HONOLULU — BYU's victory over Hawaii last Saturday at Aloha Stadium was kind of like a microcosm of its season.
The Cougars started slow, but finished strong.
BYU (9-3) has won eight of its last nine games and is headed to the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 to face Tulsa.
Against the Warriors, the Cougars overcame a spate of first-half miscues before scoring 28 third-quarter points and earning a convincing 41-20 win.
Is BYU moving closer to reaching its potential?
"This was another step. There's still more room (for improvement)," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "We'll try to squeeze every bit out of our bowl preparation to make that happen."
Quarterback Riley Nelson started his first game since suffering lung and rib injuries against Idaho on Nov. 12. The Cougars rolled up 530 yards of total offense, and Nelson completed 25-of-37 passes for a career-high 363 yards and three touchdowns.
Of course, he received a lot of help.
Cody Hoffman had seven catches for 123 yards and a 39-yard, one-handed touchdown grab, marking his fourth 100-yard game this season and the fifth of his career.
Ross Apo had four catches for two touchdowns, J.D. Falslev caught five passes for 80 yards, and Marcus Mathews tallied four receptions for 80 yards.
Including 60 yards on two kickoff returns, Hoffman accumulated 183 all-purpose yards, moving him from 12th to 8th on the BYU single season all-purpose yards list with 1,662 yards. Hoffman surpassed the alumni flag bearer on Saturday, former Cougar running back Homer Jones (1979-80), who previously occupied the No. 8 spot with 1,624 yards in 1979.
Apo now has nine touchdowns this season, and is tied for 17th on the BYU all-time receiving touchdown list. Only Austin Collie (15 in 2008), Jonny Harline (12 in 2006), Todd Watkins (9 in 2005) and Reno Mahe (9 in 2001) recorded as many in one season since 1993.
Meanwhile, BYU's defense held Hawaii to 299 yards of total offense, but got burned on a 79-yard touchdown pass from quarterback David Graves to Trevor Davis late in the second quarter.
"I made a poor call as a play-caller that went for the distance," Mendenhall said of that play. "It wasn't the players' fault. Hawaii made a better play-call than I did."
At halftime, the Warriors led 13-10. Mendenhall acknowledged he made some adjustments in the second half, which helped the Cougars outscore Hawaii 31-7 over the final 30 minutes.
"We played more conservatively," he said. "Once we got an idea of what they were doing in the second half … we felt like we were right onto their game."
Placekicker Justin Sorensen struggled, missing his first two field goal attempts — including a 38-yarder that smacked the left upright — before hitting a 33-yarder with 39 seconds left in the first half, snapping a streak of five consecutive missed field goals. He added a 36-yarder in the fourth quarter.
In the game's waning moments, reserve running back David Foote ran for 56 yards to the Hawaii 5-yard line before backup quarterback Jake Heaps took a knee and ended the game.
A reporter from a Honolulu newspaper asked Mendenhall why he opted not to score in that situation.
"I don't know why you would do anything else," the coach said. "The game was in control. I respect the game of football. I respect the University of Hawaii and coach (Greg) McMackin. There was no need to score any more points. It was just the right thing to do."
For Mendenhall, the trip to Hawaii was a resounding success, and not just because of the favorable outcome.
"It just reaffirmed the reason to keep playing this game," he said. "It's not an easy trip. But to see the families over here being able to see their sons and for the extended relatives to be together, and then to have a fireside (Friday night), it was an awesome thing for those kids. I might have enjoyed that more than the game, just seeing them being able to come home. I hope Hawaii feels the same way about the game so we can keep it going."
BYU and Hawaii are scheduled to play again on Sept. 29, 2012, in Provo, and the two teams are set to play for the next several seasons.
The players will reconvene in Provo on Monday for conditioning drills while the assistant coaches will go out recruiting. Then the Cougars will prepare for their upcoming bowl game.