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After trailing by just eight at the half, Artesia can’t keep pace
Ethan Duff breaks loose for one of four receiving touchdowns on the night Friday at the Field of Dreams. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

Ethan Duff breaks loose for one of four receiving touchdowns on the night Friday at the Field of Dreams. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Bulldog football team already knew they had a test in front of them. They entered last week intensely focused on preparations for their road trip to Class 6A fourth-ranked Las Cruces High.

But when Tuesday rolled around, the ‘Dogs found themselves facing a different sort of challenge: Starting quarterback Josh Houghtaling was out. Sophomore backup Taylor Null’s first-ever varsity start was about to become a baptism by fire.

Artesia’s is a program that takes particular pride in its team mentality. No individual is more significant than the whole, and Houghtaling would be the first to emphasize that philosophy. But when an offense loses its field general with scant time to adjust, there’s simply no downplaying the significance of the setback.

Still, the ‘Dogs battled, trailing the Bulldawgs by just eight, 20-12, at the break. Artesia could not keep pace with Cruces in the second half, however, falling by a final of 41-25.

“We went up to Las Cruces Friday and didn’t accomplish our goal of getting a win and becoming a better football team,” head coach Cooper Henderson said Saturday. “When you’re not successful and you have a game like we had Friday night, that starts at the top, and I’m certainly going to work as a coach to make sure we’re better prepare moving forward.”

The Bulldogs were unsurprisingly out of sync offensively in the first quarter of play, going three and out in their first two possessions and turning the ball over on downs at the Las Cruces 30-yard line to end their third.

Artesia’s defense came out strong, forcing one three-and-out after the Bulldawgs recovered the opening onside kick and a second via a turnover on downs moments later. The D began to show signs of fatigue as the half wore on, however, and Las Cruces was able to rattle off a trio of touchdowns, their first coming on a 24-yard run by senior quarterback Kameron Miller with 3:43 to go in the first.

The ‘Dawgs carried a 14- play, 70-yard drive over into the second quarter, driving to a first-and-goal at the Artesia 10 before Payton Ball punched it in from the one on fourth down. Carlos Carrasco blocked the PAT to keep the score at 13-0 Cruces with 7:30 to go in the half.

As Null and his receivers began to connect, the Bulldogs found a rhythm in their first series of the second quarter. The sophomore completed five consecutive passes to Kameron Aguilar, Ethan Duff, Isaiah Weideman and Daniel Leon in a push from the Bulldawg 42 to the 10, from which Null found Duff for Artesia’s first score of the night. A blocked PAT kept it 13-6 with 3:56 on the clock.

Miller was able to break loose for a 71-yard touchdown run 28 seconds later, but the ‘Dogs responded in an equal amount of time with a 79-yard catch-and-run from Null to the speedy Duff to make it 20-12.

A pair of tackles for a loss facilitated a quick three-and-out by Las Cruces, giving Artesia time to try for the tie before the break. After driving to a first down at the Bulldawg 34, however, they would turn the ball over on downs at the 32, hindered by a false-start penalty and a trio of incomplete passes.

Cruces kicked off the third quarter with an efficient seven-play scoring drive that ended in a 24-yard run by Miller, and following a three-and-out turnover on downs by Artesia, the ‘Dawgs were unfortunately finally able to widen the gap.

A three-yard TD run by Ball with 3:18 to go in the third was followed quickly by a 45-yard touchdown pass from Null to Duff to make it 34-19, but Cruces would score again to start the fourth on a 22-yard run by Ball to bump their lead back to 22.

Even so, the ‘Dogs had their chances, scoring with 8:52 remaining in the game on a fourth and final Null-to-Duff connection from five yards out to pull within 16. The defense would force a Bulldawg punt and a turnover on downs on Cruces’ final series of the game, but in between, Artesia was unable to move the ball consistently, turning it over on downs to end their final two possessions.

“Defensively, we were really hoping to limit their offense and prevent big plays last night, and there were times we did that very successfully and others where we weren’t able to do that,” Henderson said. “We were also looking for some big plays from our kicking game and ended up giving some up.

“We had some bright spots on offense, some good scoring drives, but we still weren’t as consistent as we need to be as far as moving the ball and limiting mistakes, be they penalties or not executing.”

Null finished 29 of 55 for 401 yards and four touchdowns on the night, all to Duff, who had 10 catches for 234 yards. Daniel Hernandez was 5-61 receiving and Leon 6-56. The ‘Dogs posted just 17 yards rushing on the night, with Null going 1-9 and Isaiah Weideman 3-6.

Miller finished with 251 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries, while Ball delivered Cruces’ other three TDs with five carries for 28 yards. Miller was also eight of 19 passing for 98 yards.

Friday’s loss was the Bulldogs’ (5-1) first of the season and brought to a close a 16-game win streak dating back to Week Three of 2014.

There will be no rest for the weary, as Artesia hosts Class 6A unbeaten Alamogordo at 7 p.m. Friday at Bulldog Bowl. The Tigers defeated Deming 56-12 Friday at home.

“The question now is, how do we respond to this loss?” said Henderson. “What direction do we take from here? And I think this group of young men has shown that they’re the kind of group that will respond well, learn from this game, and get ready to take on another tough opponent this week.”

  • DEF-Swarm2

    The Bulldog defense works together to take down Las Cruces quarterback Kameron Miller. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • Hernandez2

    Daniel Hernandez darts away from the Las Cruces defense. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • MISC-NullDuff

    Ethan Duff (28) congratulates Taylor Null following a touchdown in the second quarter Friday. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

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    Taylor Null delivers a long pass in the first quarter. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)