HOUSTON It’s only the second week of the prep football season, but the Nikiski Bulldogs feel they have already won their first playoff game.
With a 20-14 win over the Houston Hawks at Houston High School on Friday the Bulldogs gained a tiebreaker that could decide who stays home, and who, from a top-heavy Great Land Conference, earns a berth to the actual postseason.
“This win is huge, our first playoff game,” Nikiski senior quarterback Zech Hemphill said. “The winner of this game is going into the conference championship game against Eielson.”
Though there is no scheduled conference championship game, Eielson is predicted to be the favorites, by many, in the seven-team conference, with Nikiski and Houston possibly battling for the second, and final, postseason berth. Throw Seward into the mix, and the Great Land Conference may have a four-way tie at the top at the end of the season, Houston head coach Norm Bouchard said.
While Houston virtually dominated the first two quarters, Nikiski used three second-half scores to notch the crucial win.
“We played well, but we knew it would come down to big plays,” Bouchard said. “And they got the big plays.”
Nikiski’s biggest of plays came at the very end of the first half, and the start of the third quarter.
With a 7-0 Houston lead, and the Hawks facing fourth down, just inches from the goal line, the Bulldogs kept Houston out of the end zone. Hawks quarterback Ryan Thamm tried to hit wide receiver David Monteil in the corner of the end zone, but the pass was long.
“I don’t know how we did it, but we pulled it out,” Hemphill said of the defensive stand. “We were on defense for the whole first half.”
Fueled by the momentum from the defensive stand, Nikiski opened the second
half with a long kickoff return for a touchdown.
“Our coach told us at halftime we were going to return it, because of the defensive stand,” Hemphill said.
Nikiski head coach Ned Clooten was right.
Aided by stellar blocking from teammates such as Corey Smith and Tyler Payment, Justin Tumbaga returned the second half’s opening kickoff 76 yards for the score.
Nikiski was held to just 48 yards on 14 offensive plays in the first half. The Bulldogs gained 36 yards on their opening drive their most productive series of the first two quarters but a fumble gave the ball back to Houston.
Hemphill said the Bulldogs were able to read the Houston defense, and make the appropriate adjustments at halftime.
“They found it, and attacked it,” Bouchard said. “They’re a smart, well-coached team.”
The slight changes in the Nikiski offensive game plan allowed the Bulldogs to rebound, and gain 156 yards on the ground in the final two quarters.
Hemphill and Jordan McCaughey each posted rushing touchdowns. Tumbaga carried the ball 15 times for 80 yards in the second half. Hemphill gained 44 of his 56 yards in the final two quarters.
Houston jumped out to an early 7-0 lead when Thamm capped a 13-play opening drive with a 3-yard touchdown plunge. The Hawks’ first drive consumed nearly six minutes of the first quarter. Houston had two more long drives in the first half, including a 13-play series that ate up nearly the final six minutes of the second quarter, but were unable to get into the end zone.
“We didn’t take advantage, those two times when we had the ball in scoring position,” Bouchard said.
Facing fourth-and-inches with 14 seconds left in the second quarter, Bouchard and the Hawks opted for going for the touchdown, rather than settling for a field-goal attempt.
“In the end it wouldn’t have really mattered losing by three or losing by six,” Bouchard said. “We felt like the play in the corner was open, and it was.
“The ball just went a little further than we wanted it to.”
Bulldogs 20, Hawks 14
Nikiski 0 0 14 6 20
Houston 7 0 0 7 14
Hou Thamm 3 run (Smyth kick), 5:58
Nik Tumbaga 76 kickoff return (Hemphill pass to Tumbaga), 11:46
Nik McCaughey 3 run (pass failed), 6:00
Nik Hemphill 1 run (kick failed), 7:54
Hou Thistle 2 run (Smyth kick), 3:57
First downs 11 17
Rushes-yards 42-217 55-191
Passing yards 0 47
Return yards 9 6
Passing 0-2-0 4-5-0
Punts-avg 2-31.0 5-26.2
Fumbles-lost 2-2 0-0
Penalties-yards 1-10 5-40
Rushing Nikiski: Tumbaga 22-120, Hemphill 12-56, McCaughey 4-20, Blatchford 3-20, Smith 1-1. Houston: Erickson 28-84, Smith 13-57, Thistle 9-41, Thamm 5-3, Parker 1-6.
Passing Nikiski: Hemphill 0-2-0-0. Houston: Thamm 3-4-0-22, Parker 1-1-0-25.
Receiving Nikiski: none. Houston: Bower 2-16, Parker 1-24, Montiel 1-7.
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