The first time, Punahou’s defensive unit sauntered through the mauka tunnel of Aloha Stadium, chins down after a 64-44 loss to unbeaten Saint Louis.
That was three weeks ago — an eternity in the world of Interscholastic League of Honolulu athletics. The nature of the gauntlet is simple: Get better or fall behind. It’s an evolutionary food chain that is never more true than it is on the gridiron. Punahou’s convincing 33-20 victory over Saint Louis on Thursday night didn’t just push the Buffanblu into a first-place tie with Saint Louis. The Buffanblu asserted their will on the nation’s most dangerous quarterback.
Tua Tagovailoa accounted for nine touchdowns and 551 total yards in the first meeting. On Thursday, he was hounded from the left, the right and the middle. On the occasional snap when Punahou sent Marist Liufau — who appeared to be spying on Tagovailoa early on — into coverage, the normally prolific senior slinger found nobody open.
It was astounding, actually, to see Tagovailoa freeze in the pocket as the secondary provided stellar coverage all game long. Tagovailoa, who was sacked four times, finished 12-for-26 with 118 passing yards, no TD passes and a season-high two interceptions. More importantly, he was unable to find space along the sidelines for big scramble runs. Unlike the initial battle, when he ran for 104 yards and three TDs, he tallied just 1 yard on nine carries Thursday.
That’s the nature of the merciless ILH, where the best teams often become better after a bitter loss, as coach Kale Ane‘s Buffanblu have done. Defense was the foundation this time as Punahou shut out Saint Louis in the first half en route to a 23-0 lead. At that point, Tagovailoa was 4-for-12 for 29 yards and had already been picked off twice. He was limited to minus-9 rushing yards.
Miki Suguturaga had two of Punahou’s sacks, including one of Tagovailoa in the end zone that led to a safety. Another sack led to a fumble recovery by linebacker Ryan Dominick. Hale Motu‘apuaka and Alexander Skelton reinforced the relentless pass rush all night as the Saint Louis offensive line struggled mightily.
“It was a lot of little things we had to do. We’ll keep working hard to see how things go next time,” Suguturaga said. “My (position) coach, Colin Pang, told us, ‘Drop your hips and make sure you don’t get juked out by Tua.’ A lot of our boys worked hard. Everybody made sure they did their thing, they did their job.”
It wasn’t just the pressure, but the way Tagovailoa froze in the pocket due to Punahou’s balanced defense.
“We did have a lot of blitzes put in for their empty package. We changed alignments, a lot of little small things,” said Suguturaga, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive lineman.
Dominick is one of the keys in the middle of traffic, a linebacker who helps steer his defense in the right direction.
“I think the credit has to go to our defensive coordinator, Coach Agenhart (Ellis), for drawing up some good blitz schemes that worked for us and got us in the backfield,” he said. “I think that in practice, ever since our last game (against Punahou), we’ve been working on breaking down, not losing contain on the outside. All those kinds of skills we’ve been taught by our coaches came together tonight. We did our main goal, just do our assignment, and we had a good outcome.”
Punahou’s defensive schemes were trouble enough, but the unit got help from the offense. Nick Kapule (29-for-46, 308 yards, two TDs, no interceptions) and the offense was in no-huddle, no-rush mode. Unlike previous games, the Buffanblu didn’t hurry with the ball.
“We knew we wanted to keep Tua on the sideline,” Dominick said. “He’s the best quarterback in the country.”
Punahou held the ball for nearly 18 out of 24 minutes in the first half.
12:00 to 8:12 = 3:48 TD
7:04 to 4:13 = 3:51 TD
3:56 to 3:19 = :37 Punt
1:00 to 10:10 (Q2) = 2:50 TD
8:50 to 3:33 = 5:17 FGA
2:31 to 1:09 = 1:22 Punt
:04 to :00 = :04 Halftime
halftime T.O.P. 17 min, 49 sec
8:12 to 7:04 = 1:08 Punt
4:13 to 3:56 = :16 Safety
3:19 to 1:00 = 2:19 INT
10:10 (Q2) to 8:50 = 1:20 Punt
3:33 to 2:31 = 1:02 Punt
1:09 to :04 = 1:05 INT
halftime T.O.P. 6 min 11 sec
Time of possession has often been an overemphasized statistic, particularly when one team has superior talent. When teams are this even, it can make a defense’s effort even stronger. There’s no overrating the value of rest time on the sideline.
“It was huge, Tua’s the best quarterback in the nation. We have to keep him off the field. We don’t have to take long shots all the time like we used to,” Kapule said. “We just knew we had to keep Tua off the field because we knew how dangerous he is. I just kind of slowed things down, didn’t rush anything, any throws, any formations. We just did our job.”
Beyond all the numbers and the defensive lockdown, the Buffanblu have momentum. They have unity.
“They motivated me, especially Alex and Miki,” Kapule said. “They told me they got my back, that they love me. I really appreciate that every time they tell me that. That made my day and it makes us play for each other.”
Skelton, a 6-2, 240-pound senior linebacker, emerged as a big part of the constant defensive pressure. He was as low key as any of the Buffanblu. He’s already looking ahead.
“It’s the same thing,” he said. “Work hard and whoever wants it more.”