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Robert Fernandez dives over the goal line for his first of two rushing touchdowns Friday at Bulldog Bowl. (Brienne Green ­/ Daily Press)

Robert Fernandez dives over the goal line for his first of two rushing touchdowns Friday at Bulldog Bowl. (Brienne Green ­/ Daily Press)

In the premier matchup of the Class 5A season to date, the Bulldog football team rode a near­flawless first half to a 39-21 victory Friday at Bulldog Bowl over the previously unbeaten Tigers of Los Lunas.

With Artesia ranked No. 1 in the class and Los Lunas No. 2 in the latest NMPreps poll – and that order reversed on MaxPreps – the game took center stage on New Mexico’s Week Six schedule, billed as a battle royale between the ‘Dogs’ vaunted passing attack and the Tigers’ explosive ground game.

But the Bulldogs were firmly in control throughout despite a few second-­half glitches, holding a Los Lunas offense averaging 51 points per game to just a pair of touchdowns on the night.

“We’re really pleased with the way we started the game,” Artesia coach Rex Henderson said Saturday. “We came out and really just got after Los Lunas from the start, and that’s something our kids have done well this year. They’ve started well overall, and we did that in this game.”

The Orange Crush defense works collaboratively to take down Los Lunas running back O'maury Samuels. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

The Orange Crush defense works collaboratively to take down Los Lunas running back O’maury Samuels. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Orange Crush defense got the ball rolling Friday with their first of four total takeaways as junior safety Denver Williams snagged a Nicholas Gaerlan pass on second and five from the Artesia 40-­yard line. That set the offense up at midfield, and they needed just six plays from there, scoring on a one­yard run by Ryan Gallegos with 7:53 to go in the first quarter.

A three and out saw the Tigers punting from their own 20, giving the ‘Dogs another short field en route to a one­-yard goal line plunge by Robert Fernandez that made it 13-­0 after a botched snap on the PAT. And after Chase Thompson leapt in front of another Gaerlan pass In Los Lunas territory, Los Lunas was looking shell shocked.

But linebacker/tight end Trevor Brohard would resuscitate the Tigers on Artesia’s first play from scrimmage, taking a bobbled pass out of the hands of a Bulldog receiver and rumbling down the home sideline to the Artesia 26 to set up Los Lunas’ first touchdown, a seven­-yard pass from Gaerlan to Martin Trujillo.

Ryan Gallegos prepares to make a move on a Los Lunas defender. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

Ryan Gallegos prepares to make a move on a Los Lunas defender. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The offense would regroup, however, in a series that carried into the second quarter. Following a nine­-yard run by Isaiah Weideman, Taylor Null distributed passes to Chaney Hardt, Dominic Madrid and Cody Fuentes to bring about first and goal at the one, from which Fernandez lunged in again to make it 19­-7 after the failed conversion attempt.

Los Lunas would piece together a drive from their own 30 to the Artesia 29, but Gaerlan would mishandle the snap and Bon Eric Trujillo was there to dive on the loose ball.

A 20­-yard run by Gallegos and a 39­-yard pass from Null to Weideman, who was chased down from behind at the Tiger seven, were followed by a seven-­yard toss from Null to Tyler Greenwood to make it 26­-7 with 8:10 remaining in the half. And following another three and out, the ‘Dogs would establish a commanding 33­-7 lead on a five­-yard Null­to­Greenwood connection at the 3:45 mark.

The Tigers threatened to cut their deficit to 19 prior to the break, marching from their own 35 to a first and goal at the 10 on the legs of running back O’maury Samuels and Noah Gum.

But after reaching the five on two plays, Samuels was wrangled for a loss of two and an incomplete pass capped off the defensive stand.

