For a brief moment Saturday afternoon, things looked rosy in the world of Nikiski football. After falling into an early 14-0 hole, the Bulldogs had returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and their opponent Eielson promptly fumbled the ball away on the ensuing kickoff, giving Nikiski a huge burst of momentum.
“I was like, ‘Let’s go! I’m excited!’” said Nikiski coach Paul Nelson. “There was a lot of hope there in the beginning.”
However, that would be as good as it got for the home crowd, as the two-time defending state champion Eielson Ravens rolled to a 58-14 nonconference victory on homecoming weekend at Nikiski High School.
Eielson improved to 6-1 overall with the win, while Nikiski dropped to 4-3. The Ravens have now won the last five meetings against the Bulldogs, dating back two years.
The Bulldogs also officially clinched a playoff spot when Seward defeated Voznesenka earlier in the day, meaning next week’s regular season finale at Seward will decide the Peninsula Conference champion and the playoff order. Both Nikiski and Seward are 3-0 in the conference.
While Saturday’s contest was a nonconference matchup, it still carried importance as a possible playoff preview, and the strong history between the two schools only injected more prominence into the mix. Eielson and Nikiski have clashed in the small-schools state championship game in three of the past four years, with the Ravens emerging victorious in all of them.
“This is always a big game,” said Eielson coach Dave DeVaughn. “It’s been that way ever since we came to the small-schools (level) and started playing them.”
The Ravens put the game away early with 27 second-quarter points that left Eielson leading 41-8 at halftime. Led by senior Tobais Dobashi-Noa’s four touchdown runs on 119 rushing yards, Eielson was able to find holes in Nikiski’s defense and control the game with brute strength.
Fellow Eielson senior Antonio Griffith also led the ground attack with 138 yards and two scoring runs, while sophomore Jaydenn Manibusan added 88 yards and also had two touchdowns.
“This means a lot to us,” Dobashi-Noa said after the game. “These are big rivals, and we just had to bring our confidence up after they scored.”
Eielson opened the game by stopping Nikiski on fourth down deep in Bulldogs territory, and on the Ravens’ first offensive snap, Dobashi-Noa took the ball up the middle and weaved through the Nikiski secondary for a 12-yard score.
After forcing Nikiski to punt the ball away, Eielson scored again on another short Dobashi-Noa run, but then things would appear to turn in Nikiski’s favor.
Bulldogs senior Patrick Perry found room along the far sideline on the ensuing kickoff and roared 80 yards to the end zone to put Nikiski on the board. Perry connected on a two-point pass to Cody Handley to cut the gap to 14-8.
Things worsened for Eielson, which fumbled the ball on Nikiski’s kickoff, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the Ravens 41-yard line.
However, it was Eielson’s tough defense that forced a turnover on downs after two straight sacks on quarterback Ian Johnson. It was that defensive fortitude that contained Nikiski for the rest of the day while also limiting their possessions.
Nikiski also fumbled the ball five times, recovering only two of them. The Bulldogs had particular difficulties in containing Eielson defensive tackle Brock Renson, nicknamed “J.J. Brock,” referring to the Houston Texans defensive tackle. Renson finished with four sacks and a fumble recovery.
“Brock was doing what we were telling him to do, and everyone else did their job,” DeVaughn said.
Nikiski’s two workhorses, running backs Perry and Matthew Minium, had a combined 20 carries, and the Bulldogs compiled just 80 team rushing yards. Minium scored the only other touchdown for Nikiski, a 30-yard rumble in the third quarter when the Bulldogs were down 47 points.
With the exception of their first-quarter fumble on the kickoff return, Eielson scored on every possession in the first half, racking up 429 team rushing yards.
RAVENS 58, BULLDOGS 14
Eielson 14 27 14 3 —58
Nikiski 8 0 6 0 —14
Eie — Dobashi-Noa 12 run (Paul kick), 10:03
Eie — Dobashi-Noa 5 run (Paul kick), 3:59
Nik — Perry 80 kick return (Perry pass to Handley), 3:43
Eie — Dobashi-Noa 33 run (kick missed), 11:49
Eie — Griffith 49 run (Paul kick), 6:23
Eie — Griffith 24 run (Paul kick), 2:32
Eie — Manibusan 7 run (Paul kick), 1:42
Eie — Dobashi-Noa 22 run (Paul kick), 10:55
Eie — Manibusan 1 run (Paul kick), 7:58
Nik — Minium 30 run (run failed), 5:36
Eie — Paul 23 FG, 11:06
First downs 15 5
Rush yds 45-429 31-80
Pass yds 24 12
Comp-att-int 1-1-0 4-9-0
Return yds -4 0
Punts 1 3
Fumbles-rec 2-1 5-2
Penalties 1-5 3-11
Rushing — Nikiski: Minium 10-77, Perry 10-(-1), Eiter 1-(-7), Johnson 10-11. Eielson: T. Dobashi-Noa 12-119, Griffith 8-138, Manibusan 11-88, Brown 2-32, Weiers 2-7, Kovacs 4-32, J. Dobashi-Noa 6-13.
Passing — Nikiski: Johnson 3-8-0—20, Eiter 1-1-0—(-8). Eielson: Brown 1-1-0—24.