No mystery to East's 43-18 Cook Inlet Conference football victory over Eagle River on Saturday afternoon, which kept alive its postseason ambitions -- the Thunderbirds ground down the Wolves with their, well, ground game.
East piled up a season-high 288 yards rushing at Dimond Alumni Field, scored all seven of its touchdowns on runs and averaged 6.1 yards per carry. Of the six T-bird running backs who logged at least five carries, all averaged at least five yards per pop.
Of course, it didn't hurt that East (4-3 overall, 3-3 CIC) scored on its first three possessions of the first half and its first three possessions of the second half.
To hear the T-birds tell it, their ground game is flourishing because they're practicing it more, keeping things simple as a wave of injuries on the line has them working less out of the spread offense. Oh, and running backs aren't dancing around holes; they're hitting them and powering through the line of scrimmage.
"We've really gone back to our basic stuff,'' said East coach Jeff Trotter. "I think it really showed.''
Diego Su'a T'eo racked three touchdowns and 81 yards on 10 carries. Osa Atiifale bagged a game-high 90 yards and one touchdown on eight carries. Chance Leolao (five carries, 27 yards) and Kim Sialaiga (six carries, 38 yards) each rushed for a touchdown and quarterback Jesse Vanilau scored on a sneak.
Su'a T'eo's touchdown runs of 19 yards and 3 yards on East's first two drives delivered a 14-0 first-quarter lead. Like his backfield brothers, he picked up substantial yardage after shedding tacklers.
"I think our linemen are starting to secure their blocks,'' Su'a Te'o said. "Linemen have to be the smartest guys on the field, and they're playing like that.
"Last year, (East running backs) ran more side-to-side. Now, we're more north and south. This year, we're playing more physical.''
Though East's lead was just 18-12 at halftime after Eagle River sandwiched a Corbin Duxbury touchdown reception and an Alani Collins touchdown run around Vanilau's sneak, the T-birds put the game away in the third quarter.
That's when the Wolves (1-6, 0-6 CIC) found themselves working into a strong wind on offense. Two Eagle River punts that averaged just 21.5 yards, a fumble recovery by East's Sailitai Moevao, a 21-yard punt return by Jarred Laws and stout work by East's defense set up the T-birds with generous field position. Their three consecutive scoring drives in the second half all began in Wolves territory -- at the 21, 27 and 36-yard lines, respectively.
Eagle River trailed 37-12 before Javonte Dunn returned a kickoff 69 yards for a touchdown in the final minute of the third quarter to cut the deficit to 37-18. But the T-birds immediately went 51 yards on five plays, with Atiifale scampering for a 26-yard touchdown.
Jachi Madubuko led Eagle River with 78 rushing yards on 17 carries and the Wolves accumulated 177 yards total offense in the first half. But East's defense stifled Eagle River in the second half, when the Wolves gained just 16 yards on 25 plays and lost three fumbles -- Moevao, Manu Malama and Presley Piliati furnished recoveries.
East, along with Dimond and Chugiak, is still alive in the race for the CIC's fourth and final spot in the state large-school playoffs -- Service, South and West already have secured berths.
The T-birds somewhat control their destiny. They will gain the playoffs for the second straight year under Trotter if they beat Chugiak on Friday.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Eagle River 0 12 6 0 -- 18
East 12 6 19 6 -- 43
East -- Su'a T'eo 19 run (kick failed), 7:33.
East -- Su'a T'eo 3 run (kick blocked), 1:24.
Eagle River -- Duxbury 3 pass from Collins (run failed), 10:58.
East -- Vanilau 1 run (run failed), 8:50.
Eagle River -- Collins 2 run (kick blocked), 3:45.
East -- Su'a t'eo 18 run (pass failed), 6:51.
East -- Lealao 12 run (kick failed), 4:46.
East -- Siaulaiga 8 run (Siu kick), 1:06.
Eagle River -- Dunn 69 kickoff return (pass failed), :56.
East -- Atiifale 26 run (kick failed), 11:52.
Eagle River East
First downs 9 21
Rushes-yards 42-91 47-288
Passing yards 102 134
Return yards 62 123
Passes 5-14-1 9-16-1
Punts 4-31.0 1-6.0
Fumbles-lost 4-3 0-0
Penalties-yards 8-82 11-106
RUSHING -- Eagle River: Madubuko 17-78, Eiler 2-17, Oberlander 8-10, Banks 6-4, Ireland 1-0, Dunn 1-(-6), Collins 7-(-12). East: Atiifale 8-90, Su'a T'eo 10-81, Siaulaiga 6-38, Bell 6-32, Lealao 5-27, Jones 5-25, No. 15 1-3, Hill 2-3, Vanilau 4-(-11).
PASSING -- Eagle River: Collins 3-4-1--68, Eiler 2-9-1--34. East: Vanilau 8-15-1--136, Wolfe 1-(-2).
RECEIVING -- Eagle River: Duxbury 3-68, Dunn 1-25, Collins 1-9. East: Laws 4-52, Luafulu 3-54, Atiifale 1-17, Su'a T'eo 1-11.