That’s right. Kaiser played its cards just right in a decisive 20-9 win over top-seeded Lahainaluna last night.
The Cougars, seeded fourth in the Division II tourney of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA State Football Championships, made just about every good decision on a night when the ocean wind was blasting in. But it wasn’t just the 25 mph gusts that silenced most of the 9,000 fans at War Memorial Stadium.
>> No Rocha-Islas, no points.
In the first half, Lahainaluna used its misdirection offense to gash the Cougars defense in a way no one had seen. Not even Campbell ate up chunks of real estate like that against Kaiser. The Lunas, undisputedly the best team in the MIL in D-I and D-II, rushed for 190 yards in the first half.
That included 62 yards by Jared Rocha-Islas, who scored easily on a 49-yard run up the middle on an overpursuing Cougars defense. Quarterback Sione Filikitonga ran a multitude of keepers up the middle and had 58 yards by halftime. It was not a happy scene in the Kaiser lockerroom at the break.
“There were tears,” senior linebacker/running back Fitou Fisiiahi said.
He was as exhausted as I’ve seen in three years as a Cougar. Exhausted, but happy. And thankful. His grandma was right there to hug him after the game.
At intermission, Kaiser’s defensive adjustments were highly effective. The Lunas rushed for just 60 yards after halftime. Kaiser also made sure to close up the gaps in the middle, limiting the big gains of Filikitonga.
The Lunas truly missed Rocha-Islas, who left late in the first half with a possible fractured ankle. With him out of the lineup, the Lunas’ crisp, modified wing-T offense ground to a halt. Thirteen of their 24 running plays netted NEGATIVE yardage after intermission.
Filikitonga’s passing struggles were exacerbated. The Lunas tried to go deep, but coverage was tight. That’s one of the blessings and curses for a successful team like Lahainaluna, which was 10-0 before Saturday night. If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it, and though they tried to improve their passing game — Coach Garret Tihada felt it did step up some in the second half of the season — there were no short routes. No swing passes. No screens.
It’s not a bad thing, since the Lunas have completely dominated foes this season with that beautiful offense. But the injury to Rocha-Islas, plus the fatigue of nearly a dozen ironmen going both ways, were big factors. Kaiser knew it.
>> “It was deliberate.”
Kaiser OC Cameron Higgins didn’t line up his guys in that standard power-I set once all night. In the first half, they went to the shotgun/four-wide and stayed in it most of the time, even against that nasty wind blowing in. After the Lunas went up 9-7 after a safety, the Cougars seemed like Mike Tyson without a knockout punch.
They were merely saving their clout for the second half. They wore down the Lunas, then pounded away out of ace/single back and I-formation sets, rotating elusive Thomas Buntenbah-Leong and Rustin Saole at tailback. That was a stroke of genius; Buntenbah-Leong and Saole combined for 156 yards in the second half, mostly after Fisiiahi had scored on touchdown runs of 44 and 2 yards.
Lahainaluna had to protect the middle of the field because of Fisiiahi, the 6-foot, 235-pound bulldozer, so Higgins called sweep after sweep after sweep. It was old-school football from another era — maybe the UH football years of Dick Tomey. It was only fitting the Cougars enjoyed success with a retro, nearly forgotten play on a night when a former Rainbow Warrior (Rich Miano) led them to their first off-island state-tourney win.
>> D for destruction.
The Lahainaluna offensive line was solid, but with Rocha-Islas out and an inability of the offense to pass the ball efficiently, Kaiser’s defense simply swarmed. Their defensive line was tenacious. Nose tackle Manase Palu, a 5-foot-9, 310-pound junior, clogged everything inside in the second half.
It was enough to turn a very vocal Lunas crowd into a silent audience.
>> What was, what could have been and what will be.
It was just a few months ago when it appeared that Kaiser would move up to the OIA Red, swapping spots with another program — one struggling with numbers.
Instead, Kaiser stayed in D-II, ran the table in the OIA White and continues to dominate. The 20 points on Saturday wasn’t their best offensive output, but the way they took control in all three phases in the second half against the Lunas left no doubt. The offensive line did more than enough, preventing the Lunas’ superb lineman, Hercules Mata‘afa, from dominating the game. (He still made a lot of plays and may end up at Oregon State with Fisiiahi.)
So I have to wonder, how would Kaiser have fared in the OIA Red? Campbell, which beat Kaiser 21-7 to start the season in a nonconference matchup, reached the D-I state semifinal round. How much did Kaiser improve since that Week 1 game?
That’s a tough call. The Cougars clearly improved, but the lack of tough competition meant that they could rely on stingy defense and a run-heavy offense all through the OIA White season. They weren’t forced, ever, to take to the air like Lahainaluna did.
Kaiser was 3-for-13 via the pass last night. Three passes were dropped, and there was that stiff wind. I think Lii Karratti is a good QB, and if he’d been asked to throw the ball 30 times a game, the development would’ve been faster. But he has become an on-site director, an air-and-land traffic controller. He’s asked to do more than throw spirals, and that makes his team more formidable, tougher to prepare for.
That’s the only regret I have as a fan. Kaiser hasn’t completely been pushed from start to finish since that opener — when a lot of new players were assimilating into the system. They could beat Kauai in the D-II title game next week — the Red Raiders are clearly tougher than the seeding committee expected — and we still wouldn’t know exactly how good the Cougars could’ve been.
For now, though, it’s plain and simple. They might be the best D-II team in recent years, from offense to defense to special teams. Maybe the very best ever. They played with the hand dealt to them and made all the right moves, and that’s all they can do.