It was a night to exorcise Saint Louis missed opportunities in state-title games of the past, including last year’s loss to Kahuku.
It was also a night of straight-up, no-guts-no-glory play calling. It was Saint Louis’ night at the end, a stunning 30-14 victory over No. 1 Kahuku. Three clutch field goals by Jacob Tobias, who hadn’t made a FG all season, were huge.
But there was no play as crucial on Saint Louis’ side of the ball, as the one with 6:16 left in the game. Leading 16-14, the Crusaders had fourth-and-1 at its 29-yard line. Punt on fourth-and-1? Saint Louis has done that before in a title game, trusting its defense, but ultimately falling short.
Defense? The Crusaders defended well on this night, so trust was not an issue. It was simply time to seize the day. Or night. Carpe diem.
“We just wanted to make sure we secured the ball and don’t give it up, let the clock do its job,” head coach Cal Lee said. “Let me tell you, it was a tough decision, honestly. We’re on the 30-yard line and sometimes you go with your gut feeling and I said, hey, let’s go for it.”
The play? The concept was for QB Tua Tagovailoa — playing his most clutch, scintillating game in a career loaded with incredible performances — to line up and look for a crease on the left side and gain that one yard.
The potential problem? Saint Louis didn’t have the play in its book, particularly under center, which is what the coaching staff drew up during a time out. It was sandlot football-meets-Goliath defense on an extremely short field should the play fail. The Big Red Giants of Kahuku seemed to have the edge here against a Saint Louis offensive line that is trained more for pass protection than short-yardage banging.
This is where Tagovailoa’s supreme football IQ and incredible knack — instincts — once again blended to give Saint Louis the play of the season. He stood in the gun, then walked toward his center, barking what seemed to be audibles. Without stopping, he kept ambling to his center, took the quick snap and Kahuku’s defense — seeing an under-center snap for the first time by Tagovailoa — was as startled as most fans in Aloha Stadium.
“We never practiced that. I mean, you see that in NCAA and NFL, where they start from shotgun and go underneath,” Tagovailoa said. “It was just one of those things where you trust your coaches and they trust you, you go out and do it. My coach told me to go under center, but I told him I’m going to walk up, and once you walk up, it shows where everybody (on defense) was going in their gaps.”
Tagovailoa quickly found space around left tackle, sneaking straight to the spot — saving all the time it would’ve taken had he been in the gun — and eluding tacklers for a 28-yard gain. Saint Louis capped the drive with a touchdown, opening a 23-14 lead on a 30-yard run to paydirt by Tagovailoa with 4:44 to play. It turned out to be the clinching score, and Tagovailoa’s epic performance — 16-for-25, 243 yards, 136 rushing yards and two TDs — capped a championship night and a championship season.
“Thank the Lord,” Lee said.
> As Tagovailoa walks forward from the shotgun to under center, Kahuku’s defense adjusts.
> Left DT Aliki Vimahi and right DT Samson Reed, in three-point stances, quickly move toward the middle to close the inside gaps. Nose tackle George Lauhingoa is already lined up on C Eliki Tanuvasa.
> Sophomore linebacker Miki Ah You, planted at the edge to Tagovailoa’s left, tightens his spacing. After lining up over the slotback, he sells out and shuffles over the left tackle. In fact, he is slightly inside of Crusaders LT Michael Minihan.
> MLB Sioeli Naupoto virtually matches the QB step for step, hovering in, to the right of the center, filling an A-gap, anticipating a sneak.
> All-state CB Kekaula Kaniho is the lone safety, and he, too, practically bum-rushes the expected point of attack. His timing is perfect, churning into a full sprint as the ball is snapped.
All in all, it was the perfect alignment and adjustment to stop a QB sneak. Tagovailoa simply had the better chess move. With 10 Red Raiders at the line of scrimmage — four covering receivers in Saint Louis’ trips formation — and Kaniho selling out to stop the sneak, it still was a difficult plus-play by any QB.
1. With the entire O-line selling the sneak, Minihan crashes toward the middle while Ah You sees Tagovailoa darting toward the perimeter. Ah You has one shot at making a play, but he’s already lined up just inches too close to the inner workings of the trenches. In a split-second after Tagovailoa receives the snap — 0.5 to be precise — he manages to get his right arm on Tagovailoa’s midsection. The QB has already gained momentum, and though Ah You causes Tagovailoa to twist slightly, the QB regains his balance, shakes the defender off and continues around the left side.
2. In the minds of most defenders, a ballcarrier follows his best blockers. Tagovailoa sold the sneak so well, no Red Raider anticipated he would run directly where his slotback was standing.
3. As Tagovailoa runs wide, this where Kahuku’s athleticism kicks in. Kaniho is at full throttle toward the A-gap. His back is literally facing Tagovailoa when Ah You reaches for him, and Kaniho is seemingly out of the play. He reverse pivots and makes a beeline parallel to the line of scrimmage. It is 1.9 seconds since Tagovailoa receives the ball when Kaniho takes two steps and gets his shoulder and two hands on the QB. Or that’s the plan. Tagovailoa is too quick. Kaniho’s shoulder and left hand miss. Already angling toward the left hash mark, Tagovailoa rips through Kaniho’s right arm and he’s off to the races.
3. Instincts take over here as Tagovailoa sees CB Stokes Nihipali-Botelho leave the left-side WR, Chandler Washington-Villanueva. Tagovailoa jukes on the converging Nihipali-Botelho and leaves him behind. Washington-Villanueva, wisely lets up instead of blocking Nihipali-Botelho in the back, then continues upfield with enough legal interference to help Tagovailoa complete a key 28-yard run.
It’s LB Tema Lindsey, who lined up on the opposite side of the play, who hustles and forces Tagovailoa out of bounds at the Kahuku 43-yard line.
One play almost never determines the outcome of an entire game. This one comes closest. The drive ends with a 30-yard TD run by Tagovailoa, who never stops with the chess game. When defenses take away his sideline potential, he simply exploits the land mass between the hash marks, which is how he scored through the middle of the most vaunted defense in Hawaii.
It was the series that turned a virtual stalemate into a championship moment. Leverage, momentum, and a 23-14 lead with 4:44 left.