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Army hands Hawaii first loss of 2018 season

By STEPHEN TSAI | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: September 17, 2018

WEST POINT, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — Several University of Hawaii football players — exhausted and cramping from a three-hour, 16-minute fight — struggled to ascend the ramp from Blaik Field to Michie Stadium’s visitors locker room.

The resiliency to return to the top, literally and metaphorically, was real for the Rainbow Warriors, whose frenetic comeback was extinguished in a 28-21 loss to Army on Saturday.

“I’m disappointed, more so in myself,” said Cole McDonald, who became the first UH quarterback since Tim Chang to start the season with four consecutive games of 300-plus yards passing.

McDonald was 20-for-32 for 321 yards and two touchdowns. But McDonald’s final pass, aimed at slotback Cedric Byrd on a back-side cut in the end zone, was batted away by Army middle linebacker Cole Christiansen.

The Black Knights took over on downs, then ran out the last 54 seconds, which was fitting. On this day, they owned the clock, holding possession for 41 minutes, 18 seconds. The game kicked off early — noon in New York, 6 a.m. in Hawaii — but the Warriors still ran out of time. They suffered their first loss after opening the season with three consecutive victories.

“Guess what,” UH coach Nick Rolovich told his players, “you’re probably not going to win the national championship. … Everything else is in front of us.”

It appeared the drama had ended when 5-foot-9, 220-pound Darnell Woolfolk, one of five fullbacks, scored on a 3-yard run to extend the Knights’ lead to 28-14 with 5:09 to play.

But on the first play of the ensuing UH possession, Rolovich gave the “go” signal. McDonald then lofted a long pass to slotback John Ursua, who was a step behind the secondary. After Ursua identified the landing site — “I didn’t know whether he was going to drop it on the inside shoulder or outside shoulder” — he secured the catch and raced the rest of the way for an 80-yard touchdown to slice the UH deficit to 28-21 with 8:42 to play.

The Knights then began another slow march. On the 11th play of a drive that munched 47 yards, the Knights faced a fourth-and-1 on the UH 28. In a similar situation earlier, fullback Connor Slomka was credited with a first down even though he appeared to juggle the ball near the line to gain.This time, the officials ruled quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. was stopped just short of the first-down marker with three minutes to play.

“I love the fight in this team,” Rolovich said. “They didn’t give up. You’re an inch from a fourth-down stop, you’re an inch with the fourth-down stop.”

The Warriors drove to the Army 11, but could get no closer. UH appeared to pick up 8 yards on a second-down pass from McDonald to JoJo Ward. But upon review, the officials ruled Ward did not fully secure the football before the ball hit the ground. McDonald could not connect on his final two passes.

“I thought we were going to win,” McDonald said of the last play. “That was a great play call. It didn’t go our way. … Our defense played phenomenal all night. Honestly, I don’t think we’d be in it if it weren’t for them. Hat’s off to them. They kept us in the game. We would have won that game if I made that throw. I can’t thank them enough for what they do.”

Ursua caught six passes for 123 yards, and accounted for three touchdowns, including a 1-yard keeper when he motioned behind center Taaga Tuulima and took the snap as a wildcat. “It’s a play we worked on, for sure,” said Ursua, who was used as an option quarterback in high school.

UH linebacker Jahlani Tavai also blocked a field-goal attempt near the end of the first half.

But the Warriors had gaps of 21:03 and 13:23 between touchdowns. “You have to make the most (of) opportunities with the ball,” UH offensive coordinator Brian Smith said. “That was our problem. It wasn’t the lack of opportunities (nine full drives). It was what we did with those opportunities. You have to execute and you have to score when you get those chances. … There were penalties we normally don’t have. There were drops we normally don’t have. We weren’t as accurate at times. It was our deal.”

Hopkins also created problems with his mastery of the triple-option attack. Hopkins, who rushed for a career-high 110 yards, scored two touchdowns. Hopkins was 6-for-10 for 162 yards, including five third-down completions for 147 yards. He was 1-for-8 on third down in Army’s first two games. On one play, the right-handed Hopkins rolled to his left and fired a pass for a 28-yard gain. Last year, the Knights competed 20 passes in 13 games. This year, Hopkins has 18 completions in three games.

“This quarterback they have this year is a lot more talented a thrower,” UH defensive coordinator Corey Batoon said. “We knew that. What impressed me is he was able to get the run game going. He did some nice things.”

Tavai, who played several spots on UH’s defense, said the Warriors were prepared for Hopkins’ multiple skills.

“You can’t be surprised,” said Tavai, who amassed 15 tackles. “You never flinch as a defensive player. You expect everything.”

Rolovich conceded there were spurts when the Warriors struggled offensively or, to be more precise, “we kind of stunk it up a little bit.”

The Warriors never could get their running game into a rhythm. Dayton Furuta and Fred Holly combined for 22 rushing yards. That allowed the Knights to sometimes drop an eighth defender into coverage.

“Obviously, we could have played better,” Rolovich said. “We didn’t need that lull. But (the) defense didn’t complain one bit, not even after the game, about being on the field for 41 minutes.”

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