BYU in review: Cougars’ loss to Hawaii was a microcosm of their season

(Eugene Tanner | AP) 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.

Honolulu • When it comes to the 2019 Hawaii Bowl, what people may continue to talk about will be the almost-touchdown-turned-fumble by Zach Wilson and the questionable field goal by Jake Oldroyd that would have handed BYU a win over the Rainbow Warriors.

“I guess they didn’t have enough evidence to say it was a touchdown,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said of Wilson’s fumble. “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.”

But if anything, those would-be moments and almost-there feats was a fitting way to end a season that had its struggles.

While the Cougars finished 7-6 overall for the second consecutive season, last year ended on a note of optimism, while this year ended on a note of disappointment.

When BYU faced Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Wilson punched in a perfect performance — 18 of 18 for 317 yards and four touchdowns — to lead the Cougars to a dominating 49-18 victory.

Fans held on to that win over the offseason, hopeful of what was to come in 2019.

But while BYU was able to clinch a couple of tough victories over Tennessee and South California, the team struggled against lesser opponents, with disconcerting losses at Toledo and South Florida.

And then again in the regular-season finale at San Diego State.

The Hawaii Bowl included all of the highs and lows the team has experienced this season, but ended on a low.

The offense finished with 505 total yards and had 10 more first downs than its opponent, but it wasn’t enough. The defense only allowed two rushing yards — seriously, only two — but were beat in the air game.

The Cougars were oh-so-close to a win, but failed to make the big plays when needed.

Three takeaways

  • In the last six games of the regular season, Oldroyd missed three of his field goal attempts while Skyler Southam only made one of his three attempts. The kicking game was a point of high concern over the past few weeks as BYU prepared for the Hawaii Bowl — and it seems it was fixed. Oldroyd reclaimed the position and nailed two of his three attempts. His lone miss – a 41-yard attempt — was a questionable one. Oldroyd was seen celebrating on the field as he thought the ball went through the uprights, but the officials ruled it a miss. Regardless of the outcome, Oldroyd showed improvement.

  • Along with the kicking game, the special teams had underperformed as a group. However, that wasn’t the case at Aloha Stadium. Aleva Hifo returned three punts for 97 yards — the second-most in Hawaii Bowl history. His longest, a 52-yard return after the Rainbow Warriors failed to even move the ball on their first drive of the second half, set the Cougars up on UH’s six-yard line. Two plays later, Wilson was able to convert on a quarterback keep to tie the game.

  • Going into the bowl game, Hawaii had one of the worst turnover margins; the Rainbow Warriors had 13 fumbles lost and 17 interceptions. But on Christmas Eve, BYU was unable to force a turnover. Instead, UH’s Khoury Bethley intercepted Wilson twice for a total of 29 yards returned and Manly Williams recovered Wilson’s fumble in the end zone. However, the Cougars did tally five pass break-ups and racked up a season-best five sacks. Senior defensive end JJ Nwigwe played his best game as a Cougar, finishing with four tackles, 2.5 tackles for lass and two sacks.

Player of the game

Cole McDonald, junior, quarterback.

The junior, who was named the Hawaii Bowl MVP for the Rainbow Warriors, went 28 of 46 for a career-best 493 yards and four touchdowns. McDonald actually did most of that work in the first half.

The Rainbow Warriors led the Cougars 31-24 going into the break on 18 of 24 passing for 331 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stunning improvement for McDonald from the last time these programs met (in Provo last October). In BYU’s 49-23 win over the Rainbow Warriors, they contained McDonald to 248 yards.

Play of the game

The back-to-back long passes from McDonald to Nick Wardner for the eventual, game-winning touchdown.

The BYU defense had held the UH offense to only 102 yards in the second half, but then McDonald was once again given too much time and found the open man in Mardner for a 38-yard and then a 24-yard reception to get the lead back with 1:17 left in the game.

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

Up next

Spring ball starts in March, and then start fall camp in August. BYU’s 2020 schedule includes home games against Michigan State, Utah State, Missouri, San Diego State, Houston and North Alabama and road games at Arizona State, Boise State, Northern Illinois, Stanford, Minnesota and Utah.