For the first time all night, Chevan Cordeiro had nowhere to run, no way to escape.
He was trapped in the corridor outside the Hawaii locker room, forced by reporters to describe his breakout performance in the Rainbow Warriors’ last-offense-standing, 42-40 victory over San Jose State at Aloha Stadium.
Cordeiro, a second-year freshman making his first start of the season, threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns and scampered his way for another two scores.
Cordeiro earned kudos from head coach Nick Rolovich, who justified a decision that was the most gut-wrenching of his career.
Rolovich had to choose between Cole McDonald, who is among the nation’s leaders in passing yards and touchdowns, and Cordeiro, who has proven to be a fourth-quarter wonder in his 24-game stint at UH. Rolovich spent the week studying their work in practice and sorting through scenarios that would best succeed against the Spartans. The exhaustive vetting led Rolovich to turn over most of the play-calling to offensive coordinator Brian Smith.
On Friday night, Rolovich decided on Cordeiro.
“That’s as hard a decision (as) I had to make,” Rolovich said. “You’re talking, maybe by numbers, you might be taking the conference Player of the Year off the field. It was very difficult to do.”
Rolovich then notified both quarterbacks. Cordeiro had a restful night, then woke up to his usual game-day breakfast of eggs, bacon and rice. And then as kickoff approached, he admitted, “Shoot, I always get nervous before a game. Human nature. But I knew all week I was practicing like I was going to start.”
In this shootout, Cordeiro had ample weapons. The offensive line provided time and gaps. Miles Reed, a third-year sophomore, netted 124 rushing yards on 17 carries, an average of 7.3 yards a pop. It was Reed’s first 100-yard game as a Warrior.
“It was a special moment,” Reed said of learning he had exceeded the century mark. “You only get one first 100-yard game. The guys worked their butts off. They laid blocks even I wasn’t expecting. They moved guys around. They created big holes. I had to hit (the holes). That was my only job.”
Reed and Cordeiro worked a two-man con. While acting as if he were running a keeper, the ball already was in Reed’s grip on a handoff or pitch. In turn, Reed would fake taking a handoff while Cordeiro scooted the other way. Cordeiro rushed for 60 yards on 10 non-sack runs.
But at its core, the game was a duel between Josh Love and Cordeiro. Love was 30-for-45 for 375 yards and two touchdowns. When the Warriors dropped into coverage, running back DeJon Packer powered his way for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Both of Packer’s scores materialized after he broke away from defenders.
Love’s top target was Tre Walker, a vertical threat in both senses. He could sprint downfield or soar for jump-ball passes.
The Warriors countered with wideout JoJo Ward, who amassed 170 yards on seven catches. In the second quarter, Ward came back to secure a Cordeiro pass at the SJSU 19, then eluded two defenders to race into the end zone to complete the 71-yard play and move the Warriors ahead, 14-13.
Later, Ward caught a 46-yard pass on a go route to set up Reed’s 4-yard scoring run to help UH regain the lead, 21-20.
“He did most of the work,” Cordeiro said of Ward’s long receptions. “He got open. All I had to do was throw it up to him. He ran under it and caught it.”
Ward said he worked on tracking long passes during practices.
“The ball’s the same in the air, like I’m at practice,” said Ward, who also caught a 5-yard scoring pass from Cordeiro. “I just focus on the ball.”
Left wideout Jared Smart caught Cordeiro’s third touchdown pass on a play in which he might not have been the target. Smart and left slotback Jason-Matthew Sharsh both ran double curls to the left in the end zone. Cordeiro, who was chased out of the pocket, tossed the ball into the end zone. Smart made a leaping catch in front of Sharsh.
“I saw Chevan look me off,” Smart recalled. “I saw him put (the pass) in the area, and I grabbed it. I knew it was for somebody.”
That made it 35-26 — a lead that was soon reduced to two points when Bailey Gaither caught a 40-yard pass from Love with 9:53 to play.
Cordeiro answered with a 2-yard scoring run, using Reed as a decoy, to extend UH’s lead to 42-33 with 4:23 to play.
Then the Spartans came up with another counter punch, a 19-yard TD pass from Love to Isaiah Hamilton with 1:51 remaining.
On a double move, Chris Wood faked an onside kick to the right. Place-kicker Matt Mercurio, who had booted four field goals, then squibbed the football to the left. UH’s Smart grabbed the football and ran out of bounds.
“Coaches were on me about knowing the situation,” said Smart, who did not attempt a return. “They said if I get the ball, take a knee or get out of bounds.”
The instructions were different for Cordeiro when the Warriors faced a third-and-2 at midfield. Cordeiro gained 4 yards on the keeper for the first down to end the suspense.
“I was thinking, I had to get the first down no matter what,” Cordeiro said. “I had to lower my shoulder and do what I needed to do.”
After the game, Rolovich praised Cordeiro for his game management and McDonald for his support. Rolovich said he was not thinking ahead to this coming week’s road game against UNLV. “We have two triggermen who can win a bunch of games for us,” Rolovich said.
FINAL: #HawaiiFB takes a knee on a 42-40 win over San Jose State to claim the inaugural Dick Tomey Legacy Trophy.
Trophy brought onto the field immediately postgame while both teams stand together. pic.twitter.com/ojJZlNjHSL
— Hawaii Warrior World (@hawaiiwworld) November 10, 2019
— Hawaii Warrior World (@hawaiiwworld) November 10, 2019