In a football debut seemingly lifted from a Disney script, freshman Chevan Cordeiro tossed the decisive 38-yard scoring pass to JoJo Ward on Saturday night in Hawaii’s one-for-the-ages 17-13 victory over Wyoming at Aloha Stadium.
A crowd of 20,507 saw Cordeiro, who was a Saint Louis School student five months earlier, help the Rainbow Warriors win for the sixth time in seven games. They are perfect in three Mountain West games. The Warriors also reclaimed the Paniolo Trophy that the Cowboys seized last year.
“Chev crusaded us to the win,” wideout Marcus Armstrong-Brown said. “The Saint Louis Crusader. It’s crazy.”
Years from now, running back Dayton Furuta said, “I’m going to tell my grandkids I was right next to him on the field. … Just hearing the crowd, it brought back memories of the glory years.”
With the score tied at 10, the Cowboys drove to the UH 7. But on second-and-6, second-year freshman Tyler Vander Waal threw incomplete to tight end Nate Weinman. On third down, Vander Waal scrambled for a yard before being tackled by linebacker Jahlani Tavai. Cooper Rothe’s field goal from 23 yards put the Cowboys ahead 13-10 with 5:31 to play.
With Cordeiro at the controls, the Warriors slow-marched down the field. After Cordeiro was sacked for a 3-yard loss, resetting the line of scrimmage to the Wyoming 38, the Warriors called time with 1:35 to play.
Cordeiro took the shotgun snap, pirouetted from the grasp of nose tackle Sidney Malauulu, scrambled to his right and lofted a pass toward the right corner of the end zone.
“We told Jo(Jo) Ward all day, we told him, ‘You’re going to have to keep on running, but this kid likes to break the pocket and make big plays,’ ” quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann said. “And that’s what happened.”
Ward, who is 5 feet 9, was matched against a 5-10 cornerback.
“He was my size,” Ward said. “I can jump high. I can dunk. There aren’t a lot of guys my size who can jump out of the gym. I knew I could out-jump him.”
Ward soared to make the two-handed catch for the go-ahead touchdown for a 17-13 lead.
“It didn’t feel real,” Ward said. “It felt like something out of the movie … like it was in slow motion. I had to make a play that was meant to be.”
In the celebration behind the UH sideline, head coach Nick Rolovich recalled thinking “it was the state-championship game. That’s what I thought. And I thought JoJo Ward has unbelievable hands.”
Cordeiro was not available to the media as part of the Warriors’ policy prohibiting true freshmen from being interviewed. It was the theme of the week as the Warriors kept mum on the playing status of Cole McDonald, who entered the weekend as the nation’s leading passer.
McDonald did not attend practices on Tuesday and Wednesday. He participated in Thursday’s extended walk-through. Friday’s practice was closed to the media. During warm-ups, it appeared McDonald was taking snaps. It turned out to be a ruse. Quarterback Kolney Cassel wore McDonald’s No. 13 jersey to throw off Wyoming coaches.
Cassel, a graduate transfer, said: “I told Rolo, ‘Let me be Cole. I can act like I cut the (dreadlocks).’ I went out there and mimicked him.”
Cassel added: “My master’s degree is in acting. I put it to use.”
Just before kickoff, UH announced McDonald would not play because of an undisclosed injury.
But Stutzmann said Cordeiro was ready for his debut. Stutzmann said UH ran the same plays it would have called if McDonald were the quarterback.
Cordeiro’s “first game was Wyoming’s sixth game,” Stutzmann said. “Wyoming is a very veteran group. I thought he did a heck of a job. He showed what he is. He’s a resilient person. He never gets too high. He never gets too low.”
Cordeiro was 19-for-29 for 148 yards and two touchdowns. His lone interception resulted in defensive end Carl Granderson’s 61-yard return for a touchdown.
The Cowboys’ offense was held without a touchdown. Vander Waal was limited to 9-for-16 passing for 87 yards. He was sacked five times.
Nico Evans, running behind an offensive line averaging 315 pounds and up to two tight ends, scooted for 192 yards on 24 carries. But 63 of those yards came on a dive up the middle when the Warriors ran a corner blitz into a wave of blockers.
“I wish I had that call back,” UH defensive coordinator Corey Batoon said.
It was a rare mistake for a UH defense that made a key fourth-down stop and denied the Cowboys 10 times on third-down plays.
“We rose up,” Batoon said. “The kids played their tails off. I’m so proud of the way they played.”
Defensive end Zeno Choi made a timely sack, linebacker Penei Pavihi amassed a career-high 10 tackles, and rush end Kaimana Padello was everywhere the Cowboys did not want him to be. Padello’s three tackles were all in the backfield, including two sacks. But he repeatedly flushed Vander Waal out of the pocket or into tacklers.
“I think it was really important for the future of our season for our defense to play well,” Rolovich said. “That win was on the back of the defense.”