Tyler Greenwood walks over the goal line with his first of three touchdowns. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

Tyler Greenwood walks over the goal line with his first of three touchdowns. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Artesia’s offense emerged from the locker room out of sync, and a blocked punt from midfield set up the Tigers’ second scoring drive of the night, a five­-play effort that culminated in a 47-­yard sprint to the end zone by University of Michigan-­bound Samuels, whose longest run of the game prior to that had been 13 yards.

An interception deep in Tiger territory by Tyler Justice would end the ‘Dogs’ second series of the third quarter. The Crush stepped up to force a turnover on downs, but the offensive woes would continue courtesy of a fumble following a long pass across midfield.

Buoyed by a 20­-yard dash by Samuels, Los Lunas looked poised to trim the gap to 12, but the senior RB would cough up the ball at the Artesia 28, and Chandler Youtsey was there to pounce on it as the fourth quarter began.

The offense sputtered again, turning the ball over on downs at the Tiger 43, but Los Lunas would return the favor with help from a sack of Gaerlan for a loss of three by Jharyss Granger.

After that, the Bulldogs were finally able to right the second-­half ship, converting on third and long with a 15-­yard pass from Null to David Barlow and scoring on second and goal from the four on Null’s third TD pass of the night to Greenwood.

Denver Williams heads upfield with an interception. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

Denver Williams heads upfield with an interception. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

With just 2:25 left in the game, chances were good the Crush would be able to hold the Tigers off for a 39­-14 final. But Samuels would blow through the special teams for a 96-­yard kick return touchdown and a token extra seven, as Artesia was able to run out the clock from there on the 39­-21 win.

“I think when you look at the way the second half went, you could see a little more of the team that Los Lunas really is and what we were expecting to see,” said Henderson. “I think we came out a little flat after halftime. I don’t know that we took the first half threat as serious as we should have. We talked about that they were going to make good adjustments and come back out and be a better team, but I don’t know that we really believed it, I guess.

It just wasn’t as consistent a performance in the second half as what we had in the first.

“And they had a lot to do with that. They took some gambles and did some things differently, especially defensively, and those paid off for them early. As far as moving the ball in the third quarter, they were making more plays than us, but I was pleased that offensively we came back in the fourth quarter and were able to move the ball well in two drives.”

Henderson said he and his staff were particularly happy with the ‘Dogs’ defensive performance throughout but that they hope to see continued improvement from the special forces units after Friday.

“They came back after half and were able to score, but we settled in and played good defense after that and stopped them,” said the coach. “We were really pleased defensively. O’maury Samuels had a lot of offensive yards when it was all said and done, but he’s supposed to, and I thought we did a good job of keeping him from being a difference-­maker in the game. He didn’t really swing the momentum back to them with huge plays other than that kick return late.

“The kicking game was not as consistent as we want to be.

There’s a lot of reasons for that that we’ll work on this week, but that’s still an area that’s been up and down this year, so we have to make sure that we make some modifications and get that adjusted.”

Samuels finished with 172 yards on 26 carries on the evening to comprise the bulk of Los Lunas’ 236 rushing yards.

Official stats for the Bulldogs were unavailable as of press time Saturday.

Artesia (5­-1) will now prepare for its first road trip since Sept. 9 when they head to Alamogordo Friday to take on another set of Class 5A Tigers.

Alamo is 3­-2 on the season with wins over Valencia (35­-0), Valley (62-­13) and St. Pius (41­-33) and losses to Los Lunas (35­-28) and, most recently, Goddard (34-­31).

“I think there’s a respect there with Alamogordo,” Henderson said. “That’s been a close game.

We’ve won it the last two years, but it’s been a good game both times, so I think that’s turned into a good series for us. It’s also the first time since Hobbs that we’ll be seeing a pass­-dominant team, so that will present a different challenge than what we’ve seen of late.

“It’s been good for us to have this schedule, I think. To have Cleveland last week, then Los Lunas, and now Alamo, to play that sequence and then get to go play a good team on the road in our class, those are the things that will help you in the playoffs, so it’s nice to have the chance to do that. And I think our kids are excited about it.”