Nikiski football coach Ted Riddall does not hide his disdain for high school homecoming weekend. The week of activities and social gatherings can play a prominent role in distracting players, which can easily lead to losing a game that should have been won.
So this year, Riddall gave his players a number to shoot for: 21. Put 21 points on the board in their first three possessions, and everyone can go home happy.
The Bulldogs did just that Friday night en route to a 57-12 victory over Greatland Conference opponent Barrow at Nikiski High School.
“I won’t complain about it,” Riddall said. “It’s hard to have young men not be distracted.”
The win also moved Nikiski’s conference record to 4-1, putting the Bulldogs in a favorable position heading into next weekend’s regular season finale at Seward, another 4-1 team. The winner of that game will earn home field advantage in the first week of the small-schools playoffs.
“We challenged the kids to start fast, because if you don’t, and the other team gets some belief and they hang around, you’re not where you want to be,” Riddall said.
Riddall said he set the goal at 21 points after what happened three weeks ago against the Eielson Ravens. After staking out a 14-point lead early in that game, Nikiski turned the ball over on downs just yards away from scoring, and Eielson followed up with a quick scoring run from Anthony Griffith to close the gap.
From there, Griffith went wild, leading Eielson to a 52-34 victory while setting a new state record with 516 rushing yards.
Riddall said after that bitter defeat, his team learned not to let any opportunities slip through the cracks again.
“It would have changed the complexion of the game,” he said. “Not that we would’ve been guaranteed to win, but they (Eielson) were already kind of feeling it … so you score a third time on them and get one more stop, and the wheels start to come off.”
Friday, Nikiski rolled to the win with its trademark running game, getting 446 ground yards while holding the Whalers to 133 rushing yards. Also, keeping with the trend of recent weeks, Nikiski was able to gain yardage through the air, as junior quarterback Cade Anderson threw for 102 yards and added a touchdown for good measure.
Leading the home charge was senior Christian Riddall, who scored five touchdowns on 300 rushing yards. Riddall credited the offensive linemen for opening gaps for him to get by the Barrow line.
“Those holes were huge, I could drive a semi through them,” Riddall described. “It was awesome.”
The win also reversed a recent trend of homecoming losses for Nikiski. Before Friday, the Bulldogs were riding a three-year homecoming winless streak, the last win coming in 2011, when Riddall was a freshman.
“This was pretty important to us,” Riddall said.
Last year, the Bulldogs fell short to Monroe Catholic on homecoming night in a contest that ultimately resulted in Nikiski missing out on the top seed in the playoffs.
That too was a reason to start fast and never look back.
“That puts the other team in a hole real fast, and makes us feel good,” Riddall said. “And then we just keep ticking.”
The very first snap of the game saw Riddall take the handoff and rumble 59 yards to the end zone to put the Bulldogs up six just 11 seconds in.
After stopping Barrow on downs, Nikiski went 51 yards in four plays that ended with a 5-yard Corin Cooper score.
But Barrow was able to make use of its experienced passing attack to cut back against Nikiski. On the Whalers’ ensuing possession, they drove 65 yards in eight plays, ending in a 6-yard slant pass from quarterback Makana Ahgeak to Tony Dunbar. That cut the deficit to 14-6.
“It was hard because he was enough of a passer but they also had enough of a running game that if you play into coverage, they could throw underneath and make some counters and draws,” said coach Riddall.
The next possession saw Nikiski achieve its 21-point goal, getting a 17-yard run from Dylan Broussard.
On the next Barrow drive, the Whalers ended up fumbling near midfield, which gave Nikiski another opportunity to score. Riddall did just that on the first play of the second quarter, taking the ball 31 yards to the house.
Once again, Barrow responded with a long drive which ended in a turnover. This time, it was Broussard who read Ahgeak’s pass better than the Barrow receivers.
“I was just doing my job,” Broussard said. “The ball came to me, I picked it up, ran it back.
“You don’t really know what’s gonna happen, you just watch it and react.”
Broussard ended the day with 124 offensive yards, including a touchdown and the interception.
Ahgeak ended the day throwing four interceptions, twice to senior Rickie Smith and another to Luke Johnson. It was the fifth pick by Johnson in the last three games.
Ahgeak completed 16 of 37 passing attempts for 136 yards, but Barrow coach Brian Houston was left lamenting what might have been without the turnovers.
“It’s been our problem all season,” Houston said. “If we can cut down the turnovers, we’ll be in the game. You can’t throw three or four picks a game, give them a short field, and expect to win. Not against these guys.”
Houston said the bulk of Ahgeak’s throws were right where they needed to be, but a few tipped balls ended up in the hands of a Nikiski defenseman.
“We gotta work on some of the mechanics with him,” Houston said. “Once we get that squared away, we’ll be OK.”
Nikiski came up with one more crucial play before the half. Standing with their backs 20 yards from their own end zone, the Bulldogs were facing a Barrow drive with less than a minute on the clock.
On fourth down from the Nikiski 20, Ahgeak tossed a short pass to Dunbar, but Johnson got there first to intercept it.
“I told Luke to drop deeper,” coach Riddall said. “Give me another 3 or 4 yards on your drop, and he did it.”
On the very next offensive play by Nikiski, Riddall shot right through the middle for a 79-yard touchdown with less than two ticks remaining on the clock.
“I shot through the line, the linemen were blocking, and took off looking to the left and right, no one was there,” Riddall said. “Everyone was still at the line of scrimmage.”
Coach Riddall later praised the efforts of his linemen on both sides of the ball, saying it was a tough day against a persistent Barrow squad.
“My hat’s off to (Barrow), they came in playing for a playoff spot, too,” coach Riddall said.
Bulldogs 57, Whalers 12
Nikiski 22 25 7 3 —57
Barrow 6 6 0 0 —12
Nik — Riddall 59 run (run failed), 11:49
Nik — Cooper 5 run (Anderson pass to Carstens), 8:26
Bar — Dunbar 6 pass from Ahgeak (pass failed), 6:27
Nik — Broussard 17 run (Riddall run), 4:36
Nik — Riddall 31 run (L. Broussard kick), 11:53
Nik — Riddall 53 run (kick failed), 8:19
Bar — Elavgak 7 run (pass failed), 6:08
Nik — Cooper 8 pass from Anderson (kick failed), 3:52
Nik — Riddall 79 run (kick failed), :02
Nik — Riddall 5 run (Jackson kick), 6:46
Nik — L. Broussard 34 FG, 11:58
First downs 19 13
Rush-yds 36-446 22-133
Passing yards 112 136
Comp-att-int 7-10-0 16-37-4
Return yards 26 87
Punts 0 0
Fumbles-lost 1-(1) 2-(2)
Penalties-yds 6-40 7-42
Rushing — Nikiski: Riddall 14-300, Cooper 8-45, D. Broussard 7-72, Castro 3-6, Cutsforth 3-8, Smith 1-15. Barrow: Elavgak 16-108, Ahgeak 2-12, Adams 3-12, Mathews 1-1.
Passing — Nikiski: Anderson 6-9-0—102, I. Johnson 1-1-0—10. Barrow — Ahgeak 16-37-4—136.