By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Konawaena senior quarterback Brandon Howes is always in a rush: to get to the line of scrimmage and fire the football quickly — all in an effort to follow the Oregon Ducks model of running as much plays as possible.
Kona and Oregon’s shared uptempo, no-huddle philosophy is the more plays run, the more opportunities to score. The spread offense is designed to stretch the field and get defenders out of the box. When there’s speed on the roster, the fastest way to score is to zip through less traffic and avoid getting tackled.
If traditional run-based offenses (I-formation, pro-style, wing T, etc.) are powerful smash-mouth blows, like right hooks to the body, then the Wildcats attack is all about quick jabs. Sometimes, a lightning-fast strike, all those 7-yard slants or the occasional deep ball, leads to a knockout.
That’s the strategy Kona (1-1 overall) will employ against Kamehameha (1-1) at 7:30 p.m. today at Paiea Stadium to open the Big Island Interscholastic Federation football season, and defend its two-year hold on the Division II title.
The Wildcats are really young with a lot of brand-new starters all over the place. The only offensive returning starter is wide receiver Chase Takaki, who also starts in the secondary. On defense, lineman Makoa Chapa and linebacker Evyn Yamaguchi are returning starters. That’s it.
At least, they’ve got a seasoned QB in Howes, who transferred from Kamehameha, where he was the backup to Micah Kanehailua. The two battled each other for the starting job in practice after practice last year. It’s the first meeting between the two in different uniforms, with different but bigger stakes in the balance: a victory or loss in the BIIF standings.
The Warriors beat Kalaheo 26-23 at home in their first preseason game on Aug. 10. Last Saturday, they traveled to Oahu and lost to Division II powerhouse Iolani 36-0.
Iolani has claimed the last six Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state championships. Since statewide classification started in 2003, the BIIF has not reached the title game. At least, the league has won a first-round Division II game; the BIIF’s Division I teams are 0 for 14.
In Kona’s first game on the Valley Isle on Aug. 17, Maui High prevailed over the Wildcats 47-37. Konawaena ran 69 plays. For comparison’s sake, Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) teams averaged 71 plays last season. High school quarters are 12 minutes; it’s 15 minutes for college and the NFL.
Howes torched the Sabers for 403 yards and three touchdowns. However, he completed just 22 of 47 passes (47 percent) and tossed two interceptions. Also, the Wildcats led 24-7 at halftime, but lost the lead and eventually the game, which highlights the drawback of the no-huddle.
Much like basketball, the key to football is all about runs, either producing runs or stopping runs. For football, at least from an offensive coordinator’s viewpoint, it’s about moving the chains, getting first downs or touchdowns, preferably the latter. Otherwise, the defense will be on the field for long stretches and prone to being gassed in the third and fourth quarters.
Maybe Kona’s stamina or youth took a toll. But on the flip side of the coin, Maui High rallied and defended its home turf. At least in the next game, a somewhat surprising 38-24 win over Hilo (a good scouting opportunity for Kamehameha), the Wildcats could point to that as Example A in their blueprint of success.
Howes found a nice groove and completed 17 of 30 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. Even better he threw only one harmless interception, and had a 57 percent completion rate. The 5-foot-9, 155-pound quarterback displayed point-guard mentality, getting his reads off in a timely manner, and spreading the ball around to five different targets.
On Kona’s first score in the first quarter, Howes spotted single coverage on wideout Luca Vartic and threw a rainbow that hit him in the hands for a 79-yard touchdown. The euphoria of that jolt of lightning suddenly disappeared when Hilo’s Tristin Spikes took the ensuing handoff and raced 80 yards for a touchdown. Still, it didn’t damper Howe’s productive outing.
“What I liked is I distributed the ball to different receivers, and our offensive line executed,” Howes said last Friday in the darkness of Wong Stadium, after his first win as a Wildcat. “The line stepped up. We’ve got young guys on the line. They’re doing a good job of stepping up.
“Our offense is fast, uptempo and we try to get a lot of scoring. We’re fast and we use speed and deception. We’re spread and no-huddle. It’s the Oregon offense.”
Another word for deception is curveball. The Wildcats tried to throw something different at the Vikings to keep them off-balanced. Bring a blitz, throw a screen. Sit the linebackers back in pass defense and play single centerfield safety, well, then it’s time to dial long distance against one-on-one coverage on the outside; e.g., Vartic’s TD deep ball.
Probably the most important part of a quarterback’s skill set is not arm strength or pocket mobility — Howes is not a big gun or speedster — but recognition, that important intangible ability to make the second or third read when the first option is blanketed. For those with a good memory, maybe that’s why Ty Detmer won the Heisman at BYU, but never made it as a starter in the NFL.
