Signature plays: X’s, O’s and title runs

Like any defense facing Punahou, Saint Louis faced the threat of Kanawai Noa out wide, Wayne Taulapapa blasting out of the backfield, and the possibility of a quick strike from QB Ephraim Tuliloa to big TE Matthew Christman (6-3, 235).

Though Christman hasn’t been a lock as a consistent target throughout the season, his size and ability to run good routes has made an impact even when he doesn’t get the ball thrown his way.

This scenario took place in the red zone, so Saint Louis can’t be blamed whatsoever for hovering over Christman with two defenders. Punahou likes to go to a power formation here, and in seasons past, this might have been a three-back set. This offset-I with Tuliloa in the pistol has all the markings of a quick pass to Noa or a blast between the tackles by Taulapapa.

Punahou lines up strong to the left, but utilizing Noa as a slot receiver to the right keeps the defense honest. Christman (87) lines up on the left side of the line with fullback C.J. Tuliloa (17) more or less behind him. No receivers to the left, just open space and opportunity.

Saint Louis responds with just six in the box, but a LB who shaded toward Noa (9)slides in on the snap. Four defenders over Punahou’s strong side. It’s a reasonable setup.

What makes this work, besides the great sell by Tuliloa (16) and Taulapapa (34) on the play-action, is the first-step acceleration of Christman and the FB, C.J. Tuliloa. They waste no time getting into their routes. Christman goes straight to the end zone, picked up by a CB and S. That leaves the left flat open, and C.J. Tuliloa has already bounced wide, leaving the LB two steps away.

The final key: Taulapapa’s block on the incoming DE.

That separation is all QB Ephraim Tuliloa needs to deliver a nice, catchable pass for an relatively easy TD. It’s the use of secondary assets in the offense that makes Punahou very difficult to defend and cover.

As far as signature plays go, this is not quite that for the Mililani Trojans. It is, however, a sneaky way to get the ball to dangerous RB Vavae Malepeai in open space. He’s a crafty, physical ballcarrier between the tackles, but out in open space where defenders are 50 to 100 pounds lighter, it’s an offensive coordinator’s dream.

A lot of Mililani’s base plays involve reads by QB McKenzie Milton, and the threat of him tucking the pigskin and sprinting up the hash marks is real. If and when defenses begin to occupy the middle of the field, the Trojans are willing to go wide by any means necessary. This is one of their more double-take looks, and though they don’t call it often, it’s a pain for any tiring defense to cover.

Kahuku has six in the box against Mililani’s four-wide set. Red flag? Yes. The Trojans usually line up in a four-wide trips set, but this is two receivers on either side with Malepeai as the single back. When slotback Makana Tauai (24) goes in motion to the right, Kahuku make a “switch” and safety Keala Santiago (3) makes the right move to pick up Tauai, who is now in the right slot.

While this happens, the nickel back, Vaovasa Iain (21), who had originally been on Tauai rotates to deep middle, where Santiago had been. This leaves the left side with only one receiver, one cornerback and only one other Kahuku defender: LB Malcolm Macatiag (7). On the snap, Meredith sprints to the opposite sideline to help with deep coverage.

That leaves Macatiag on his own. Here, it gets tricky. Both sides of the Mililani O-line are in screen mode. RG Noah Williams (70) and RT Jordan Agasiva (79) flare out to the right flat, where Tauai has become the decoy target for a screen pass from Milton. Meanwhile, LT Antonio Ala (60) and LG Derrick Fetui-Suapaia (65) have released their only initial opposition, Kahuku DE Reupena Fitisemanu (2).

Macatiag is on his own, and probably thinking he’s got backup. He takes on Ala and Fetui-Suapaia, but nobody is there for support. With a screen play seemingly developing near either sideline, the other LBs are frozen. Milton, in the shotgun as usual, gets the snap, looks right to Tauai, then loops a spiral left to Malepeai, who leaks out of the backfield to the left hash mark. It’s clear sailing for an 18-yard gain down the sideline before LB Sioeli Naupoto (28) hustles to bring Malepeai down.

A very nimble effort by Kahuku’s defense, but Mililani was one step ahead. Executing a play like this takes great focus, but the Trojans made it look rather easy.

The ‘Iolani Raiders have been long known for spreading the field in a run-and-shoot look and throwing the football with success.

But the other side of their offensive prowess comes from the running game. The Raiders have a will to be patient and mobile when it comes to exploiting the gaps of a defense that lines up only six defenders in the box.

This play is accentuated by the trap blocks by LT Kamuela Borden (72) and wingback Tamatane Aga (20). Technically, Aga is a slotback, but even at 5-10 and 175 pounds, he has the mentality of a offensive lineman. In this game, he had several nice blocks and at least one pancake. Aga catches a pass now and then, but the Raiders make full use of him as a blocker. It’s a strength where most observers might not expect him to be so effective.

Damien lines up with two down linemen and six in the box. Coverage on the slotbacks is quite a ways back. The defender on Aga is 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The other slotback, Tyler Teruya (7), is defended by a DB who is also 5 yards back. On the snap, Borden leaves and looks for one of the two LBs. His presences is felt immediately; the LB (5) doesn’t even make contact with Borden (6-3, 241), a commit to the University of Hawaii. While the linebacker avoids Borden, he surrenders several yards as RB Storm Lotomau (35) bursts up the middle for 10 yards. Lotomau is basically untouched until a DB (22) covering Aga stops him.

