BYU’s defense clamps down on Hawaii in second half, but can’t halt big plays when it counts

Hawaii running back Miles Reed (26) is tackled from behind by BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar, right, during the second half of the Hawaii Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

Honolulu • After a sloppy first half that was also riddled with missed opportunities, the BYU defense seemed to flip the switch in the second half of the Hawaii Bowl. The defensive performance allowed the Cougars to catch up, and even take their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter.

But BYU’s defenders couldn’t seal the deal on Christmas Eve.

After shutting out the Rainbow Warriors the entire second half, Hawaii was able to wear down the BYU defense, eventually scoring on on a 24-yard pass from Cole McDonald to Nick Mardner with 1:17 left to clinch a 38-34 victory and beat BYU for the first time since 2001.

McDonald, who finished with a career-best 493 yards on 28 of 46 passing, was named the Hawaii’s MVP in the bowl game.

“I felt like the big plays were the issue — and we gave them a lot of big plays,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said.

After Hawaii scored 14 unanswered points, BYU’s offense started responding — cutting the deficit in half by the end of the first quarter. The defense took a little longer to make its presence felt, but did stake out some moments that would help shift the momentum in the Cougars’ favor.

JJ Nwigwe and Zac Dawe teamed up to sack McDonald’s twice on the same drive, forcing the Rainbow Warriors to settle for a 46-yard field goal. Then there was also Troy Warner’s dropped interception on Hawaii’s ensuing play.

“I've got to take advantage as a coach to make sure they take advantage of those big plays and capitalize on dropped picks and things like that,” Sitake said.

But come the second half, BYU's defense forced Hawaii to punt on five of their first six drives. In the first four, the Cougars didn't even give up a first down. The Rainbow Warriors were actually -4 yards over those four drives.

Although UH finished with 495 total offense yards on 74 plays, the Warriors gained only 164 yards in the final two quarters.

But when it counted, UH pieced together a four-play, 71-yard scoring drive to again take the lead — this time for good. The highlights — or lowlights for BYU — 38-yard and 24-yard passes to Mardner.

“Obviously we didn’t make enough plays to win the game,” Sitake said. “We were able to dig ourselves out of a hole. Big plays were an issue — even that last drive was a big play and it cost us.”