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Hawaii uses late touchdown to slide past BYU 38-34 in Hawaii Bowl

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (1) loses the football on a hit by Hawaii defensive back Eugene Ford, right, as Wilson tried to leap into the end zone during the second half of the Hawaii Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019, in Honolulu. Hawaii recovered the football in the end zone for a touchback.
Eugene Tanner, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — BYU and Hawaii have provided their fan bases plenty of memorable games in the longstanding rivalry.

Add Tuesday evening’s Christmas Eve matchup in the Hawaii Bowl to that list.

The Cougars overcame a 14-point deficit and held a three-point lead late before the Rainbow Warriors drove for the game-winning score, a 24-yard touchdown pass to little-used Nick Mardner with 1:17 to play in Hawaii’s 38-34 win at Aloha Stadium.

“I thought we had control and I thought our defense had settled in. But we didn’t do enough to win this game,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said in a KSL Newsradio postgame interview. “Very disappointed and feel bad for the seniors and for our fans.”

Both defenses stiffened after an offense-filled first half in a game that featured 1,002 yards of total offense and 72 points. In the third quarter, the Cougars held Hawaii to minus-four yards and four straight three-and-outs. Along with BYU taking control of the clock with a running attack that put up 231 yards, the Cougars scored the first 10 points of the second half. Hawaii rushed for just two yards in the game.

BYU (7-6) had the chance to put the game away in the second half, but three straight drives that reached deep into Hawaii territory netted just three points. On one with the Cougars facing a third-and-goal at the Hawaii 5, BYU quarterback Zach Wilson was hit twice, windmilling in the air, and fumbled as he leaped to try to score. Hawaii (10-5) recovered the fumble for the touchback.

Of those three drives, the only Cougar score came on a Jake Oldroyd 20-yard field goal to give BYU its first lead, at 34-31 with 14:37 to play.

“There’s so many breakdowns and so many opportunities to get the victory,” Sitake said.

Both teams missed field goals in the fourth quarter, and Hawaii had a promising drive — one that included a fourth-down conversion — stifled by JJ Nwigwe’s second sack of the game, an 8-yard loss that resulted in a fourth-and-23 for Hawaii at the BYU 39.

The Rainbow Warriors punted away the ball after the sack, and BYU ran seven plays before Hawaii took over with a chance to tie or win at its own 29 with 2:01 to play. Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald hit Mardner for a 38-yard gain to the BYU 24 to put the Rainbow Warriors in scoring position, and on the next play, Mardner caught the go-ahead touchdown.

Mardner had three receptions on the year heading into the bowl game, but had the final two catches of the year for a pass-happy Hawaii team.

“That lack of playing the ball and making a play on the ball cost us in this game,” Sitake said.

Khoury Bethley then wrapped up the Hawaii win by intercepting Wilson at the Hawaii 30 with 25 seconds to play.

Aleva Hifo put BYU in prime position to tie the game early in the third quarter, returning a punt 52 yards to the Hawaii 6. Two plays later, Wilson scored his second touchdown run, a 2-yarder, to make it 31-31 and the first time the game was tied since it was 0-0.

The first half was full of offensive fireworks. McDonald had more than 300 passing yards in the first half — 331 on 18 of 24 passing — to go with three touchdowns to lead the Rainbow Warriors to a 31-24 lead through two quarters. He finished the game completing 28 of 46 passes for 493 yards and four touchdowns.

Jared Smart caught the first two touchdowns from McDonald and finished the game with seven catches for 142 yards. JoJo Ward added seven receptions for 159 yards, while Jason-Matthew Sharsh had seven catches for 90 yards and one touchdown.

The Cougars’ offense, though, kept them in the game in the first half, as BYU matched five Hawaii possessions ended in scores with four straight scores of its own. That included three rushing touchdowns — one each from Lopini Katoa, Wilson and Micah Simon — and Wilson throwing for 209 first-half yards. Wilson threw for 274 yards in the game, though he had three costly turnovers.

Matt Bushman was his main target, finishing with six receptions for 91 yards, most in the first half.

A 37-yard Oldroyd field goal in the final minute of the first half made it a one-score game. Prior to the make, BYU kickers had made just five of their previous 13 field-goal attempts.

A turnover — when Wilson was intercepted in the first quarter — ended up being the difference in the first half, as Hawaii quickly turned it into a 40-yard touchdown pass to Smart and a 14-0 lead. Hawaii had a 3-0 edge in the turnover battle.

“That doesn’t do well for us,” Sitake said of the turnovers. “That and not getting any. We had some turnovers that cost us points. It reared its ugly face and that’s something we’ve got to figure out as a program.”

BYU had two turnovers forced — a strip sack by Zac Dawe and a Troy Warner interception, both in Cougar territory — reversed on review in the first half, and Hawaii got a field goal and touchdown off those drives.