Aga normally finds someone to block, but there was no penetration by the defense. It’s a simple, efficient play as the rest of the line opens the hole. LG Joshua Hauanio (#64, 6-3, 288) neutralizes a DT. C Devin Ide (#62, 5-11, 218) attacks a LB (12) and pushes him right. RG Nathaniel Oishi (#52, 6-0, 270) does a nice job of shoving the other DT left. RT Taaga Tuulima (#63, 6-0, 206) seals his man to the outside.

It’s precision and teamwork. It begins with all that cushion — defenses respecting the arm of QB Austin Jim On. ‘Iolani won’t be greedy. They are content to take what a defense will give, grind their way downfield and keep their defense rested on the sideline.

Interesting that over the years, the Raiders have adapted to the environment and they may have borrowed a wrinkle or two from some of their finest opponents. This particular formation looks quite similar to one of Lahainaluna’s formations, and though the Lunas will never claim to have invented the single-wing offense, it’s always fun to see how different teams add a little extra flavor and make it their own.

Lahainaluna’s single-wing offense has befuddled defenses for decades. Under Bobby Watson, and with Garrett Tihada as co-head coach for several seasons, the Lunas have stayed basic while continuing to assert its multiple-option attack. Tihada folded the shotgun into the offense, which is a benefit for strong-armed QB Makoa Filikitonga-Lukela, and though he has thrown for 13 TDs with just two picks, the heart of this offense remains grounded.

It is, as Kamehameha-Hawaii coach Dan Lyons said after Lahainaluna’s 52-7 win last week, a large and mobile O-line. “If I didn’t know better,” he said of the red-hatted, red-uniformed Lunas, “I would’ve thought we were playing Kahuku.”

True enough. The Lunas have ample size up front — though without the girth of the powerhouse from the North Shore of Oahu — and they’re more than happy to combine misdirection and fluid chemistry into an attack that can demoralize any defense.

In this situation, second-and-five in the red zone, Lahainaluna is going for the kill. They line up in an unbalanced line with extremely tight splits. On the left, guard Brandon Kaina (53) and tackle Daniel Sulunga-Kahaialii (77) are flanked by one of the biggest linemen on the roster, 6-foot-2, 310-pound Justin Hong (78). He’s technically in a tight end’s position, but there will be no passing on this snap.

The rest of the line has the normal center, Junior Moala (75), with one of the Lunas’ very mobile blockers at right guard, Conor Mowat (54). But at right tackle, it’s Thomas Rosen St. John (4), a tight end. Wingback David Kawabata (35) is nearby.

Though the Lunas have two receivers to the left, KS-Hawaii deploys single coverage with no help over the top. There’s one safety 10 yards deep and eight defenders in the box, though not lined up squarely to deal with the unbalance. Only three Warriors have set up on the power side with the other six to the wingback’s side.

This was a simple mistake, putting nearly two-thirds of the defenders in the box on the same side as the tight end and wingback rather than the power side where Hong (310 pounds), Sulunga-Kahaialii (6-4, 275) and Kaina (5-11, 220) are situated.

As the play ensues, the left guard (Kaina) and right guard (Mowat, 6-0, 270) pull left. The Lunas already had a mathematical edge; this ensures there will be four blockers (not including the center) against three defenders. Filikitonga-Lukela hands the ball to RB Jared Rocha-Islas (23), who follows his guards.

>> Hong (78) and Sulunga-Kahaialii (77) immediately push their men right, rendering two defenders harmless. Kaina (53), bumps the OLB (44) completely out of the gap. Every blocker who started on the left side continues to drive defenders out of the gap and a canyon now appears. Mowat (54), the right guard, is going at full speed now, blocking the ILB (32) with precision.

All Rocha-Islas has to do is split defenders at the third level. The safety is a step late, and the slotback (#12, Ansen Cabanilla) has done a fine job of blocking a DB. The two defenders get their hands on Rocha-Islas, but at 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, he tears through them easily for a 5-yard TD run. Essentially, this came down to LG Kaina (220 pounds) versus OLB Wayne Nurial Dacalio (190) and RG Mowat (270) versus ILB Rick Moke-Raband Jr. (185). With the defenders not knowing what to expect while Kaina and Mowat were virtually at full speed, it was a tough gig to handle.

Stopping Lahainaluna’s single-wing offense is easier said than done. There are jet sweeps, pulling and trapping linemen, unbalanced lines, and the deep threat created by their QB’s arm strength. When all else is contested, Filikitonga-Lukela is extremely crafty. The senior knows exactly when to pull the ball and keep it, and his acceleration is among the best of QBs statewide regardless of classification.

But it all starts up front, and when the Lunas’ O-linemen are on the move, it can be absolutely confusing for defensive fronts. By mid-game (or sooner), the Lunas mix in straight-ahead plowing along with the pulling and trapping.

It’s all the more difficult when a defensive unit has less than a week to prepare.


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