Defense wins championships?
Defense takes a good team to the brink, but somebody’s got to get the ball into the end zone. The Kahuku Red Raiders were spectacular and steady on Friday, limiting Hilo to 37 yards on 30 snaps in the first half. But they trailed 10-0.
For most teams, a solution would be a few gadget or trick plays. Perhaps more gambling on defense. Risk. Adverse risk. For Kahuku and coach Lee Leslie, the best option was the simplest. Load up and pound. Senior Salanoa-Alo Wily lined up all night at defensive tackle against the run-oriented Vikings. He also carried the load after halftime to finish with 136 yards and two TDs, including the go-ahead score with 2:34 to play. After gaining just 4 yards on four carries in the first half, Wily followed his blockers for 132 yards on 14 carries after the break. One of his trusty blockers, RB/LB Reupena Fitisemanu (6-0, 255), had a big second-half run of his own, too.
It took time against one of the state’s top defensive units, but Kahuku eventually wore Hilo down. Wily, his offensive line and lead blockers were instrumental in the win, even as the Big Red defense kept them all in the game. The ultimate chess move: switching left tackle Siotame Uluave (6-3, 295) to center. Trench Warfare blogger Billy Hull noted the change during the final two plays of the first half, and when Kahuku left Uluave under center for the duration of the contest, it was nothing short of intriguing.
Kahuku actually ran away from the inside gaps on its first three snaps of the second half. But ultimately, his presence and skill — plus the game-ending circumstance for key Hilo run stopper Kiliona Pomroy — contributed largely to the Red Raiders’ turnaround at the line of scrimmage. Even as backup-turned-starter Samuta Avea became less a thrower and more of a handoff machine, the Red Raiders wore the Vikings down.
Wily credited his offensive line. He also credited fellow backs Fitisemanu and Pesa Lefau (5-9, 205) for their blocking work. Whether it’s a full house or power-I in double-TE sets, Kahuku has been effective in the jumbo. The possible return of starting QB Tuli Wily-Matagi may set the ground-and-pound power sets aside, but Kahuku knows now — and probably knew all year — that smashmouth continues to be one of their greatest weapons. Same as it ever was.
Defensively, it was another night of swarming, gang-tackling men in red. Malcolm Macatiag hustled for a team-high 7.5 tackles (1.5 for loss). Linebackers Sioeli Naupoto (3.5 tackles, one for loss, one pass deflection) and Manaia Atuaia (3.5 tackles) played with big motors. Defensive lineman Roman Salanoa had three tackles.
Fitisemanu had three tackles, including one for loss, and Wily tallied 2.5 tackles with one for loss (sack). Keala Santiago and Alohi Gilman, once again, were tough in pass coverage. Gilman had a fumble return for 37 yards (final play of the game) and returned a pick six yards. He also had a pass deflection.
As much as any defense in the state, Kahuku consistently brings a heavy hit to ballcarriers. Explosion, speed. The swarm. If Wily-Matagi returns and continues to play with authority and consistency — he was playing very well before suffering a concussion in the first half against Mililani in the OIA D-I final — that would be a very difficult combination — wrecking-ball offense with deep-ball ability — for any opposing defense to deal with.
If their staring QB can’t return this week, at least the pride of the North Shore has found a formula to get the job done.