Kahuku got a lot of love from voters in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Football Top 10 this week.
The Red Raiders certainly belong among the state’s top 10 teams, but where on the list is a matter of conjecture.
They moved up two spots to No. 5 after a 21-14 win over then-No. 4 Leilehua.
But to get anywhere higher in the poll, or, more importantly, to advance far in the playoffs or states, Kahuku is going to have to solve its offensive struggles.
To put it more simply, the Red Raiders’ offense was ugly in the win over Leilehua. It was held to 80 yards from scrimmage and did not score a touchdown. All of Kahuku’s points came from special teams or defense.
First-year coach Lee Leslie used the word “frustrated” when asked about his offense after the game.
He was so frustrated, in fact, that after several questions about the offense, he asked for defensive coordinator Sola Soliai to step in and talk to the media. By doing so, Leslie was humbly acknowledging his assistant’s part in the win, giving credit where credit was due.
“We had an excellent defensive game plan,” Leslie said. “And it was a great defensive game (by both teams).”
Salanoa Alo-Wily, a 270-pound linebacker who packs a wallop and who also serves as a hard-nosed running back, was surprised when he found out the Red Raiders did not gain more than 100 yards.
“Both passing and running the ball?” he asked, a bit perplexed, moments after a relative took a photo of him with candy lei on after the postgame homecoming ceremonies.
Amid all the hoopla and after the furious skirmish on the field, Alo-Wily may have figured any team who wins 21-14 is bound to gain well over 100 yards. He was busy tackling and running and catching passes and then enjoying homecoming festivities. Kahuku (5-1, 5-1 OIA Red) won the game, after all. Who’s thinking about yards gained right then?
So now it’s up to Leslie, who started the season with promises of expanding the playbook to complement Kahuku’s legendary power running game, to find a fix for the offense. And fast.
Predictable offense combined with a rock-solid defense and an uncanny returner in Keala Santiago are only going to get you so far, even with an adequate offense.
But a subpar offense in this day and age filled with explosive, quick-strike offenses? Sounds like doomsday.
Of course, there is still time to fix the bugs. The roster is loaded with athletes. The team’s leading rusher a year ago, Soli Afalava, is a huge part of the defense this season.
Senior quarterback Tuli Wily-Matagi has shown flashes of brilliance in his career, but he’s not always accurate. He’s an imposing presence at 6 feet 3 and 230 pounds and is hard to bring down in the pocket and on designed runs. Against Leilehua, he moved to tight end (where he will play for Utah in college), but that plan didn’t work because his replacement at QB, running back Kesi Ah-Hoy, who previously this season had success running on direct snaps from center, showed that he is clearly not the answer at the position.
Ah-Hoy, the Red Raiders’ leading rusher so far with 348 yards and seven TDs on 61 carries, tried to run against Leilehua from the shotgun, but the Mules knew what was coming and they bottled him up.
It’s amazing how Kahuku’s offensive woes, which Leslie acknowledged after a win over Castle, have gone from minor to major in a span of three weeks.
On Sept. 12, the Red Raiders trailed the Knights 19-18 midway through the second quarter. That’s when Leslie put his big-boy package in — Alo-Wily running behind 255-pound fullback Pena Fitisemanu — and the problem was solved. Kahuku wound up winning 56-19.
And then, in a 20-19 upset loss to Kaiser on Sept. 19, Kahuku moved the ball successfully, but committed seven turnovers, including three interceptions by Wily-Matagi.
So, changes were made and, with a new look, little offense was generated against Leilehua and the panic button is in danger of being pressed on the North Shore.
Kahuku has one more game to settle into something that works on the offensive side of the ball — Friday at Aloha Stadium against Waianae (4-2, 4-2) — before the playoffs start.
The Seariders have had some problems on offense this season, too, but their option attack has been smooth the last few weeks.
Waianae has had a sack-happy defense all year, so for sure, the Seariders are not going to yield yards to the Red Raiders without a massive fight.
Santiago, who returned one punt and one kickoff for touchdowns against Leilehua, also put his imprint on the defensive unit with one sack and some big hits on Mules receivers.
Alo-Wily also came through with some key tackles, including one-and-a-half sacks, a fumble recovery and a hit that caused a fumble eventually recovered by teammate Hirkley Latu.
Soli Afalava (two sacks), Aloha Gilman (interception return for a TD), Manaia Atuaia (sack), Roman Salanoa (half-sack) and Jacob Afalava (sack) were among the other Red Raiders making substantial contributions on defense.