Punahou, Mililani in defensive duel?

Punahou might find it hard to run inside thanks to Mililani tackle Rex Manu. Darryl Oumi / Star-Advertiser
Punahou might find it hard to run inside thanks to Mililani tackle Rex Manu. Darryl Oumi / Star-Advertiser

Fans are expecting a great, close game.

Sometimes it doesn’t work that way, though. Expect a close one, get a blowout. Or expect a blowout, end up with a close one. By all measures, though, this is the matchup of all matchups in 2014 for Hawaii high school football. No. 1-ranked Punahou and No. 2-ranked Mililani in the Division I final of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA State Championships at Aloha Stadium.

We know what we know. Punahou (8-0) has scored more than 48 points per game, racking up nearly 500 yards per outing. Mililani was scoring more than 50 points per game until the last two battles (against Kahuku and Farrington). The Trojans have settled at 41 points and more than 470 yards per game. Crazy good offenses.

There are big-time running backs in Vavae Malepeai (Mililani) and Wayne Taulapapa (Punahou). Elite offensive lines. Prolific quarterbacks who can throw deep, throw with accuracy, and run effectively. Masterful wide receivers like Kanawai Noa (Punahou). Mililani has reliable threats in Kalakaua Timoteo and Kainoa Wilson.

Both defenses have their strengths. Mililani has pressured foes into throwing 22 picks this season. It would’ve been more if not for a couple of drops last week in the semifinal round. Punahou has been steady all year, probably the most balanced defensive unit in the state.

But it’s that middle ground that fascinates me about these two defenses. Punahou was dominant defensively until the ILH playoffs, when Saint Louis — much improved Saint Louis — was in a 28-all tie during the fourth quarter. The Buffanblu pulled out a 35-28 win, but the dominance took a little dent.

Punahou (8-0) has since been a defensive force again, edging Kahuku 13-10 in that semifinal game.

Mililani has been willing to exert major pressure on quarterbacks, and the rewards have justified just about every move for the unbeaten Trojans (12-0). While both teams are excellent most of the time with deep coverage and pass rush, neither has truly been tested by passing teams between the hash marks.

>> Mililani hasn’t depended on a TE exclusively since Dakota Turner wore brown and gold. With a surplus of speedy, smaller pass catchers, coach Rod York has thrived with his personnel. Slotbacks get looks when they run their routes because Milton is a nice guy who appreciates having multiple teammates open downfield.

>> Punahou has big Matthew Christman (6-3, 235), but he hasn’t been a go-to receiver. He could be a big X factor in Friday’s championship game, but there have been times when he was more of a decoy than an actual target.

Punahou has shown a trend of using its RBs more heavily late in the season. It happened with Steven Lakalaka a couple of seasons ago. This fall, Taulapapa has nine catches for 56 yards in his last two games. That more than doubled his reception total for the season (16-119).

Handling that Bermuda Triangle in the middle of the field could be key to the game. Mililani linebackers Palaie Gaoteote and Sergio Urena are aware of the possibilities.

“We’ve got an outside linebacker on the tight end. I’ll be watching the run. If he calls in, I’ll pick,” said Urena, a 5-11, 190-pound senior.

Urena has been a sideline-to-sideline worker. It was his hit on a big hustle play during the OIA title game that knocked out Kahuku QB Tuli Wily-Matagi. Urena ran all the way across the field to the sideline and got Wily-Matagi low, and the Red Raider flipped, hitting his head on the ground.

It was an unfortunate injury for Wily-Matagi. Urena keeps hustling for the Trojans. He knows the difficulty of keeping his eyes on Punahou’s ground game, the potential for QB Ephraim Tuliloa to run draws and scramble out of the pocket, and the danger of leaving Christman or Punahou’s receivers open over the middle.

“I’ve got to (watch) the run first,” noting the benefits of practicing against teammate McKenzie Milton, the state’s leading rusher at the QB position. “He made me learn a lot. He made me ready. Our D-ends will contain (Tuliloa).”

Punahou linebacker Kalama Chung will be asked to help contain Vavae Malepaeai and McKenzie Milton. Jamm Aquino / Star-Advertiser
Punahou linebacker Kalama Chung will be asked to help contain Vavae Malepaeai and McKenzie Milton. Jamm Aquino / Star-Advertiser

Defensively, the Buffanblu will have to deal with the fastest — and most opportunistic — quarterback since perhaps Tua Tagovailoa of Saint Louis. Like Tagovailoa, Milton is a passing and running force: 2,918 passing yards, 28 TD passes (with seven picks), 764 rushing yards, 12 rushing TDs. That puts pressure on Punahou’s linebacking corps, though they may also be the most seasoned and talented group Mililani has seen.

“We’ve studied a lot of video,” middle linebacker Kalama Chung said. “It’s hard for us to cover everything. You just try to learn their tendencies. You can’t cover everything. There’s no perfect defense. A lot of it is going to be quick reads and instincts, and the best team will win.”

Mililani’s ability to run multiple reads off any play is always a challenge for defensive signal callers.

“They don’t run a crazy variety of it, but the plays themselves are very different. You can’t cover one play by doing the same thing as another. They try to keep you in the box so they can go out, or they try to widen you out and run inside. It’s a lot of movement for us, so we’ll try to keep them guessing,” Chung said.

Punahou’s speed and discipline from their ‘backers is key.

“The prep, there’s only so much you can do. There’s not a lot of giveaways, so we’ve got to be ready on game day. Make quick reads, use our instincts and finish plays,” Chung added. “A lot of weapons.”

Containing Milton?

“We haven’t decided whose job that is,” Chung said. “We’re still trying things out.”

Punahou has a decided edge in big-game experience up and down the defensive lineup. They’ve shown the ability to contain pass catchers after short completions. It would seem likely that Milton will be forced to come up with first-down runs, but with his speed and field vision, he’s been prosperous all season long while on the run.

The Mililani defense may whet its appetite when Tuliloa runs; the 6-2, 205-pound junior is dangerous both ways. He picks up big yardage, but has some a bit of a propensity to fumble after taking a second hit.

More likely, York and Punahou coach Kale Ane will prefer to keep their QBs in the pocket, exercise patience and, if necessary, playing the punting/field position game rather than risk turnovers and/or injury.

A high-scoring game? With this much talent and intelligence on the defensive end for both teams, maybe not. It may come down to the kicking game, and right now, Punahou’s Jon “Jet” Toner has shown the ability to perform under pressure. His field goals last week, including the 48-yard, go-ahead kick with less than a minute left, could be replicated on Friday.

Marc Matas has a big leg and could provide similar results for the Trojans. Hang on tight. A little wind, a little rain and a lot of defense might turn this into a great game even without a lot of points.


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