With daylight dwindling under darkening, overcast skies, Nikiski fought its way to a third-straight small-schools championship berth by beating Greatland Conference rival Eielson 38-20 on Friday at Nikiski.
One year after losing to Eielson in the championship game, Nikiski will face Monroe Catholic, 40-0 winners over Barrow on Saturday, in the title game Saturday at noon at Anchorage Football Stadiium. Nikiski will will be facing its third different opponent in as many years in the championship game.
“That second half prepared us for what we’re going to see next week,” said Nikiski coach Ted Riddall after the game. “(Monroe) is going to scramble around, get Scooter (Bynum) open and throw the ball long. Last time we played, we didn’t get after him.
“We played well defensively, they responded to some of the things we talked about, and I can’t say more about the passion.”
Nikiski suffered from many of the same issues on Friday that led to a loss against Monroe a week earlier — including three fumbles inside Eielson’s 20-yard line — but the Bulldogs’ defense made sure this one would not get away with big play after big play in the second half.
Junior Christian Riddall led Nikiski’s offense with 216 rushing yards and three touchdowns on Friday, which was only a slice of the 513 yards the Bulldogs had on the ground. Senior Michael Stangel tallied 192 ground yards and two touchdowns to complement Riddall, and senior Jesse Eide added 108 yards and a score as well.
On the other side of the ball, Eielson’s biggest threat — junior Anthony Griffith — managed 182 rushing yards, but that was about all the Ravens could muster on offense.
“We saw them warming up here, and I told our guys all week, if they watched any film of us from Monroe, Anthony’s going to be quarterback and he’s going to do the same thing,” Riddall said. “Sure enough, there he was.”
Coach Riddall said his team’s biggest objective was to keep Griffith from finding open space on the outside on plays.
“We were just doing our job, keeping them contained, keeping (Griffith) in a box, he’s quick,” Stangel said. “Our linemen were doing their jobs, standing the gaps, inside linebacker was filling the holes.”
It was made evident early on that a barnburner could be in store for the fans, after Nikiski built up a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter with touchdown runs from Stangel and Riddall of 53 yards and 7 yards, respectively.
On their second possession of the game, Eielson moved downfield and scored from 2 yards out with a Griffith carry that closed the gap to 14-7 midway through the first quarter.
After a Nikiski possession that included a 19-yard scoring run that was brought back due to a penalty, Riddall fumbled the ball with less than 10 yards to the end zone, and on the very next play from scrimmage, Eielson’s Griffith found running room on the outside and sprinted 96 yards to tie the game up at 14 apiece.
“I let Anthony get outside on that long run, and that was my fault,” said Eide. “I lost the contain, and I had to do something to make up for it.”
Nikiski answered with a 65-yard touchdown run from Eide on its first play from scrimmage to retake the lead, but the point-after attempt missed.
That was followed by an 80-yard kick return from Griffith to knot the game up once again. Eide ensured the Ravens didn’t take the lead by blocking Eielson’s extra-point kick.
“That was a huge play,” Riddall said. “We talked about it all week, it may come down to one special teams play. A kickoff return and a blocked kick, really it would’ve gave them momentum heading into halftime, but after that, it was 0-0 again. We tell them don’t look at the scoreboard. Play like it’s scoreless.”
Eide said his team knew what had happened a week earlier against Monroe, and coach Riddall made sure they were ready to get the job done in the second half.
“We knew it from the beginning, we had to play 48 minutes,” Eide said. “Can’t let down a half, because that’s when Eielson came back last time.”
In the second half, the Bulldogs continued to come with big play after big play on defense, as Eielson punted on its first drive of the third quarter, and on its second drive, suffered two sacks and a recovered fumble for a net loss of 31 yards.
“From last week’s game, not playing well and having the opportunity to play better than we did, I knew they weren’t going to stop us,” Riddall said. “Defensively, it was like, do we hang back or go after them?
“We made a bunch of mistakes but we kept shooting the gun. They made the big plays when we needed them.”
Bulldogs 38, Ravens 20
Nikiski 14 6 12 6 —38
Eielson 7 13 0 0 —20
Nik — Stangel 54 run (Feller kick), 11:17
Nik — Riddall 8 run (Feller kick), 8:54
Eiel — Griffith 1 run (Benjamin kick), 5:00
Eiel — Griffith 96 run (Benjamin kick), 6:10
Nik — Eide 65 run (kick failed), 5:57
Eiel — Griffith 80 kick return (kick blocked), 5:46
Nik — Riddall 5 run (pass failed), 8:33
Nik — Stangel 11 run (run failed), 5:39
Nik — Riddall 28 run (pass failed), 5:07
Rushing 513 189
Passing 103 51
First downs 25 10
Return yds 10 117
Punts 0 5
Turnovers 5 1
Penalties-yds 8-50 10-70
Rushing — Nikiski: Riddall 19-216, Eide 12-108, Stangel 21-192, Anderson 3-(-3). Eielson: Griffith 33-182, Cain 1-5, Benjamin 1-1, Kincade 1-(-3), Velez 4-4.
Passing — Nikiski: Anderson 4-9-1—103. Eielson: Griffith 2-13-0—37, Velez 2-4-0—14.
Receiving — Nikiski: Pamplin 1-53, Riddall 2-39, Eide 1-11. Eielson: Griffith 2-27, Prioleau 1-16, A. Griffith 1-8.