When the Vikings brought pressure, Howes got the protection he needed and bombed away, throwing seven passes of 20 yards or more. On set plays, Howes showed enough patience and discipline to hold the ball, sucker the defense in, and fire screens to running back Bubba Ellis-Noa, who had long rumbles of 55 and 56 yards. Those short screens are usually devised to get about 7 yards; Ellis-Noa went for more because Kona’s curveball worked.
“Brandon stands in the pocket, and he’ll take a look downfield,” Kona coach Cliff Walters said. “The thing about Brandon is he’s a smart QB. He knows when to hold the ball or get it out. He doesn’t make too many mistakes in games. Those guys are hard to find.
“I was also very pleased with our offensive and defensive lines. We fought against huge boys over there. We fought with heart.”
In pretty much every one-on-one matchup (offensive guard vs. defensive tackle, wideout vs. corner, etc.), the Vikings held a comfortable size advantage. And obviously, they had a significant experience edge over the greenhorn Wildcats as well.
That’s one reason or maybe two Kona’s ground game went nowhere. Ellis-Noa rushed for 14 yards on nine carries to lead the charge, if deception plays to Takaki (45 yards on two carries) are discounted. However, that doesn’t worry Walters, at least in that preseason game.
“We’re basically a pass-oriented team,” said Walters, likely mindful that his offense ran the ball 28 times and threw it 30 times. “We’ve got a great passer in Howes and he threw for 375 yards. Those players over there are huge. That’s a tough Hilo defense.”
Kona finished with under 60 plays, not close to the total against Maui High. The Wildcats struggled to run the ball, but Howes compensated with his well-balanced passing. On the other side of the ball, the defense gave up 14 points in the third quarter, but held Hilo scoreless in the fourth stanza.
It was a preseason game. But it meant something more to Walters and his Wildcats. It was a character test in his eyes.
“In exhibitions, you want to accomplish one thing and that’s learn how to fight, especially against a physically superior team with young and inexperienced players,” he said. “The one thing you can’t question about our team is heart. It’s that old adage: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s size of the fight in the dog. We’re a small team, but we fight. I’m very proud of the boys and how they fought.”
Waiakea (1-1) at Honokaa (0-1), 7:30 p.m. today
It’s a rematch of last Saturday’s preseason game. The Warriors had a pair of harmless turnovers. The Dragons had seven giveaways, including three that were turned into touchdowns. By the way, Waiakea won 39-15.
The Warrior highlights were provided by: Zac Correa, 17-yard interception touchdown return; Devin Preston, 112 yards on only 12 attempts; Kayed Rodrigues, two touchdown passes; and Pono Auwae, 45-yard TD run.
When the score was 32-2, Honokaa’s Wayne Vaoga scored a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs, the last one with 7.5 seconds left, showing that the Dragons would breathe fire until the last waning seconds of the game.
Hilo (1-1) at Hawaii Prep (2-0), 2 p.m. Saturday
The Vikings thumped Waiakea 36-6 in their first game on Aug. 16. Then last Friday, all sorts of warts showed up. See main story above for details about how Konawaena beat a bigger team.
Hilo had two bad snaps that led to a pair of safeties. That’s four giveaway points and ball possession back to the Wildcats, football’s version of the double whammy.
The passing game was 1 of 18 for just 8 yards and four interceptions. Minus Spike’s 80-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and Hilo had 90 yards on 34 carries, just 2.6 yards per attempt.
The Ka Makani are unbeaten and comfortable at home. They blanked Waiakea 34-0 in their first game on Aug. 10, and topped Waimea from Kauai, 13-8 a week later.
Kealakehe (0-1) at Keaau (0-0), 4:30 p.m. Saturday
The Waveriders have won eight of the last nine BIIF Division I titles. Officially, it’s seven of the last nine; the 2008 championship was vacated due to an ineligible player.
Either way, Kealakehe is the league’s big fish in a small pond. In an effort to jump into deeper waters and tougher competition, the three-time defending league champs played Kamehameha on Oahu last Saturday. They lost 36-0.
The Kapalama Warriors are ranked fourth in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s coaches and media Top 10 poll, which includes both Division I and II schools. No BIIF team is ranked.
All four of the league’s Division I teams — Hilo, Keaau, Kealakehe and Waiakea — are in the BIIF’s Final Four tournament. It’s the same deal with the Division II schools: HPA, Honokaa, Kamehameha and Kona.
Honokaa parking: Due to health and safety concerns, Honokaa athletic director Keith Tolentino has announced the high school will no longer allow spectator parking inside the gate during football games.
Tolentino said fans are welcome to park in the following areas surrounding the school campus:
• Along Pakalana, Ohelo or Mamane streets.
• In the lot behind the cafeteria.
• In the lot next to the band room.
• In the lot fronting the auto shop.
• At the County Complex.
Tolentino also noted that no tents, coolers or outside food will be allowed at any Honokaa High athletic events,
For more information or special parking accommodations, call 775-8800.