Can Kaiser pull off the unthinkable?

Kaiser DL Zeno Choi had two sacks against Moanalua. Now he has to figure out how to slow down Mililani. Photo by Bruce Asato/Star-Advertiser
Kaiser DL Zeno Choi had two sacks against Moanalua. Now he has to figure out how to slow down Mililani. Photo by Bruce Asato/Star-Advertiser

Since 2005, only two teams with byes into the quarterfinals of the OIA Red/Division I playoffs failed to reach the semis with the top two seeds in each division a combined 24-0 over the last six seasons.

Jerry Campany wrote about every upset since 2002 before last year’s quaterfinals.

That streak may come to an end this year with highly intriguing matchups across the island on Friday night.

The one team which hasn’t been threatened in league play this year is Mililani, ranked No. 2 in the state behind Punahou.

The Trojans won all six league games played on the field by no fewer than 22 points and have scored at least 41 in every game.

Mililani hosts No. 10 Kaiser at John Kauinana Stadium in just the eighth meeting between the two schools and first since 2002.

The Trojans have been on a collision course with the Buffanblu since the season started in what would be a rematch of last year’s state championship game, won by Punahou.

It would be an absolute shocker if the Trojans saw their season come to an end on Friday, but the Cougars do have the talent to present some problems for Mililani.

Kaiser running back Jensen McDaniel leads the state in rushing with 1,109 yards and 19 TDs.
Kaiser running back Jensen McDaniel leads the state in rushing with 1,108 yards and 19 TDs.

Kaiser has the ability to hang with Mililani offensively. The Cougars are averaging 38 points over their last six games and feature an offense led by the leading rusher in the state in running back Jensen McDaniel, who has run for 1,108 yards and 19 touchdowns in eight games. McDaniel has five 100-yard rushing games this season, has run for at least 83 yards in every game and is coming off a 247-yard effort against Moanalua in which he only played two and a half quarters.

Quarterback Kalawai’a Judd, who transferred from Kauai just before the season started, has been thrown into the fire trying to learn first-year coach Cameron Higgins‘ offense on the fly. Judd has gotten better with each game, throwing only two interceptions over his last four games after starting the year with seven in his first four. His completion percentage has jumped to 55.6 percent (94-for-169) for 1,419 yards and 14 touchdowns and he’s also a capable runner, rushing for 450 yards while averaging more than 11 carries a game.

Receiver Destin Moss has been a big-play guy for Kaiser ever since his 99-yard touchdown catch helped the Cougars hand Kahuku its only loss of the season a month ago. Moss has caught a touchdown in six straight games and is averaging 97.5 yards a game over his last four.

Nobody is going to stop Mililani, but the Cougars have weapons on defense to slow the Trojans down. Health is a big concern however as linebacker Parker Higgins (knee) and defensive back Nicolas Tom (neck) suffered injuries in the fourth quarter of last Friday’s crazy win over Moanalua. Higgins is expected to play while Tom will find out Thursday if he will be cleared by doctors.

The anchors of Kaiser’s 3-4 defense are linemen Zeno Choi and Manase Palu but the Cougars have also gotten solid contributions from Keliionuuanu Colton and Nick Lebeck in recent weeks.

The 48 points and 476 passing yards Kaiser surrendered to Moanalua last week are a red flag, but most of the damage came after the Cougars built a 33-point lead late in the third quarter.

Mililani has started slow recently, trailing Campbell 28-22 in the third quarter and leading Moanalua by a modest 21-14 score at halftime and 28-14 after the third quarter — the same Na Menehune team the Cougars led 54-21 before pulling a few starters.

The Trojans will no doubt be rested and ready. They’ve come too far and are too good to put away the pads this early. But the game plan for the Cougars is easy to see. Getting an early lead riding the legs of McDaniel will be key. Should the Trojans suddenly find themselves in a tight game in the second half, how will they respond? How will they handle the pressure of a team many have already punched into the state final as a lock on the ropes in a loser-goes-home game in mid-October?

Kaiser also has to force turnovers, which they can do. The Cougars needed every one of the seven they forced against the Red Raiders to pull off the upset there and forced four big turnovers in the second half by Leilehua to pull within 35-30 late.

Don’t get it twisted. The Trojans are still the heavy favorite. But if the Cougars can keep it close in the second half and McDaniel is able to find holes in the Mililani defense, an outcome as shocking as Kapolei’s 2007 quarterfinal win on the North Shore at Kahuku isn’t out of the question. Kaiser shocked Kahuku already this season. Is it Mililani’s turn?


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