for the first time ever in 10 trips to Provo.

Instead, Hawaii returned to its island having fallen to 0-10 at LaVell Edwards Stadium and 8-23 all-time against the Y. Rolovich was on the 2001 Hawaii team that thumped the 12-0 Cougars 72-45 at Aloha Stadium. That was the last time the Rainbow Warriors had a successful outcome against BYU.

“Last year, I went and tried to show them (Hawaii players) all the important games — ’89, ’92, 2001, all the ones that people talk about with BYU,” said Rolovich, leading up to Saturday’s showdown. “I’m not a big crier, but I had some tears in my eyes just because it’s so important to this program, this game. I told them (last week), ‘Most of you know how I feel about this game. I’m not going to cry this year.’ But I think they get it.”

They didn’t get the win, but they certainly got the message.

“Myself and the guys, we want to be part of that legacy, to Hawaii and everybody out there it means something special,” quarterback Cole McDonald said. “Out here (in Hawaii) it means something special. If we can give that to the state and to the people, that would mean the world just coming back with that win.”

Nobody wanted that win more than John Ursua, a Hawaii native who committed to play for Bronco Mendenhall and the Cougars while he played for nearby Westlake High in Saratoga Springs.

Ursua moved to Cedar City for his senior season and continued to be interested in playing for BYU. Before he was hired to replace Mendenhall, Kalani Sitake expressed interest in having him play for Oregon State or for BYU, depending on where the eventual Cougar coach ended up.

Unfortunately for BYU, Ursua had been impressed by then-Hawaii coach Norm Chow’s loyalty and continued interest, so he decided to return home for college after serving a mission in Paris for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Once I came back from my mission,” Ursua said, “it was an easy decision to go home, my real home, and play for Hawaii and my state.”

Saturday was extra special for Ursua, who had “a lot of people,” friends and family, in attendance.

“It was a huge honor and blessing to be able to step foot in this stadium. The stadium is just beautiful,” Ursua said. “It’s a great atmosphere to be in, a great opportunity to come back home. It was their homecoming, but I kind of felt that way for me as well.”

BYU’s loss was Hawaii’s gain. He entered this game leading the nation in touchdown receptions and was top five in receptions and receiving yards.

Ursua had arguably the best play of Saturday’s game, too — an acrobatic and athletic twisting, toe-tap touchdown catch in which he somehow snared the football in the air, managed to sneak his foot in the end zone and maintain possession after hitting the ground. The fun part is that the TD reception was in the northwest corner by the visitors section.

“It was right in front of them, literally,” Ursua said, smiling. “I’m just grateful. Cole threw me a nice ball. It was nice to get that play right in front of my family. Even though we were down on the scoreboard, it was nice to be able to make a play like that.”

It was his 14th touchdown catch of the season.

The only thing better, of course, would have been scoring a win over an old WAC rival.

“We talked about it all week. We knew how big this rivalry was,” Ursua said. “We’re not sure how big of a rivalry they might look at it. For us, it was a huge game, it was a great opportunity to play a good football team. We were excited. We were really pumped up for this.”

Hawaii (6-2) still has more wins than BYU (4-3). This was the first time since 1992 that the Rainbow Warriors entered the game with a better record.

Barring a future bowl game matchup, Hawaii will have to wait until 2024 to get another chance to end that darn LaVell Edwards curse.

“We’ve got to continue to have this game against BYU because it’s a rivalry whether people think it or not,” Ursua said. “It has a lot of history in this game, so it had a lot of meaning to it. It’s just a fun game to be part of as well.”