The Juneau-Douglas High School football team can clinch its first undefeated regular season in school history with a victory over the Service Cougars at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Anchorage Football Stadium. But the winning hasn't come easy.
The top-ranked Crimson Bears (7-0 overall, 5-0 in the Cook Inlet Football Conference) have only scored 34 points in their past three games. But Juneau's defense held its opponents to 21 points as the Crimson Bears beat East Anchorage 10-7 on Sept. 7, defending state runner-up Colony 14-7 on Sept. 15 and defending state champion Dimond 10-7 last Friday.
Those struggles have the Juneau players thinking more about getting their offense back on track than worrying about an undefeated season.
With the Cougars (1-6 overall, 1-4 CIFC) struggling this year, Juneau's players are hoping Service is just what the doctor ordered to get their offense back on track before the first round of the state playoffs the weekend of Oct. 5-6. Service won three state titles over the past five years, but this year the Cougars won't be in the state playoffs for the first time in nine seasons. Saturday's game will be broadcast locally on KINY, 800-AM radio.
"We know if we do well, that might set us up for the playoffs," Juneau senior quarterback Brett Fairchild said. "We'd like to get the offense going, so we know what we can do in the playoffs. Offensively we've been sputtering, and our offense has just as much potential as our defense."
"It might help us get our momentum going," Juneau senior offensive/defensive lineman Justin Rasmussen said. "In practice the seniors seem a little more focused, while the younger guys are thinking they've got a few more years left. We're moving the ball, we just aren't finishing our drives."
The Crimson Bears are led by Fairchild, who's the state's top quarterback in passing yardage after completing 72 of 132 passes for 1,057 yards with 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
Jacob Dutton has been on the receiving end of 24 of Fairchild's passes, good for the state's second-best yardage total of 564 and tied for second in touchdowns with eight. Tight end Jake Miller has caught 19 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Tailback Jason Cameron leads Juneau in rushing with 357 yards on 81 carries and three touchdowns, despite missing two games with a sprained ankle. Fullback Sione Tupou has rushed for 237 yards on 68 carries and five touchdowns.
With that core, Juneau's offense has been able to move the ball. But in recent weeks drives have fizzled as the Crimson Bears missed blocking assignments, dropped passes and receivers ran incorrect pass patterns. The struggles have frustrated the Bears and led to occasional bickering in the huddle, something the senior players are trying to eliminate as Juneau prepares for the playoffs.
"I would rather win state than be 8-0, but I'd like both," Juneau senior offensive/defensive lineman Bret Russell said. "We'd like to establish our offense for the playoffs, and we need to win this game. This is also a big game because some of the guys need to step up for players with injuries and those we lost with grades. It's a test, so we're not taking this game lightly. No matter if Service is good or not, they always seem to play well against us."
"We've got to play hard," Tupou said. "We've got to show up to the game and play all four quarters."
Juneau lost two starters -- Kyle Miller and Ryan West -- to grades this week, and they'll miss this game while they try to get caught up on their schoolwork in time for the playoffs. Also, Dutton twisted his ankle at the end of Tuesday's practice and may see limited action on Saturday. During Wednesday's practice, back-up receivers Alan Floresca and John Allen both made several tough catches in heavy traffic so they'll join Jake Miller and Eric Tollefson as Fairchild's prime targets if Dutton can't play.
While Juneau's offense has sputtered in recent weeks, Juneau's defense has been a stabilizing force. Only once this season has Juneau allowed more than 10 points, and Juneau has allowed the fewest points (65) in the state. The Crimson Bears have yet to post a shutout on defense this season.
Juneau's defense will have to watch for Service fullback Ryan Ersland, who has gained 528 yards on 104 carries with five touchdowns this season. Ersland ran for 94 yards and a touchdown in Service's 26-7 loss to East Anchorage on Saturday, but 62 of those yards came on his touchdown run. Jake Staser has run for 482 yards on 83 carries with one touchdown to give the Cougars two solid running backs. The Cougars alternate between Garrett Parker and Paul Cellos at quarterback, and neither is ranked among the state's leaders. Jason Hibbert is Service's top receiver with 14 receptions for 304 yards and three touchdowns.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.