HOUSTON — Not even Mother Nature could rain on Stephen Hartley’s parade.
The Nikiski senior running back slogged through a near-constant downpour and muddy field conditions to pile up 288 yards and score six touchdowns Friday night in a 49-25 blowout over Houston. Hartley was part of a dominating rushing attack that piled up 424 yards on the ground while pushing Nikiski to 2-1 on the season.
Overall, the Bulldogs are proving to be a force on the ground in 2012, piling up 1,143 yards through three games, with Hartley leading the way with 681 yards.
Hartley’s early success “is not a surprise,” Nikiski head coach Ted Riddall said. “The kid is a beast in the weight room, he’s explosive and powerful. And the offensive line has been good in front of him.”
While the Bulldogs brought their punishing rushing attack to Shurtleff Field, the Hawks made a few statements of their own about their new veer option offense while piling up 241 yards on the ground, including 100-plus-yard performances from running backs Hunter Smith and Waylon Soptick.
Smith led the way for Houston with 132 yards on 16 carries while Soptick added 106. From behind center, quarterback Nai Saechao was the only signal-caller to make much of an attempt passing the ball, connecting on 3-of-6 passing for 54 yards. His counterpart on the Nikiski sideline, Seth Carstens, had his only attempt of the game dropped.
As rain poured throughout the evening, both teams had trouble holding onto the ball, with the Bulldogs losing four fumbles and Houston three, including a stretch in the final two minutes of the first quarter that saw the teams turn the ball over on three consecutive plays.
With Nikiski holding a 20-7 lead to start the second quarter, Houston found some luck after what could have been a devastating turnover. After fumbling on the Bulldogs’ 3-yard line, Houston’s Smith would recover a Nikiski fumble in the end zone on the next snap to bring the Hawks to within a touchdown at 20-13.
“I thought it was close at times, and other times I thought we just didn’t have a chance,” Houston head coach Todd Whitehurst said. “It was mixed. All those fumbles and turnovers that took place due to (the weather) is frustrating.”
After giving up that touchdown, Nikiski settled down for the rest of the second quarter, scoring twice more to take a 34-13 lead into halftime. Although the Bulldogs would win by a wide margin, both teams got out of the gates quickly.
After Nikiski sophomore Christian Riddall returned the opening kickoff 49 yards to the Houston 35-yard line, the Bulldogs only needed three plays for Hartley to find the end zone for the first of his six touchdowns on the night and led 6-0 after a failed 2-point conversion.
Houston answered with four plays of its own, driving 69 yards to take its only lead of the game 7-6 on a 12-yard Smith score.
With an audible fire alarm sounding in the background from a testing of the system at nearby Houston High School, the Hawks made some good adjustments at halftime and matched the Bulldogs at their own power run game.
“We’re kind of a big-play offense and we like to complement that with some big pass plays,” Whitehurst said. “The plan was to pass for the big play, but when it rains like that it’s hard to implement that other part. I was disappointed in how we defended their run, but (liked) what we did. I realized we needed to make adjustments early on and at halftime we were able to really express how to defend those guys. It was probably a quarter too late.”
Houston started the second half the same way it did the first — with a statement drive, taking the ball 65 yards in three plays. Smith sprinted up the north sideline for 55 yards on the first play of the half and finished with a 5-yard touchdown run to cut the Nikiski lead to 34-19.
While the Hawks found a spark, it wasn’t enough to out-duel the punishing running of the Nikiski offense. Hartley scored on a 17-yard run on the next drive and added the 2-point conversion to extend the lead to 42-19. In the fourth quarter, teammate Tristin Apted plunged into the end zone from 4 yards out to cap the Bulldogs’ scoring.
Houston would end on a high note with Saechao leading the Hawks on a final 12-play drive that ended with a 12-yard touchdown strike to River Ross as time expired.
Overall, Whitehurst said he liked some of what he saw from his Hawks on Friday.
“I thought we did well. The special teams kind of killed us a little bit,” he said. “They started off with a short field right away there while we had to drive the field. But our runners were running hard. I think both offenses looked good. They played better special teams and defense than we did. The kids competed the whole time, though.”
Contact reporter Greg Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2269.
Nikiski 49, Houston 19
Friday, at Houston High School
Nikiski — Hartley 5 run, (2-point failed), 11:35
Houston — Smith 12 run, (Wilbur kick), 10:17
Nikiski — Hartley 40 run (Hartley 2-point), 8:38
Nikiski — Hartley 78 run (2-point failed), 4:19
Houston — Smith recovered fumble in end zone (kick blocked), 8:52
Nikiski — Hartley 22 run (2-point failed), 4:37
Nikiski — Hartley 1 run (Apted 2-point) 1:34
Houston — Smith 5 run (Wilbur kick), 10:38
Nikiski — Hartley 17 run (Hartley 2-point), 9:05
Nikiski — Apted 4 run (Stangel kick), 4:53
Houston — Ross 12 from N. Saechao 12-yard pass, 0:00
Rushing — Nikiski: Hartley 20-288, Apted 11-87, Riddall 5-63, 14 3-(-14); Houston: Smith 16-132, Soptick 17-106, N. Saechao 3-3.
Passing — Nikiski: Carstens 0-1-0; Houston: N. Saechao 3-6-54.
Receiving — Houston: Ross 2-37, Kleewein 1-17.