BYU will face a stiff challenge against Hawaii’s prolific offense in bowl game

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi (53) celebrates a sack as Brigham Young University (BYU) hosts the University of Utah, NCAA football in Provo on Thursday Aug. 29, 2019.

Provo • Come Christmas Eve, BYU may get a more dangerous present than it can handle. After the Cougars remove the big red bow from the 6-foot-4 box, they’ll come to find one of the nation’s best passing quarterbacks in Hawaii’s Cole McDonald.

BYU will have to find a way to stop the redshirt junior in order to not let the Rainbow Warriors pile on the points and run away with the Hawaii Bowl.

McDonald has thrown for 3,642 yards — fifth-most in the country — and 29 touchdowns on 64% passing. The redshirt junior also has four receivers he can throw to at any time.

Cedric Byrd II leads the receiver group with 1,068 yards and 10 touchdowns on 95 receptions, but Jared Smart isn’t too far behind with 987 yards and three TDs on 80 receptions. Jason Matthew Sharsh also has 80 receptions, along with four touchdowns, for 823 yards and JoJo Ward rounds out the group with 975 yards and 11 touchdowns on 58 receptions.

“You look at the top four receivers — they’re not really missing a beat,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “I just think they’re a dangerous opponent and they put up a lot of points on a lot of good teams.”

The Rainbow Warriors’ offense, which includes the nation’s sixth-best passing offense, starts with McDonald, Sitake said. But it’s also a testament to the offensive linemen.

The O-line is providing their quarterback more time to throw the ball. Yet, when teams do put pressure on McDonald, he's able to get the ball out quickly.

Sitake said the Cougars are familiar with teams like that. If anything, Utah State’s offense sort of does the same thing.

“But regardless, we're going to have to find ways to make the quarterback uncomfortable,” Sitake said. “That's the name of the game. And looking at the amount of catches the receivers have, they can do a lot of things. They can catch the ball deep and they can create 'from underneath' routes, too.”

When BYU last played Hawaii, the Cougars were first to score and kept piling on the points while making it hard for the Rainbow Warriors to get into the end zone. McDonald finished the 2018 season with 3,875 passing yards and 36 touchdowns. It was a huge improvement from a year prior when McDonald only threw for 22 yards on five completions.

But while in Provo, the Cougars also sacked McDonald four times.

“He’s really tall and lanky and I think he really gets the offense going when he’s on,” linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi said. “I think last year we dominated them because I think we understood that he is their role player. That’s just how their offense it — it starts with the quarterback. Hopefully we get after them this year and really prevent him from being really good.”

The Cougars' defense will have to find a balance between putting pressure on McDonald, but not allowing him to get rid of the ball quickly.

Once on the field, Kaufusi said he — and the rest of the defense — aren’t really thinking as much. They just play whatever calls Sitake or assistant coach Ilaisa Tuiaki want them to play.

But the key will be in how the BYU coaching staff will best utilize players.

Kaufusi believes the addition of redshirt freshmen Max Tooley and Payton Wilgar to the defense has paid off and could be vital against Hawaii.

“I think they’ve been a huge asset to our defense because they’re playing on the line and they’re playing defensive end and they can get out to the quarterback and they’re hybrid linebackers,” Kaufusi said. “I mean, they play linebackers and they also know how to drop some coverage. So I think that’s a huge benefit for us. I think it was a good change.”