There's no place like the road for the Nikiski football team.
At least that's been the message lately from coach Ted Riddall to his Bulldogs squad.
Nikiski is in the middle of a two-week stretch in which it travels 3,600 miles for a pair of road contests. The Bulldogs made a journey last week to Juneau, where they defeated nonconference opponent Thunder Mountain 46-6.
Now they are headed for the Arctic, facing undefeated Barrow at 1 p.m. Saturday.
"It can be a distraction, but we seem to travel and play pretty well on the road," Riddall said. "We look forward to it, playing and coming together as a team."
Itineraries aside, it's a huge game for the Bulldogs (3-0 overall, 1-0 Northland Conference).
Nikiski and Barrow (2-0, 2-0) are the only Greatland teams with perfect conference records, meaning the winner of Saturday's game has the inside track for a regular-season title.
Barrow already owns a victory over perennial small-schools power Eielson, and Nikiski figures to be the Whalers' toughest opponent remaining on the schedule.
Riddall understands the magnitude of the game, and the coach anticipates a physical game in a hostile environment.
"It's definitely always a game that is a pivotal point in our season," the coach said. "It's going to be a big game for them. I'm sure they will have most of the town and village out, so it should be a fun atmosphere."
What won't be fun for Barrow is solving Nikiski's potent ground attack out of the Wing-T offense.
Nikiski has three running backs who have rushed for five touchdowns apiece. Kaden Spurgeon leads the way with 44 carries for 380 yards. Stephen Hartley has 29 carries for 345 yards and an area-best 11.9 yards per carry. And Josh Brown, who scored three touchdowns in last week's win over Thunder Mountain, has 29 carries for 233 yards.
Riddall wants his squad to eclipse the 300-yard mark each week on the ground and nothing changes against the Whalers.
"We are definitely coming together as a group with play fakes and our line play," Riddall said. "The key to this offense is the line, particularly the guards, and we've got juniors and seniors on that front wall. When you've got that, it's real nice."
This is Nikiski's first trip to Barrow since 2009, when the Bulldogs won 27-2.
But the Whalers are an improved bunch, a team Riddall characterized as salty, equipped with a speedy running back, explosive receivers and a meaty offensive line.
Riddall can't be sure how the Bulldogs stack up.
He'll know when the team arrives home - 3,600 miles later.
"We're road warriors," he said. "Basically what we say is every week is the conference championship.
"Whoever wins this game will be in the driver's seat."
Kenai Central at North Pole
Coming off a last-second loss at home to Wasilla, the Kardinals look to rebound with their first contest this season away from the central Kenai Peninsula.
Kenai Central (2-1 overall, 1-0 conference) let a 14-point lead slip away in a 24-20 setback to the Warriors last week, but coach John Marquez believes his squad will respond when it faces North Pole in a nonconference game at 1 p.m. Saturday in Fairbanks.
"They have responded exactly the way I thought our kids would respond. We had the best week of practice since the season started and we're very excited about that," Marquez said. "It was a wake-up and they took it as a wake-up call."
North Pole (1-2) defeated Lathrop 62-18 last week behind a combined 336 yards rushing and passing from quarterback Moo Rogers, a player Marquez said could give the Kards fits.
The Patriots also feature 6-foot-2, 280-pound defensive tackle/offensive lineman Keenan Alexander. Marquez called Alexander one of the best linemen in the state, saying Kenai Central will throw the ball before it tries to run at the big man up the middle.
"What they are doing is they are saying, ‘You have to throw the ball on us,'" Marquez said. "They've got six (players) in the box, so we are going to do that - force them to get the extra guy out of the box so we can start running the ball. We aren't going to run in there with big egos saying we can run the ball at that cat."
Kenai Central's offense begins and ends with quarterback AJ Hull, who in three games has a combined 672 rushing and passing yards to go with 10 touchdowns.
But Marquez has said all season that the Kards must receive production from the supporting cast, including running back Levi Hansen, who has 33 carries for 212 yards and four touchdowns.
To avoid another loss, the coach added, Kenai Central must execute for 48 minutes.
"We didn't execute a week ago and Wasilla came out and played hard," Marquez said. "They got us in the end. We need to execute this week for all four quarters and we'll be fine."
Houston at Skyview
It's only Week 4, but another loss would devastate the Panthers' fading playoff hopes.
After an impressive season-opening victory at Wasilla, Skyview (1-2 overall, 0-2 conference) has lost consecutive Northern Lights Conference games, including a 12-6 setback in overtime at Kodiak last week.
But the Panthers have a good chance to rebound, returning home to face a Houston squad that has yet to win a game. The Cougars were dismantled 68-0 by Soldotna a week ago.
"The margin for error is very, very small for the rest of the season," Skyview coach Eric Pomerleau said. "We've just go to play consistent, good football at all times."
The Panthers need to strike a balance on offense.
In a Week 2 loss to Kenai Central, Skyview managed just 17 yards rushing while throwing the ball 35 times with little success. Last week against Kodiak, Skyview nearly abandoned the pass, throwing eight times for zero yards.
Quarterback Jordan Jones completed 11 of 43 passes in the two losses, tossing five interceptions, but Pomerleau is confident the senior will get back on track.
"He's a senior, all-conference quarterback," the coach said. "I know that he is a very talented kid that will step up to the challenge."
Don't be surprised if wide receiver Albert White lines up in the backfield for at least a few snaps.
White joined Jasen Suonvieri at running back last week and piled up 117 yards on 15 carries in his first action of the year at an offensive position other than wide receiver.
Suonvieri, Skyview's leading rusher, added 126 yards on the ground against Kodiak.
With games in the next two weeks against South and undefeated Homer, Pomerleau said his club is focused on Houston and has put the past two losses to rest.
"We've come back and had some good practices," he said. "We've accepted what we did and what we didn't do, and we are going to work to fix the things we need to in order to improve."
Soldotna at Eielson
Winners of 14 straight dating back to last season, the Stars hope to keep things rolling against Eielson, a small school.
SoHi (3-0 overall, 1-0 conference) pounded Houston 68-0 last week behind five rushing touchdowns from running back Auston Tennis and is quickly re-establishing itself as the team to beat in the Northern Lights Conference after winning the small-schools state crown in 2010.
Tennis leads the area in both rushing yards with 414 and touchdowns with eight.
A SoHi win coupled with a Homer win would set up a Week 5 showdown between two undefeated NLC squads.
The Stars host the Mariners at 6 p.m. Sept. 9.
Kodiak at Homer
A pair of Northern Lights Conference unbeaten teams square off as the Mariners return to action for the first time in 10 days.
Homer (3-0 overall, 0-0 conference) has been idle since it defeated Sitka in a nonconference game Aug. 26, while Kodiak is coming off a 12-6, overtime win over NLC foe Skyview.
The Mariners have posted impressive numbers through three weeks, scoring at least 50 points each time out, but it's too early to call them a conference-title contender. Homer's wins have come against Valdez, a small school; Thunder Mountain, which has yet to win a game; and Sitka, a medium school that lost to small-school Nikiski 48-0.
And despite its 2-0 record, Kodiak is unproven as well, picking up wins against Houston (0-2) and Skyview, losers of two straight.
Still, the winner of this game joins Soldotna and Kenai Central as one of the teams to beat in the NLC.
Seward at Monroe
The Seahawks are searching for victory No. 1, while Monroe looks to win its third straight after a season-opening loss to Nikiski.
Seward is the only team in the Greatland Conference that has yet to win a game.