With steady rain falling from the sky and the temperature in the mid-40s, throwing the ball in Saturday’s small-schools semifinal clash between host Nikiski and Barrow was a challenging proposition.
Yet Nikiski senior quarterback Cade Anderson completed 5 of 7 for 109 yards and a touchdown to lead the Bulldogs to a 41-18 victory over the Whalers.
The Peninsula Conference champion Bulldogs (7-2 overall) move to their fifth straight small-schools state final. The matchup is Saturday at 12:30 p.m. against Eielson at Dimond Alumni Field in Anchorage. Nikiski will be seeking a fifth small-schools state title.
“Five times in a row is pretty special,” Nikiski coach Ted Riddall said. “My hat’s off to the kids. They work hard to come back and make it happen every year.”
Barrow, the No. 2 seed out of the Aurora Conference, ends the season at 5-4.
Nikiski got off to a shaky start, fumbling the opening kickoff. Barrow fumbled the ball right back, but Nikiski promptly went three-and-out. Barrow, which lost to Nikiski 42-12 in Week 2, then got on the board with a 25-yard touchdown run by David Matthews III.
On the next drive, facing third-and-13, Anderson hooked up with Nathan Carstens for 21 yards to keep the drive alive. Another 21-yard hookup to Carstens later in the drive set up the Bulldogs at the Barrow 1-yard line. Rykker Riddall, who finished with 168 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, eventually finished the drive with a 3-yard run.
That would be the first of six straight scoring drives for the Bulldogs offense.
“I think that we came out too relaxed and were not as focused as we should have been,” Anderson said. “We were able to change that as a team and turn the game around.”
Anderson, coach Riddall and Barrow coach Brian Houston agreed that Anderson’s ability to hit passes changed the game around.
“When we stopped the run, they came back with the pass,” Houston said. “We had practiced that, but they kept getting it in there.”
Anderson said successful passes open up the running game, which produced 305 yards on 57 carries for Nikiski.
“That’s the part of the wing-T that we have that a lot of schools don’t have,” coach Riddall said. “When we’re passing well, it makes that offense really hard to stop.”
Three rushing scores in the second quarter sent the Bulldogs to the locker room with a 28-6 lead. On the second-half kickoff, Barrow’s Marcus Villalon sustained a shoulder injury, which resulted in a lengthy delay. On the first play from scrimmage after the injury, Kodi Kroll, who finished with 137 yards and two scores on 13 carries, ripped off a 61-yard scoring run for a 28-12 game, then Barrow recovered the onside kick.
But Nikiski’s defense, which coach Riddall said was led by senior linebacker Luke Johnson in holding the Whalers to 233 total yards, forced a punt.
Nikiski then went on a 13-play, 84-yard drive which ate 5:36 of clock. After the Riddall touchdown run, the Bulldogs had a 34-12 lead with 3:36 left in the third. The drive was pure power football, with Nikiski using just one pass play.
“The kids really rallied,” coach Riddall said. “I challenged them, I put it to them, to match Barrow’s physical play.”
Barrow coach Houston, whose team was featured on NFL Network’s “Football Town: Barrow, Alaska,” said he was proud of what his team accomplished this year.
“It was a good, character-building year,” Houston said. “It’s not about X’s and O’s. It’s about teaching lessons that will help these players out later in life.”
Bulldogs 41, Whalers 18
Barrow 6 0 6 6 —18
Nikiski 6 22 6 7 —41
Bar — Matthews III 25 run (kick failed), 8:29.
Nik — Riddall 3 run (kick failed), 3:04.
Nik — Anderson 1 run (pass failed), 10:01.
Nik — Minium 6 run (Riddall run), 6:33.
Nik — Carstens 12 run (Riddall run), 1:27.
Bar — Kroll 61 run (pass failed), 11:42.
Nik — Riddall 2 run (run failed), 3:36.
Nik — D. Broussard 17 pass from Anderson (L. Broussard kick), 6:17.
Bar — Kroll 1 run (run failed), 3:06.
First downs 9 19
Rushes-yards 39-205 57-305
Passing yards 28 109
Comp-att-int 3-7-1 5-7-0
Return yards 11 0
Punts 2-35.0 1-24
Fumbles 4-2 5-1
Penalties 5-26 5-23
Rushing — Barrow: Adams 9-(-6), Matthews III 5-25, Elavgak 7-22, Kroll 13-137, Fa’alologo 4-9, Heather 1-18. Nikiski: Minium 9-30, Riddall 21-168, Cooper 16-66, Anderson 6-(-6), Carstens 1-12, Perry 2-29, D. Broussard 1-5, Hollinger 1-1.
Passing — Barrow: Adams 3-6-0—28; Matthews III 0-1-0—0. Nikiski: Anderson 5-7-0—109.
Receiving — Barrow: Kroll 1-2, Tuifua 1-11, Miller 1-15. Nikiski: Carstens 2-42, Broussard 2-50, Holloway 1-17.