On paper, No. 1 Saint Louis secured a hard-earned 35-28 win over No. 3 Punahou on Saturday night at Aloha Stadium.
In reality, the game turned on the stealth presence and performance of its defense. The injured leader of the ‘D’ didn’t get consistent snaps until halfway through the second quarter. Faatui Tuitele makes that much of a difference, and the Crusaders improved to 4-0 overall, 3-0 in ILH Open play. Punahou dropped to 3-2 in league play (3-2 overall) despite giving the nation’s No. 12 team its toughest battle of the season.
“It was kind of difficult at first, but I was happy for my brothers who were in before me. I love seeing them play and do their thing. I know sometimes they don’t get to play as much. A lot of them got sacks, too,” Tuitele said.
His effect is widespread, and it changed the entire scope of Punahou’s offensive attack.
“Whenever you lose one of our better players, whoever it is, it has a factor in the game. Thank goodness, he was good enough (health wise),” Crusaders coach Cal Lee said. “We wanted to rest him, but we needed him to play. When he’s in there, it’s a different ball game. We had a week rest and we were hoping he’d recover. There’s no broken bone. It’s stiffness.”
Sitting out most of the first 15 minutes with an undiagnosed injury, Tuitele entered the game with his Crusaders trailing upset-minded Punahou 21-14.
“At first they were planning to put me in only on passing situations, but as the game went on, they had me in more,” Tuitele said. “I just got to take care of it, rest it and ice it. I kind of injured it at the Kahuku game and I kept playing, and it got worse. I took care of it, got an MRI.”
Tuitele, a 6-foot-4, 299-pound defensive tackle — a 3-technique in Saint Louis’ formidable 3-4 defense — immediately impacted the game. Punahou’s offense was on fire with Hugh Brady sending darts to his array of talented pass catchers. The unit scored TDs on two of its first four possessions.
Enter Tuitele, and for the first time, Punahou went three-and-out. Next series, the Buffanblu focused on Tuitele in the trenches, and that opens up a lane for the right-side DT, Gino Quinones. The USC-bound Quinones sacks Brady, and Punahou has another three-and-out.
Next Punahou possession, Brady threw a pass that is picked off by Brian Cox. Still, Saint Louis’ offense hadn’t cut into the lead, but three plays into the next Punahou series, Brady was picked off by Cox again, and this time, the two-time defending state champions score before the half to tie the game at 21.
It was more of the same in the second half. Linebacker Jordan Botelho sacked Brady. Three plays later, it was Tuitele’s turn. Then Botelho sacked backup Kobe Muasau.
“He’s just a baller. Just seeing him, him coming on the field, you feel so much energy,” Botelho said. “Second half, we came out harder and everyone did his job.”
It was savage. There wasn’t much Punahou could do. In the next series, Brady was hit as he threw and Kamo‘i Latu returned the ball 43 yards to paydirt, giving Saint Louis a 35-21 lead.
Here’s what the Punahou drive chart looked like.
10 plays, 90 yards, TD
1 play, 0 yards, INT
8 plays, 22 yards, PUNT
3 plays, 80 yards, TD
Enter Tuitele, 9:01, second quarter (full time)
4 plays, minus-2 yards, PUNT
5 plays, 7 yards, PUNT
2 plays, minus-5 yards, INT
3 plays, minus-5 yards, INT
3 plays, 24 yards, FGA
7 plays, 18 yards, PUNT
3 plays, minus-8 yards, INT
13 plays, 76 yards, TD (Tuitele sat the entire drive)
4 plays, 7 yards, LOD
(Some of the minus yardage resulted from penalties.)
Tuitele finished with three sacks and Quinones had two. Kalepo Fiaseu and Botelho had the other two sacks. Six of the seven came in the second half.
“It was a learning experience on both sides of the ball,” said Tuitele, who has 39 scholarship offers. “We started slow, but the second half came and that’s kind of where we live. We’ve got to come out strong on ‘D’, start off strong and get that momentum going.”