Everything broke just right for the Kaiser Cougars.
After forcing six Kahuku turnovers only to turn them into 13 points, Kaiser seemed on the verge of giving away a potential upset of the third-ranked Red Raiders.
But then, with two minutes on the clock, linebacker Parker Higgins capped off a monster night defensively with a big hit on running back Kesi Ah-Hoy to force yet another Kahuku fumble.
With one final chance, Kaiser ran the ball 10 consecutive times on a Kahuku defense that had given up just 77 rushing yards on 33 attempts.
Junior Jensen McDaniel, the OIA’s leading rusher, had been bottled up by a ferocious Kahuku defense, led by linebacker Salanoa-Alo Wily.
Kaiser coach Cameron Higgins noticed the lineup Kahuku went with on defense on the final drive and gave it to his go-to-guy. McDaniel responded with five consecutive runs for 44 yards to get the ball inside the 20. After quarterback Kalawai’a Judd kept it for 8 yards down to the 4, McDaniel moved it to the 1 for first-and-goal. The Kahuku defense held tough twice before Judd finally plowed over the goal line with 15.9 seconds remaining to give Kaiser the stunning upset, 20-19.
Every bit as stunning as the upset was the way Kaiser finished it off. Ten consecutive runs against a defense that is as tough as any in the state to run on.
“We saw that (Kahuku’s) D-line was a lot of running backs they had used on offense and we could tell they were kind of gassed,” Higgins said. “We tried to push the tempo and luckily all of the training we do prepared us for that drive.”
Kaiser’s offense was impressive. Judd, who is in his first year playing quarterback, threw for a career-high 325 yards. Kaiser finished with 60 of its 137 rushing yards on that final drive as McDaniel ran for 98 yards on 28 carries and caught three passes for 99 yards.
But every bit as impressive as the offense was the defense, which did give up 218 rushing yards, but made game-changing play after game-changing play. Kaiser forced Kahuku quarterback Tuli Wily-Matagi to throw three interceptions. Seniors Cody Kim and Justin Ikei and junior Isaiah Akiona had the picks for the Cougars defense, which allowed Wily-Matagi to complete only six of his 13 pass attempts.
Wily and Ah-Hoy, Kahuku’s top two running backs, had two fumbles each, with three coming on the final three drives. Parker Higgins, the younger brother of Cameron Higgins, forced two of the fumbles and recovered another.
“Our defensive coaches had a great scheme coming in and our kids bought in to what they had to do,” Cameron Higgins said.
One of those coaches is defensive coordinator Richard Torres, the son of Reggie Torres, who won three state title as Kahuku’s head coach from 2006 to 2013.
Reggie Torres, who is now the offensive line coach at Punahou, was let go after he was forced to re-apply for the position by principal Pauline Masaniai during a review of the athletic department.
Kahuku was 45-3 under Torres in OIA regular season games and had won 44 of its last 46 until the loss to Kaiser under Lee Lesie, who replaced Torres.
Leslie was critical of a few penalties called in key situations but credited Kaiser for playing hard.
“Give them credit. They came out and played their tails off here and we came out flat obviously and didn’t take care of the ball,” Leslie said. “I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions about (the penalties). There were three third-and-20s that they got some calls that bothered me but I’ll leave it at that for now.”
Kaiser would be tied for second with Kahuku in the OIA Red and in contention for a first-round playoff bye but had to forfeit its season-opening win against Aiea for using an ineligible player. At 3-2, the Cougars are in third place a game behind the Red Raiders and two behind Leilehua. Kaiser finishes the regular season at Castle next week and at the Mules the following week and can still play their way into a bye, but need help.
Kahuku can rebound from the loss with a big win next week when it hosts Leilehua on the North Shore next Friday.
The win over Kahuku was Kaiser’s first since 1989 and just its fourth in 14 games against the Red Raiders since 1973.
The two teams played at Kaiser Stadium for just the second time in the last 25 years.