HONOLULU — Maybe it was the long layoff, or the distractions of balmy weather and beautiful beaches. Or maybe it was the fact that Hawaii was playing like it was trying to salvage its season.
Whatever it was, BYU mostly looked lackluster at Aloha Stadium in the first half, and trailed the Warriors by three points.
But in the second half, the Cougars erupted for 28 unanswered points en route to a dominating 41-20 victory Saturday afternoon.
Leading the way for BYU was junior quarterback Riley Nelson, who hadn't played since suffering rib and lung injuries against Idaho on Nov. 12. Nelson started the game and turned in not only another gutty effort, but also his best game as a Cougar.
Nelson completed 25-of-37 passes for a career-high 363 yards and three touchdowns.
BYU (9-3) will conclude its season in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 in Dallas. For Hawaii, which needed a victory to be bowl-eligible, its campaign came to a disappointing end.
Not only did Nelson's lungs survive a physical Warrior defense, but his lungs made quite an impassioned halftime speech, too, that jumpstarted the big second half for BYU.
"(Hawaii) came out and punched in the mouth and we all felt disrespected," said wide receiver Ross Apo, who caught two TD passes from Nelson. "At halftime we kind of got mad. Riley gave us a little speech. In the second half, we came out and played our game. It was a close game (at halftime). We knew that's not how we play. We knew that once we got started, we'd put points on the board."
Hawaii was on top of the Cougars, 13-10, at intermission after a first half that saw plenty of offensive, defensive and special teams miscues, including a pair of missed field goals by placekicker Justin Sorensen.
"We were down at halftime and we didn't expect to be down at halftime," Nelson said. "Guys were frustrated and mad. The only thing I said was, 'We're in a decent position. We'll get the ball back (at the start of the second half). It's right to be angry. We got into the red zone four times and only got one touchdown, but we're going to turn that around in the second half.' And we did."
That speech resonated with the team. "We didn't want a sad trip home," said defensive back Joe Sampson.
Due to the nature of his injuries, it wasn't until early this week that Nelson was cleared to make the long flight to Honolulu.
And he played like a warrior against the Warriors, making plays out of the thin, and sultry, Hawaiian air.
On the Cougars' opening drive of the second half, they jumped ahead on a nine-play, 72-yard drive. The key play came on third-and-8 from the Hawaii 33. Nelson found himself in the grasp of a pair of Hawaii would-be tacklers behind the line of scrimmage when he lofted the ball up in the air. Hoffman came down with the pass, a 21-yard completion that kept the drive alive. Two plays later, Nelson hit Apo on a screen pass. Apo spun out of a tackle and scored to put BYU up, 17-13, with 11:13 left in the third quarter.
The Cougars struck again, this time on defense, when linebacker Uona Kaveinga forced a Joey Iosefa fumble, and Sampson scooped up the ball and ran 27 yards for a touchdown.
Later, the Cougars scored again when Nelson slipped out of a tackle, stumbled around on the turf, then fired a pass to Hoffman. Hoffman made a one-handed grab in stride and sprinted into the end zone. At that point, with 1:10 left in the third quarter, BYU led, 38-13.
"It took him a series or two or three to get his rhythm, timing and feel back, Mendenhall said of Nelson's performance. You saw in the second half there was quite a difference. He became what he has been. That play he made with Cody Hoffman was one of the greatest plays that I've seen. He's physically a tough young man ... They had a corner coming unblocked from the left side and somehow Riley got out of that. He was stumbling, then sees Hoffman and makes a delivery I don't know how he does it. Hoffman stretches as far as he can with one hand and brings it in. It was one of those plays that for those who watch ESPN probably ought to be the play of the day or whatever they call that. It was a great play."
And it was a great day for Nelson and the Cougars at Aloha Stadium.
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