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Hawaii’s comeback win over BYU a repeat of Cougars’ most frustrating losses

BYU clawed back from behind to take control of the Hawaii Bowl, but lost it with three turnovers and inconsistent offense and defensive plays at crunch time

Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald (13) runs with the ball as BYU linebacker Kavika Fonua (34) gives chase the second half of the Hawaii Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019, in Honolulu.
Eugene Tanner, AP

BYU ended the 2019 season with a repeat in kind of its two worst losses of the year in a 38-34 loss to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.

The final minutes were like a rewind of the Toledo loss with the Cougars trying to make a last, desperate drive to save the game only to see Zach Wilson throw an interception and end the game.

This wasn’t Wilson’s fault, however, even if he did throw two interceptions, both to Khoury Bethley and had a goal-line fumble in the third quarter.

There was plenty of blame to spread around.

Pick your target.

A defense that didn’t show up until after half?

Or an offense that could not execute when it really, really counted?

Once again, this BYU team had flashes of beauty, then bouts of absolute ugly.

That is the definition of inconsistency.

And it plagued the Cougars all season.

Giving Hawaii two long passes and a game-winning score after holding the Warrior offense to nothing in the second half is, well, maddening.

BYU held Hawaii to minus-4 yards in the third quarter and lost it at the end when Cole McDonald hit wide-open freshman receiver Nick Mardner for a 38-yard gain and then a game-winning TD of 24 yards. Mardner had just three catches coming into the bowl game.

You have to credit Hawaii as much as you find flaws with the Cougars.

With its defense tiring, Hawaii was just good enough to pressure Wilson at the end and force a punt and a turnover. And with the Cougar defense pitching a shutout the second half, McDonald was good enough to make a read and a pair of perfect throws on a crucial drive to win the game.

BYU blew a 3-point lead it held most of the final quarter. The Cougars were in control of the game and it looked like all that was needed was a few first-down conversions after taking possession with four minutes left to play.

Wilson got the first on a third-down run and dive.

Wilson then failed to convert the second on a third-and-2 when BYU called a strange run-pass option that Hawaii blew up and a pass hit the turf in front of Micah Simon, who was behind the line of scrimmage and covered. For clock management, Wilson should have kept the ball, taken a loss and let the time roll, as if it were a run play.

That series and the way this game was lost will haunt BYU head coach Kalani Sitake and his staff the rest of the off-season.

With a size advantage on the offensive line and Tyler Allgeier averaging 9.6 yards per carry, wouldn’t a better choice have been to have given him a chance to get two yards?

He gets those two and the game is over.

That run-pass option, going against Wilson’s body as he ran to his left, was a tough play to execute. Combine that with Hawaii defenders getting penetration and pressure, it was going nowhere as soon as Wilson prepared to throw.

The ball never got to Simon. And the clocked stopped when Hawaii had no timeouts and 2:01 to play.

“I would have liked for it to have been a first down,” Sitake said. “But it didn’t go our way and we needed to execute it better.”

Even with BYU’s defense yielding 300 yards passing and 31 points in the first half to Hawaii, the defense played good enough for a win.

Well, until the game was on the line in the last two minutes. Then, the first half BYU defense appeared.

Sitake said the 34 points scored by the offense was enough to win. “Our defense needed to step up.”

Even with several calls going against them on reviews, including a dropped interception by Troy Warner and a strip-sack caused fumble by Zac Dawe on McDonald that was ruled his knee was down, the defense made plays.

But not enough. Especially in the first half when Hawaii made mincemeat of the defense.

BYU’s offense came up short. Again.

So, both BYU’s offense and defense had a long trip home late Christmas Eve.

The issues on offense are similar.

Hawaii is not a very good defensive team, ranking 91st in defense, and was a turnover machine until it faced BYU.

As with the Toledo and South Florida losses, BYU should have capped the Warriors. And like the San Diego State loss, BYU outgained Hawaii 505 to 493 yards, but failed to take advantage of tremendous field position and huge punt returns by Aleva Hifo (99 yards). The Cougars then repeated failures in the red zone with a fumble and missed field goal in the second half.

Ah, the old red zone issues.

Wilson failed to throw a TD pass on the night, just like in the loss to San Diego State.

However, the Cougars did try to play smash-mouth in the red zone and looked successful until crucial, game-winning plays were really required at crunch time. Then they were nowhere in the quiver.

Wilson did run for a pair of nifty touchdowns that took guts and moxie. He ran the ball very effectively.

His try at a third running touchdown in the third quarter looked like the sophomore would score and really put the game out of reach with the way the defense was playing with four consecutive three-and-outs to open the second half.

Wilson went airborne and reached for the goal line with the ball just as he was hit by two defenders, sending him into a helicopter-type motion as he lost the ball. A review of the play, with limited camera views, was not enough to reverse the call of a fumble made by officials on the field.

ESPN kind of went chintzy on review cameras for this bowl game. It looked like there was no camera view of the goal line from above or ground level.

Exciting TV game. It really was.

BYU came from 31-24 down, to lead 34-31 with two minutes left. And lost.

But in the end, it was just a rewind of the most frustrating games of BYU’s season.