After spending last year blocking for and protecting his senior quarterback, Nikiski junior Ian Johnson is seeing the football field from a new perspective.
In just his second varsity start under center, Johnson spent Saturday afternoon evading tacklers and targeting receivers, but the Bulldogs came up empty in a 52-0 nonconference loss to Thunder Mountain.
With his dearth of experience at the position, Johnson completed just 1 of 9 passes and was picked off once by the Falcons, but said the contest was a significant jump up from Nikiski’s first week loss to Valdez.
“It’s been rough, but we made a huge improvement over last week,” he said. “Our defense was better, we were making lot better tackles, and we didn’t let ourselves get down like last week.”
Senior back Matthew Minium led the charge on offense for Nikiski with 63 rushing yards on 18 carries, but apart from that, the Bulldogs struggled to move the ball all day. The Bulldogs scraped out 40 total yards of offense, while the Falcons ended with 377.
First-year Nikiski coach Paul Nelson cited a lot of work needs to be done to catch up to the competition.
“We learned from this game,” Nelson said. “We had trouble moving the ball, and getting shut out is something I hate.”
After losing a close 28-21 game to Nikiski last fall, Thunder Mountain was ready for the rematch. The Falcons rolled up 222 ground yards with junior Roy Tupou leading the way with 137 yards and two touchdown runs. Senior Cale Jenkins passed for 123 yards and a touchdown, while junior Owen Mendoza threw a pair of scoring strikes on just four passes.
After losing a crucial core of seniors last year, Nikiski has had to rebuild much of its offensive line and ballhandling positions, including quarterback Cade Anderson, who ranked second among all peninsula passers with 753 yards and 12 touchdown passes.
Moving back from his previous position as lineman, tight end and defensive end, Johnson has had to learn the position in a few short weeks, and the progress has him feeling better, even after starting the year 0-2.
“I’ve talked to (Anderson) a little bit, we’re pretty good friends,” Johnson said. “It’s been hard switching over, but I’ve gotten decent on knowing everything I need to do, and I need to just start learning a little more on reading the field.”
But there is still a long way to go. Nikiski’s longest possession Saturday lasted seven plays and the Bulldogs never made it more than 30 yards from their starting line of scrimmage. Only once did Nikiski make it past midfield, a possession that started with a pick by Nikiski sophomore Kameron Maxie that put the ball on the Falcons’ 40-yard line but ended in a failed fourth-down run.
Thunder Mountain improved to 2-0 on the year, and coach Randy Quinto praised the performance of his defense with the shutout.
“We’ve been working on becoming a team that doesn’t get down on each other,” Quinto said. “We’re not a team that’s a whipping post anymore, and these kids are getting used to winning games.”
After a 4-4 season last year got the Falcons into the medium-schools playoffs, they saw the postseason come to a premature end with a loss to Soldotna in the semis.
Saturday at Nikiski, Quinto said he could sense a change in the team.
“We’ve never had that winning season,” he said. “We have a new offense and defense, but we’re playing aggressive.”
After both teams punted on their first possessions, Thunder Mountain put together a 46-yard, seven-play drive that ended in an 11-yard touchdown stroll up the middle by Tupou.
Following a drive that took seven plays but went nowhere, partly due to two penalties, Nikiski punted, and Thunder Mountain began driving again. Jenkins went 4 for 4 to gain 36 yards through the air and move the Falcons to the Nikiski 4, which is where Erik Frenette took over on a plunge through the middle. The touchdown pushed Thunder Mountain’s lead to 14-0 in the first quarter.
A massive, 61-yard punt by Riley Olsen left Nikiski’s offense on its own 1-yard line, and Thunder Mountain took advantage with a fierce blitz that resulted in a tackle in the end zone and a safety.
After a short scoring run by Tupou put the visitors up 22-0, Nikiski started to become desperate, and went for it on fourth-and-three on their own 31, but the pass by Johnson fell short.
Nikiski freshman Michael Eiter picked off Jenkins on the next drive, but Nikiski turned it over on downs yet again. All it took for Thunder Mountain was 25 yards and a corner route pass from Mendoza to Dominic Maua to put Thunder Mountain up 29-0 just before halftime. Maua finished with 42 receiving yards.
An interception by Falcons’ linebacker Gabe Crawford ultimately resulted in another touchdown from Mendoza to Maua with zeros on the clock, leading to a 36-0 halftime score.
In the second half, Riley Olsen kicked a 43-yard field goal. Olsen kicked five extra-point attempts and also finished with 44 receiving yards.
Falcons 52, Bulldogs 0
Thunder Mountain 14 22 9 7 —52
Nikiski 0 0 0 0 —0
ThM — Tupou 11 run (Olsen kick), 7:35
ThM — Frenette 4 run (Olsen kick), 1:18
ThM — Team safety, 8:12
ThM — Tupou 3 run (kick failed), 6:08
ThM — Maua 15 pass from Mendoza (Olsen kick), :39
ThM — Maua 17 pass from Mendoza (Olsen kick), :00
ThM — Olsen 43 FG, 4:32
ThM — Olsen 27 pass from Jenkins (2-pt failed), :28
ThM — Frenette 17 run (Olsen kick), 7:18
First downs 11 5
Rushes-yds 35-222 38-33
Pass yds 155 7
Comp-att-int 10-18-2 1-10-1
Return yds 20 15
Punts 2-42.0 5-23.0
Fumbles 2-2 2-1
Penalties 11-75 4-35
Rushing — Nik: Minium 18-63, Napoka 1-(-5), Perry 7-(-8), Johnson 5-(-8), Olsen 7-(-9). ThM: Tupou 18-137, Olmstead 5-50, Frenette 7-23, Jenkins 1-0, Toutaiolepo 2-3, Mendoza 1-8, Hinckle 1-1.
Passing — Nik: Johnson 1-9-1—7, Olsen 0-1-0—0. ThM: Jenkins 8-14-2—123, Mendoza 2-4-0—32.