By STEPHEN TSAI
Tribune News Service
A freshman quarterback gave a once-upon-a-time story a miracle finish.
Chevan Cordeiro, who was a Saint Louis School student six months ago, willed the Hawaii football team to a don’t-pinch-me, 35-28 victory over UNLV at Aloha Stadium.
A crowd of 22,741 saw the Rainbow Warriors surge from a 28-13 deficit to produce the program’s greatest comeback in 35 years.
“No, no, no, I’m not a hero,” said Cordeiro, who threw three touchdown passes, including the decisive 68-yarder to John Ursua with 1:25 to play. “I thank everyone who helped me — my O-line, my wide receivers, my coaches, the defense. It’s not just me. It’s everyone.”
In the postgame celebration that would not be exhausted, Ursua proclaimed, “You can never doubt us. You can never count us out. … Chevan did a hell of a job.”
In this season’s roller-coaster ride, the Warriors won six of their first seven, lost their next four, and sealed their first winning season since 2010 with Saturday night’s resurrection.
At 7-5 with one regular-season game remaining, the Warriors have met the bowl-eligibility requirement. The Warriors are expected to be heading to the Dec. 22 Hawaii Bowl, although Mountain West officials announced in a hold-everything email that bowl invitations will not be made until Dec. 2.
But on a senior night, the Warriors declared their candidacy.
“We fought hard, and we fought hard to the end,” slotback Cedric Byrd.
The Rebels set the tone early with an eclectic running game — they gained 158 yards on 30 carries in the first half — and speed-bumped the Warriors with a flood-the-passing-lanes defensive scheme. The Rebels in three levels — three in the front, six across the middle (with the corners giving cushion to the wideouts, and safeties aligned deep. In one wrinkle, Ursua’s routes were covered by a safety and linebacker.
UH quarterback Cole McDonald’s second interception was parlayed into a 16-yard scoring pass from Armani Rogers to Evan Owens and a 28-13 UNLV lead with 14:21 to play.
UH coach Nick Rolovich considered making a quarterback change, but stuck with McDonald. After a three-and-out, Rolovich summoned Cordeiro.
“We were talking about some things on the sideline that we were seeing but missing early on,” Rolovich recalled.
Cordeiro entered with 11:55 on the clock. His first snap was premature — UH was called for a false start. On the next play, Cordeiro lofted a pass to wideout JoJo Ward, who made the catch along the right sideline, cut diagonally and raced into the end zone to complete a 64-yard scoring play.
Cordeiro then fired a two-point pass to Ursua on a crossing pattern in the end zone to close the Warriors to 28-21 with 11:42 to play.
On the ensuing possession, the Rebels drove to the UH 44, where they faced a fourth-and-1. The handoff went to Lexington “Lightning” Thomas on a play to the right. But linebacker Penei Pavihi was able to catch “Lightning” for a 2-yard loss.
Seven plays later, from the UNLV 20, Cordeiro arced a pass to Ward on a post route. With his tippy toes just inside the back of the end zone, Ward secured the over-the-shoulder catch.
Asked about his footwork, Ward said, “it was the hands, man. I knew where I was at. I had to make sure I caught the ball. I knew if I caught it, I had a chance. My feet were on the ground.”
Ryan Meskell’s point-after kick tied it at 28 with 4:23 left.
The Rebels’ next possession ended the same way as the previous drive — in Pavihi’s clutches. Pavihi sacked Rogers, forcing the Rebels to punt.
The Warriors took over at their 21 with 2:42 to play. Two Miles Reed rushes advanced the ball to the 32. On the next play, Cordeiro overthrew Ward on a go route along the right sideline. The incompletion was a set-up to the next play.
This time, Ursua and Ward were aligned on the right side. Instead of racing downfield, Ward broke inside. Ursua then curled to the right. It was a bait-and-switch tactic. The defender followed Ward, opening the way for Ursua. Ursua caught Cordeiro’s pass and sprinted the rest of the way for the go-ahead, 68-yard touchdown.
“It was a switch route,” Ursua said. “We knew it was there. We saw it earlier in the game. I’m glad they called it again to give me an opportunity to close the game. As soon as we called it, I knew we were going in. I told everyone on the sideline. I was going to score the game-winning touchdown. I’m glad we did.”
Quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann said Cordeiro had prepared to play all week.
“He was plugged in with his reads,” Stutzmann said. “He went through his progressions and reads. He was dialed in. He’s a gamer. There aren’t enough words to explain his performance. When we needed it most, he performed the best.”
In three drives covering 5 minutes, 34 seconds, Cordeiro was four of five for 153 yards.
Cordeiro was admittedly nervous when he first entered.
“But coach Stutz and coach Rolo prepared me well,” Cordeiro said.
After the game, the Warriors reflected on the past. They dedicated the game to Vince Manuwai, a former UH offensive lineman who died last week.
“I think Vince is up there right now singing ‘Hakuna Matata’ and celebrating with these seniors,” Rolovich said.