Since suffering a tough loss to Greatland Conference rival Eielson in early September, the Nikiski Bulldogs have had a lot of time to think about how they allowed Ravens running back Anthony Griffith to set a state single-game record 516 rushing yards against them.
Nikiski coach Ted Riddall has not let them forget about it.
The total offensive yardage Eielson put up against Nikiski that day was 579. It’s the number that the Bulldogs have stickered to the back of their helmets, and when 4 p.m. rolls around on Saturday, each member of the team will rip off the sticker and throw it away.
“And I’ll say, he hasn’t gained a yard on you today. Yet,” Riddall said. “Throw it away. You’ve been staring at it, thinking about it, but you can’t control the five seventy-nine. But you can control what you’re gonna do today.”
Nikiski will get another crack at Eielson, 4 p.m. Saturday at Alumni Field at Dimond High in Anchorage. That’s when the two schools will play for the 2014 small-schools state football championship.
Riddall also said the team created shirts with the number on it as well, which read, “Bite harder, hold on longer,” something that he has stressed to his players every day since that brutal loss.
Riddall said he hopes the symbolic gesture of throwing away the number will give his team the drive to go out and take what they believe to be theirs.
“You’re standing toe to toe with a great opponent, you know it’s gonna be a battle every play,” Riddall said. “All you can do this week is prepare yourself to go out and play better than you did last week. If you focus a lot more on Eielson and all the things they can do, you might be focusing on the wrong area.
“I know (Eielson) won the game, but I told our kids, that’s a good thing. It caused them to work their butts off, to work harder than they would’ve if they hadn’t lost.”
The Bulldogs, looking to exact revenge on their rivals to the north, are playing in the state title game for the fourth straight year, and are looking to win their third crown in that span, and fifth in school history.
Riddall said that making it to the state final every year since the realignment of divisions prior to the 2011 season is a big accomplishment of which he and his team are proud.
“But last year’s team can’t help this year’s team,” Riddall said. “So these guys have got to go out and play their best game. Yes it’s in a championship setting, but we’ve challenged them all year to play every game like it’s for a state title, because every game is gonna affect it one way or another.”
In each of the last three years, the team that Nikiski faced in the state title game had beaten the Bulldogs in the regular season. Of those years, the only time the Bulldogs did not rebound with a state title victory was 2012 against Eielson.
“If it stays status quo, that means we’ve got a good shot,” Riddall said. “It kind of wakes us up, and that’s good because the kids have invested more, and since that loss, it’s showing up.”
In 2011, Barrow edged Nikiski 34-28 in the regular season, only to lose the championship to the ’Dawgs in October of that year, 52-21.
Eielson beat Nikiski 57-48 in a track meet of a game in 2012, and upheld that victory later in the year with a 27-7 win in the championship.
Last year, Monroe Catholic caught the Bulldogs sleeping in the regular season with a 37-27 win, but lost to Nikiski in the state title game 36-28.
This year, Eielson beat Nikiski 52-34 in the two schools’ regular-season matchup, which also saw Griffith set the rushing record.
“I don’t know how many teams actually get a second chance,” Riddall said. “They could be over there thinking they put 52 points on us. We can be here thinking, he rushed on us 41 times.
“If he didn’t go for 41 touches, they don’t win.”
Senior linebacker Luke Johnson will be one of the players in the Nikiski defense that is sure to have his hands full with stopping Griffith. Johnson does not want to see another big day from the Eielson senior, and said the number 579 has him and his teammates fired up for revenge.
“We’ve thrown the number around, and both our offenses usually throw up tons of yards, but just that urge, that they got us,” Johnson said. “We shot ourselves in the foot and so this time we’re coming even harder. We want that second shot, that redemption.”
Christian Riddall, another senior linebacker who finished the regular season with 1,134 rushing yards on offense, explained things his own way.
“We’re gonna stuff him, that’s the plan,” Riddall said. “We put things in place to do exactly that.”
Johnson added that the game will come down to who can hit harder.
“We’ve been hitting every day in practice, getting ready for that contact,” he said.
Standing at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, Johnson has been a menace to opposing offenses in 2014. Whether it be stuffing a running back at the line of scrimmage or giving receivers fits by stealing a pass out of midair, Johnson has come up big when it counts.
Still, he knows that keying in on Griffith is not as easy as it sounds. It’s a matchup that Johnson has had to deal with all four years of high school.
“The plan is to make somebody else beat us,” Johnson said. “We’ll put our team against any one athlete in the state. They have some other guys that can stand out, we’ll adjust to that. But the goal is to make somebody else beat us.”
Coach Riddall mentioned that after looking at game film of Eielson, he believes that the key to slowing Griffith down will come down to containing a second player — junior back Kalib Dunlap.
Dunlap has been one of the instrumental pieces on Eielson’s front line that has given Griffith the room needed to break off big chunks of yardage, putting down well-timed blocks to clear space for Griffith, who then puts his deadly speed to use.
“It’s pretty clear on the film that if we can get to (Dunlap), we can get to (Griffith),” Riddall said.
But how much can the Nikiski defense focus on Griffith and how much can they afford to focus on Dunlap? And what about the rest of the Eielson offense, including sophomore quarterback Antonio Griffith?
“That doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention to (Griffith), we are, big time,” Riddall said. “But we’re saying, (Dunlap) and (Griffith), we’re going to focus on you. If somebody else makes a big play, fantastic. (Dunlap) and (Griffith) are going to get focused on because their whole offense is geared around what those two guys do.”
Riddall added that he put Griffith’s performance in a different light — instead of looking at all eight times that Griffith scored a touchdown, look at the 34 times that the Nikiski line stopped him.
Eielson may also have to readjust for Nikiski’s improved passing game, one that has been steadily improving over the year.
Junior quarterback Cade Anderson has put together one of Nikiski’s top passing seasons, as he currently stands with 1,267 passing yards and needs 74 more to break Josh Riley’s school record of 1,340, according to coach Riddall.
In last week’s semifinal against Seward, Anderson tossed four touchdown passes in the first half.
“We dropped three or four passes that would’ve been touchdowns,” Johnson admitted. “Our passing game has gone up and up every game. They try to stop everyone on the run, but Cade has no problem with throwing for 300 yards and scoring all our points.”
For a Bulldogs team that is historically known for running a lethal ground game, the Ravens will be now faced with a dual threat.
All that is really known is that Saturday’s game will be fast and furious, which is how the flourishing rivalry between Nikiski and Eielson has been for several years.
“If we can start fast and keep the pedal down and don’t take a breath, it will be good,” coach Riddall said.