For one half of football, the Nikiski Bulldogs proved they could play with the two-time defending state small-schools champion Kenai Kardinals Saturday.
"For the first half we stuck right with them," Nikiski lineman John Schwenke said following Kenai's 75-21 win over their northern rivals.
It was the second half that was the problem.
Kenai had a 42-21 lead coming out of the locker room in a game that had all the makings of a high-scoring shootout. But Dakota Craig had other ideas, ripping off an incredible 61-yard touchdown run on the first play of the third quarter to put Nikiski's comeback hopes to rest. What made Craig's dagger so impressive was the fact that the Bulldogs had him stopped at the line of scrimmage before he broke free and headed for the sidelines.
"That was pretty much just the linemen. They just kept blocking, and made a hole," Craig said. "And I found it."
Craig would go on to run for 149 yards and two touchdowns in the quarter, staking the Kards to an insurmountable 61-21 lead. The defending state offensive player of the year finished the game with 254 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
"You know Dakota's going to make those kind of plays," Nikiski head coach Ned Clooten said following the game.
Despite the lopsided score, Clooten said his team had nothing to be ashamed of in coming out and playing hard until the final whistle.
"The kids played with a lot of pride today," he said.
Clooten said hanging with a team of Kenai's caliber was a tall order for the undermanned 'Dawgs, who only suit up 32 kids between their varsity and jayvee squads.
"That's the product of school size," he said. "It's hard to compete with the numbers they get out for football."
Despite a marked difference in team size and individual bulk at the line of scrimmage, Nikiski was able to hang tough in the first half.
After Kenai ran off three quick touchdowns in the first quarter, the Bulldogs got on the scoreboard with 17 seconds left in the quarter on a 9-yard touchdown run by Jared Mazurek.
Kenai struck back in the second quarter with back-to-back touchdown runs from Tyler Chappell and Craig, but Nikiski was able to cut into the lead when Mazurek rumbled in from 29 yards out. That touchdown was followed just two minutes later by a Justin Tumbaga touchdown run that got Nikiski to 35-21. Tumbaga was one of the biggest bright spots for the Bulldogs, getting 101 yards against a tough Kenai defense.
"They couldn't stop us and we couldn't stop them in the first half," Kenai head coach Jim Beeson said after the game.
Behind Tumbaga and Mazurek, the Bulldogs actually out-rushed Kenai in the first half, 143-141.
Chappell's second rushing touchdown of the game again put Kenai up by three scores going into halftime, but the game still seemed up for grabs.
"That's a credit to their coaching staff and to their kids," Beeson said. "They're going to come out and play hard all the time."
In the end, however, Kenai's depth and size was just too much for Nikiski to handle.
Kenai's hefty linemen were able to wear down the Bulldogs at the point of attack, opening up big holes for Craig and keeping the rush off Chappell, who was a perfect 5-for-5 passing for 107 yards and two touchdowns.
"I think the questions have been answered about Tyler playing quarterback for us," Beeson said of his junior quarterback, who was asked to replace his older brother, Cole, coming into the season.
Chappell more than filled his brother's shoes, reeling off a couple long runs and demonstrating uncanny accuracy in hooking up with his favorite receiver, tight end Josh Bennett, for both touchdown strikes.
But Chappell's heroics were overshadowed by Craig, who looked unstoppable at times, reeling off eight runs of ten yards or more.
"He had two or three runs that were, just, I mean..." Beeson said, struggling to find the right words to describe Craig's play. "That's why Dakota's Dakota."
The big win moves the Kardinals to 4-1 on the season, and gives them plenty of momentum going into next week's conference matchup with Homer.
As for the Bulldogs, they've got to regroup and get ready to make a push toward a Great Land Playoff spot something well within their grasp. Although the loss dropped them to 3-2 on the year, Nikiski still sits in good shape in the GLC at 3-1 in the conference.
And although they lost by a big number, none of the Nikiski players hung their heads following the loss. Schwenke said that even in losing, there are plenty of positives to take away from Saturday's game.
"We've just got to forget about the bad that happened," he said. "And remember the good."
Kards 75, Bulldogs 21
Kenai 0 14 0 0 14
Nikiski 0 0 0 0 0
Ken Bennett 18 pass from Chappell (Kim kick), 7:18
Ken Craig 20 run (Kim kick), 5:00
Ken Craig 9 run (Kim kick), 4:27
Nik Mazurek 9 run (Blatchford kick), 0:17
Ken Chappell 5 run (Kim kick), 10:19
Ken Craig 7 run (Kim kick), 7:01
Nik Mazurek 29 run (Mazurek pass from McGahan), 5:53
Nik Tumbaga 7 run (kick failed), 3:35
Ken Chappell 38 run (Kim kick), 1:48
Ken Craig 61 run (kick failed), 11:42
Ken Craig 2 run (kick failed), 6:43
Ken Bennett 8 pass from Chappell (Kim kick), 0:13
Ken Rainey 2 run (Kim kick), 9:44
Ken Rainey 4 run (Kim kick), 3:21
First downs 18 11
Rushes-yards 57-443 42-167
Passing yards 107 33
Return yards 5 0
Passing 5-5-0 2-16-0
Punts-avg 2-31.0 4-29.5
Fumbles-lost 2-0 3-3
Penalties-yards 9-71 11-59
Rushing Kenai: Craig 24-254, Miles 7-76, Chappell 10-61, Oliver 8-41, Rainey 7-12, Faumui 1-(-1). Nikiski: Tumbaga 17-101, Mazurek 11-58, McGahan 13-14, Hemphill 1-(-6).
Passing Kenai: Chappell 5-5-0-107. Nikiski: McGahan 2-13-0-33, Hemphill 0-3-0-0. (comp, att, int, yards).
Receiving Kenai: Bennett 4-80, Miles 1-27. Nikiski: Kellie 1-17, Holloway 1-16.
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