When Punahou rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat Kamehameha last night, 26-23, it was a bit surreal.
For Punahou, it was 3 hours of pure passing ecstacy. Ephraim Tuliloa was rarely a mad bomber, but he was certainly precise as he engineered a 41-for-52, 442-yard night to break his own single-game school record.
For Kamehameha, it was that queasy feeling of losing a lead again, unable to maintain and manufacture a win against a Top 2 team. Title hopes evaporated.
Some of the state’s best talent saw its ILH title hopes dry up. Much of the state won’t get to see the Warriors play. Unlike the OIA, ILH games are rarely televised. But for two weeks in a row, Kamehameha played tremendous defense against one of the top two teams in the state. Alema Kapoi and the unit that included eight returning starters is, as Tuliloa said, “a great defense.”
For a second week in a row, a potent first-half offense was basically shut down in the second half. Justice Young may have started the season as a third-stringer, but it’s clear he’s among the better passers in any league. He tamed Saint Louis’ defense for a half last week, but the Crusaders made their adjustments and put the wraps on Kamehameha’s offense to pull out a comeback win.
Same happened last night. Young is still learning on the job, has less than a handful of starts on his resume, and Punahou took away everything that had worked so well. In the first half, he was 14-for-20, 202 yards and a TD without an interception. He connected with Kumoku Noa six times for 139 yards on 10 targets. Nearly 14 yards per target? That’s a worthwhile risk. No risk, really.
Second half? Eight Noa targets with one completion, and that was for 2 yards. Noa was not a factor in the second half as Punahou shaded its safeties to his side of the field. Young was 4-for-20 after halftime, picking up 23 yards. Fatu Sua-Godinet would’ve been the beneficiary of Punahou’s revamped second-half adjustments, but he didn’t look 100 percent. Maybe he was a bit gimpy after running routes. It was hard to tell for sure. But the speedy, physical senior and former starting QB wound up with two receptions for 16 yards. He was targeted five times.
Normally, having both Noa and Sua-Godinet healthy would be trouble for opponents. With their consistent running game, superb special teams — Adam Stack had three field goals in as many attempts and touchbacked nearly every kickoff, and oh, he also had an 83-yard punt — and receiving playmakers, Kamehameha is a Top 5 team on the outside looking in. The Warriors nearly pulled this off: getting into the ILH title-game picture with a first-time starting QB competing against teams that features (at least) two seasoned, future NCAA/FBS passers in Saint Louis’ Tua Tagovailoa and, of course, Tuliloa.
Punahou, in some ways, was outplayed and still pulled out another cardiac-level comeback win. They did it at Del Oro (Calif.) and the Buffanblu have thrived on being down and nearly out. Maybe they knew Kamehameha would take away the running lanes. Maybe not. Either way, Tuliloa was prepared to throw the ball 30, 40 or even 50 times. The coaching staff and offensive coordinator Teetai Ane were prepared to be opportunistic. Tuliloa threw the ball with diligent accuracy from the start: 27-for-32, 276 yards in the first half alone.
He broke his own school mark by 1 yard, but what was more impressive was Tuliloa’s willingness to stick to the game plan and be patient. Down 16? No problem. Keep dinking and dunking, Let the receivers catch those quick tosses. For a guy back from a shoulder injury, Tuliloa showed no signs of discomfort or rust. He was a JUGS machine, rifling out spiral after spiral. He was sacked three times (Tanoa Foster, Andrew Aleki, Wesley Faagau) and felt the pressure often enough. He just never showed an ounce of panic.
There aren’t a lot of high school quarterbacks willing to simply chip away with small tools, not while being down 16 points. But the Buffanblu did just that, and when the got a favorable situation, Tuliloa crafted the right pump fake, the right look away and came back to his deep target for timely, big gains. Touchdowns. It was masterful.
So Punahou is a No. 1 team that does it through sheer grit and mental capacity. They don’t freak out. They don’t beat teams by 50 points, but they’re 8-0 now. They find ways to win. They spread the burden around. Sure, Ethan Takeyama (14 catches, 215 yards, two TDs) is special, and Punahou has as many highly productive role players as any other team. Judd Cockett, with 14 grabs for 100 yards, and Eamon Brady (clutch TD catch before the half), are “role players” any team would love to have.
In a league and format that scarcely allows for any slippage, they keep coming through.