For all of the star power on offense in the Mililani-Saint Louis clash, the biggest question, maybe, is how both defenses will react to two potent offenses.
Saint Louis’ much improved defense has two rangy, physical linebackers in Jordan Loveni Iosefa, a USC commit, and Isaac Slade-Matautia. The two playmakers bring enough heat that Saint Louis often may not need to put more than five in the box, maybe six against Mililani’s four-wide, shotgun look. But probably not seven (no safety coverage on the back side). Probably.
With Iosefa out of the picture in the biggest game of the season, because of an ILH mandated suspenson, Saint Louis will still be formidable defensively.
“We like whatever. We’ll take whatever they give us. We’ll still try to run it,” Mililani coach Rod York said. “Waianae played zero coverage and brought 6-man blitzes every single down. We put the ball up in an area and we connected. Moanalua gave us the run and we took it. They left four in the box so we ran the ball. But definitely now the quality of opponents is on another level.”
Mililani and Saint Louis met in early August in a scrimmage at John Kauinana Stadium that drew quite a crowd. Great competition and free admission can do that.
But that was was three months ago.
“When I watch them, teams can’t get the edge on both of them, which is scary. The ball goes outside, they come up really quick and they end it. You gotta watch when you bounce. I told Vae, go north-south,” York said.
Cal Lee, a defensive mastermind who has guided Saint Louis to 14 Prep Bowl titles and two state crowns, has no intention of going high risk against Milton and company.
“You want to do what you can do without sacrificing too much. See how that plays out. Do whatever we have to do to make a stop. It’s all 11 guys, both offense and defense. That’s what it boils down to,” Lee said. “Our focus is everybody knowing their assignment, doing their job, then you have a chance for success, If you can do that with eight in the box, Milton’s out there, he can throw the ball, and he’s got those receivers. They’ve got a double-barreled shotgun for you.”
But a healthy McKenzie Milton hasn’t faced a defense like this very often.
“When you have very talented players like that, you can use them in any way you want. Not just putting on pressure but also coverage. It’s a luxury to have players like that,” Lee said. “They’re the first ones on the field and the last ones to leave. You like that attitude they bring and the other kids feed off what they do. It’s showing what the other kids can see and kind of imitate the way they go about practice.”
Tagovailoa battled back from a calf injury earlier in the season.
“He’s learned and he’s smarter about when to run and not to. He knows when he can break a tackle or run out of bounds,” Lee said.
The return of key offensive linemen from injuries has helped. So has the maturation and development of a relatively young pass-catching corps. While running backs Jahred Silofau and Saitaua Lefau have been effective on the ground and on short routes, Tagovailoa has patiently worked with youngsters like Ronson Young (34 receptions, 413 yards, four TDs), Jahvin Spear (30, 345, three) and Lanakila Wilson (15, 390, three). Leelan Oasay was a big mover this season, but suffered a season-ending leg injury during the ILH regular season.
The deep threat, California commit Drew Kobayashi (30, 586, three) has evolved into a highly reliable first-down target. The 6-foot-3 senior has used his speed and the threat of Tagovailoa’s big arm to become a preferred target on deep out routes.
Milton’s return last week from an AC shoulder joint injury after six weeks on the sideline may be the most significant comeback for any football player in recent memory. He had already passed for 2,000 yards in little more than seven games — that includes the half-drive he directed early in a game at Kailua, the one he got hurt. With Milton (2,262 passing yards, 29 TD passes, 355 rushing yards, two rushing TDs) at QB, the Trojans go from being an explosive offense to the state’s best.
No defense has stopped a healthy Mililani offense in the past two seasons. Kahuku’s defense shut out Mililani’s offense in the OIA title game — sans Milton. Even with Milton, it’s probable that Kahuku’s defensive unit slows the Trojan attack significantly.
Point is, Milton is almost back to normal. He said there was a bit of rust in last week’s 62-18 runaway win over Hilo. Velocity? It was there, even on his one interception — he has just four in 197 attempts this season. His conditioning? Still superb.
For York, who has traveled off-island in years past to coach at clinics with the Lee brothers, it’s a rare chance to go up against the masters.
“The king is back. Cal Lee is the king. You look at Kahuku’s success, he’s got a whole bunch of Crusaders coaching there. You look at Mililani’s success and we have four guys who played for them,” York said.
“He comes back and they almost did in in his first year back, and that’s amazing. Then they (win the ILH) in his second year back. You talk about brainpower and he’s got it over there. To outcoach him, that’s going to be tough to do.”
Lee can almost believe what he hears.
“Ah, he’s just trying to soften us up,” the longtime guru said of York, slightly grinning. “He’s a good guy, I’m happy for him. Mililani, their coaches, their players, their record speaks for itself.”