Boise, Idaho • Hinckley Ropati could tell it was a joke. But when he was asked to introduce himself to the television cameras thrust in his face in the postgame madness, he figured playing along with the bit couldn’t hurt.
“I’m Hinckley Ropati from Downey,” BYU’s running back said with a grin.
And while everyone laughed around him, it was probably a good time for an introduction. Because for many fans, Saturday night’s 31-28 comeback win over Boise State was the first time ever hearing about the junior college transfer who has spent the past three years in relative obscurity.
Until this weekend, Ropati had logged just five carries for 19 yards in his career. But in one night, he put together 110 all-purpose and became the key role player in a must-win situation. This included a 48-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave the Cougars a response to Boise State’s late offensive deluge.
“He’s just waiting for his time,” coach Kalani Sitake said. “His moment, I think he took every advantage of it.”
So where did Ropati come from?
There is a short answer and a long answer.
The short answer: Ropati started the year as the fifth-string running back and an afterthought in a room stocked with Chris Brooks, Lopini Katoa, Miles Davis and Mason Fakahua.
But the injury bug soon hit. Brooks has been out for the past two weeks. Fakahua was ruled out before Saturday’s game. Davis went out mid-game with an injury. That left just Katoa and Ropati to carry the load.
“Obviously we had some backs do down,” Ropati said. “Miles, CB and Mason, I had to step up and do anything to help the team win.”
Nearly from the jump, the junior came in and contributed. He caught a first-down pass inside the red zone. Then had five carries for 28 yards before his touchdown.
At 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, he moved the needle in a physical game.
“Big-time players make big-time plays,” wide receiver Puka Nacua said. “We see him everyday make plays in practice. He runs hard and that is what he did [tonight].”
But the short answer doesn’t account for where Ropati really has been for the past three years.
Ropati came to BYU as a big-time junior college transfer with the chance to get the keys to the running backs room. At Cerritos College in California, he accounted for 942 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns in the 2019 season.
Yet, in 2020, he tore his ACL during his first season at BYU. A year later, he redshirted as Tyler Allgeier took the reins and had a 23-touchdown season. And this year, BYU brought in Brooks as a transfer to stabilize the room.
Saturday, Ropati got his chance to show a side his teammates had seen before.
“I remember watching his JUCO film, the guy was electric,” quarterback Jaren Hall said. “... He is such an explosive guy. I’m excited he showed it tonight.”
Ropati had two catches for 25 yards or more and two runs for 9 yards or more. Outside of Nacua, he was BYU’s most productive player. In the fourth quarter, too, as the game went back and forth, Ropati was one of Hall’s trusted options.
And perhaps the most surprising part wasn’t that a fifth-string running back was doing it out of nowhere. It was that he didn’t seem fazed by the moment.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Boise State fans were doing a light show and singing along to blasting music. Ropati was down on the sideline dancing like he was enjoying the atmosphere.
He was enjoying his moment.
But remember the name, because it might not be Ropati’s last.
“Throughout the time, just waiting for his number to be called, it would be easy for him to be discouraged,” Sitake said. " But that guy stuck with it. ... Obviously he has a much bigger role now.”