Could the third time be the charm for the Campbell Sabers when the Open Division semifinals of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships take place Friday at Aloha Stadium?
Campbell (6-5) went to Kahuku (8-3) and lost 35-7 on Aug. 31, then met the Red Raiders in the OIA Open playoffs and lost again 46-0 at Aloha Stadium on Oct. 19. That’s a combined score of 81-7 in two meetings.
“In the (playoff game), they hurt us on defense with two picks,” Campbell coach Darren Johnson said. “We want our quarterback (Blaine Hipa) to play good and have a good game.”
The Sabers went on to defeat Farrington 28-14 to claim the third and final state-tournament berth.
The biggest difference for them now after four weeks off is health. Campbell has S/WR Poki‘i Adkins-Kupukaa healthy after missing most of the regular season with a toe injury. Premier pass catcher Titus Mokiao-Atimalala (58 receptions, 1,082 yards, 17 TDs) will also be back after missing the playoff matchup with a knee injury. Running back Jonan Aina-Chaves (804 rushing yards, six rushing TDs) is also expected to play.
Even with a healthy Sabers roster, Kahuku’s defense has been up to task. With the Big Red offense churning out yardage and chewing up clock, the defensive unit has been rested and hungry. Aina-Chaves had just 11 yards on nine carries in the first matchup. Mokiao-Atimalala, who recently received a scholarship offer from Michigan, had a season-low 51 yards on that same night at Carleton E. Weimer Field.
This is the same Kahuku defense, with cornerback Kaonohi Kaniho as the lockdown cover man, that limited Mililani’s Kanoa Gibson to two catches for 4 yards. (Two games later, Gibson had eight catches for 138 yards and two TDs against Nevada’s No. 2, Liberty.)
“It’s largely to do with ‘Nohi, but also the whole defensive unit,” Kahuku coach Sterling Carvalho said. “If the quarterback doesn’t have time to throw to a Gibson or a Titus, the (secondary’s) job is easy.”
That all means nothing now in the state tournament and a healthy Campbell squad.
“They were ranked No. 2 in preseason for a reason,” Carvalho added.
The season took a different flavor and momentum for the Red Raiders after a 32-0 loss at Mililani on Aug. 16. QB Tiger Adolpho had a season-high 19 pass attempts and RB Zealand Matagi had a season-low eight carries for 29 yards. Kahuku has won seven of nine game since, losing only to No. 1 Saint Louis and No. 2 Punahou.
Even in those losses, Matagi averaged more than 4 yards per carry. He has cracked the 100-yard mark nearly every week, and even when he hasn’t, Kahuku has been at its best. Matagi had 21 carries for 78 yards in Kahuku’s 7-3 win over Mililani for the OIA crown. He has 1,206 yards and 16 TDs for the season.
Matagi’s two biggest outputs came against Campbell: 261 yards and three TDs in the first game, and 143 yards and two TDs in the playoffs, averaging 11.9 yards per attempt.
Kahuku is more than willing to run against a stacked box, but if Campbell dares Adolpho to throw the ball, will that work? He had just two pass attempts in the OIA semifinal win over the Sabers and has thrown the ball a total of 25 times, completing 13 of them for 114 yards with one pick in Kahuku’s last five games.
If and when the Sabers get Adolpho — a talented sophomore with a scholarship offer from Hawaii — into third-and-long situations, that’s where this matchup could turn on a handful of plays. Maybe Campbell brings some looks with their veterans in the secondary — including hybrid defender Peter Manuma and tireless defensive back Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala — that Adolpho hasn’t seen at game speed. Deception and disguise by one of the most talented secondary groups in the state could be pivotal.
“If we win that battle, well, hopefully things go our way,” Johnson said.
Maybe Kahuku’s depth of elite blocking tight ends and fullbacks — who sometimes resemble the ground-and-pound offense of 2015 — are simply too much for nearly every defense. Offensive line coach Reggie Torres, yes, the former head coach, embraces the challenge.
“Like Reggie said, the more guys they bring into the box, then Zealand just has to find the crease and he can break it,” Carvalho said. “The more there are in the box, the less we have to chase.”
Johnson said his defense won’t necessarily gamble just because Kahuku grinds precious minutes off the clock.
“If it’s a low-possession game, we’ve got to be able to run the ball and throw the ball. Do good things on offense,” he said. “They’re the OIA champs because they had to go through the grind. They won it outright. They played defense at the right time and they controlled the ball on offense.”