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Questionable play call in final minutes proves costly in BYU’s 38-34 loss in Hawaii Bowl

Cougars threw an incomplete pass on third-and-2 and had to punt the ball back to Hawaii, which scored the game-winning touchdown to complete its comeback

Hawaii defensive back Khoury Bethley (5) intercepts a pass intended for BYU tight end Matt Bushman (89) late in the fourth quarter of the Hawaii Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019, in Honolulu. Hawaii won 38-34.
Eugene Tanner, AP

HONOLULU — How else was one of the most topsy-turvy, up-and-down BYU football seasons in recent memory supposed to end?

With controversy, of course. And a highly questionable play call, a call that could easily go down as one of the worst in school history.

In a game that featured a little bit of everything, like those old games between the former WAC rivals in days gone by, Hawaii made one more big play than BYU and took a 38-34 victory over the shell-shocked Cougars at Aloha Stadium.

Hawaii junior quarterback Cole McDonald threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Nick Mardner with one minute, 17 seconds remaining and the Warriors shut down BYU’s final possession with an interception by Khoury Bethley, his second of the game.

That McDonald and Hawaii even had the ball in the final minutes will be rued by BYU fans from here to eternity.

All because of an incomplete pass. Here’s the setup: BYU was looking at a third-and-2 from its 26-yard line with 2:17 left, a 34-31 lead, and Hawaii out of timeouts. After looking at how the Warriors were set up defensively, BYU took a timeout, its first of the second half.

Then the Cougars ran a pass play — after they had been pounding the ball down Hawaii’s throat with bruising running back Tyler Allgeier, the game’s leading rusher with 77 yards on just eight carries.

Zach Wilson’s throw to Micah Simon was short, and Simon couldn’t come up with the catch.

With the clock stopped due to the incompletion, BYU had to give the ball up to a UH offense that was unstoppable in the first half, lost four yards in the third quarter and somehow hadn’t scored in the fourth quarter, a 40-yard field having sailed wide right.

Why pass there?

“I would have really liked for it to be a first down,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said when he was asked about the play call by the Deseret News. “That’s pretty much it. We could have won the game with a first down there. It didn’t go our way and we weren’t able to execute.”

Asked if offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes made the call, or whether it was a collaborative decision, Sitake said: “That was an offensive call, yeah.”

The loss that dropped BYU’s season record to 7-6, just like last year, will also be remembered by BYU faithful for a crazy play at the goal line when Zach Wilson was trying to run for a touchdown. Wilson jumped to elude two UH defenders, but lost the ball right at the goal line.

Officials ruled it a fumble before the ball crossed the plane in Wilson’s possession, and then upheld the ruling after replay.

Sitake’s take: “I guess they didn’t have enough evidence to say it was a touchdown. I can’t say that I could see it from where I stood. I just assumed they had the right angles and had the right film. … You always have a camera on the goal line to see if they crossed the line or not.”

In the second half, the Cougars thought Jake Oldroyd had successfully kicked a field goal, but referees signaled no good as the ball flew almost directly over the left upright.

“We put enough points on the board to win the game,” Sitake said. “Our defense has got to get more stops.”

Indeed, after BYU’s offense struggled in the red zone against SDSU in that 13-3 loss, the defense was the culprit this time.

Hawaii racked up 495 yards and McDonald was 28 of 46 for 493 yards and four TDs.

Wilson, BYU’s offensive MVP, was 24 of 40 for 274 yards and also ran for two scores.

But it was the touchdown he didn’t get, and the incomplete pass to Simon, that will be remembered the most.

“We got ourselves in a hole in the first half and weren’t able to get out,” Sitake said.

BYU’s defense was without senior safety Austin Lee, out with a hamstring injury. Cornerback Chris Wilcox (knee) also didn’t play. Malik Moore started in Lee’s place, but sustained an arm injury during UH’s first touchdown drive and didn’t return. Senior Beau Tanner replaced Moore.

McDonald’s numbers in the first half were mind-boggling: 18 of 24 passing for 331 yards and three touchdowns, with a passer rating of 232.1. Last year in Provo, he was 22 of 38 for 248 yards — in the game.

BYU mostly stuck with its rush-three, drop-eight defense, and the junior picked it apart with ease. And UH’s fleet of receivers — three have more than 1,000 receiving yards this season — had no trouble getting open.

Credit the BYU coaching staff for defensive adjustments at halftime; Hawaii punted the first four times it had the ball in the second half, and didn’t score in that half until the game-winner.

“We went back to doing what we were supposed to do in the first half, but didn’t,” said defensive tackle Trajan Pili. “Our goal was to play better in the second half, and we did that.”

Except at the end — when Hawaii probably shouldn’t have even had the chance.