Published: 1:27 pm, Sun. Oct. 23rd, 2016Updated: 1:17 pm
The scoreboard one minute into the fourth quarter Friday at Bulldog Bowl read the way most would expect in a bout between the No. 1 and 2 teams in the classification: 36-34.
The identity of the squad two points short of the Bulldogs was something new, however. Everyone had seen Roswell High overcoming the hard-luck reputation it’s struggled with since the early 2000s on paper in 2016, but now it was playing out before the eyes of thousands on the stage of a district-opening ballgame.
Helping keep the Coyotes’ batteries charged was a red-clad crowd that filled a good chunk of the visitors’ section, a far cry from the small smattering of fans that turned out for Roswell both on the road and at home in the not-so-distant past. And when the Coyotes followed an early fourth-quarter touchdown by forcing an Artesia three-and-out, they were on their feet and in full voice.
Punting from their own 13-yard line, the ‘Dogs could only get the ball to midfield for a defense that had, to that point, stymied the Roswell offense just once in six series. The Orange Crush took the field with screams of “We need a stop!” behind them.
The Coyotes, to the surprise of no one, turned to fullback Gabriel Najar, who was soon to surpass the 200-yard rushing mark on the night. He took them to the Artesia 40 and a facemask penalty on the Bulldogs a bit further. But from there, the ‘Dogs took control.
A fumble and recovery by Artesia was negated by a holding flag on the Coyotes, but the D met Roswell quarterback Bear Kyser near the line of scrimmage for a one-yard gain on second down, then followed by wrangling Najar on a short pass for a loss. The Coyotes were forced to punt, and the volume rose from the home stands.
The Artesia offense’s previous punt had capped their lone non-scoring drive of the night, and they retook the field with a businesslike air, picking up one first down on an Isaiah Weideman run and six-yard pass from Taylor Null to Kameron Aguilar, then adding a second on a 13-yard scamper by Robert Fernandez.
A block in the back call proved a brief monkey wrench, ultimately bringing about a fourth and one at the Coyote 47. But Fernandez plowed through the line for 13 more, then traded off with the ‘Dogs’ third running threat, Ryan Gallegos, to take Artesia to the Roswell 27.
Yet another whistle, this time holding, turned a third and one into third and 13, but Null spotted a wide-open Aguilar in the center of a frantic Coyote defense for the score. A bad snap forced them to try for the conversion rather than the kick, and the pass failed, leaving the door open slightly ajar for Roswell, 42-34.
With 51 seconds on the clock, it seemed a tall order for a Coyote team that had plodded out 12- and 15-play drives for the bulk of their points, but Roswell went quickly to work from their own 34, with Kyser firing three straight passes to the edge of the field for receiver Brandon Watley, who stepped untouched out of bounds each time.
That brought about a first down at the Artesia 47 with just over 20 seconds left in the game, and Kyser dropped back again. This time, however, he went to the middle of the field, where Bulldog safety Chase Thompson was waiting.
Thompson snagged the pass to a roar from the Sea of Orange, bringing the wildest start to the second season in recent memory to a close.
“The focus of Roswell High’s program these past few years has been really developing that offense,” Artesia head coach Rex Henderson said Saturday. “They’ve put a lot more time into it than anything else, and it’s tough to stop. They’re putting up a lot of points on everybody.
“We were close to getting it stopped, but they were getting themselves into third and shorts, and we didn’t always get it taken care of. But we came up with two big stops when we needed to in the second half.”
Artesia’s fourth-quarter effort brought a solid end to what had been a rollercoaster ride to that point. After taking a two-touchdown lead on the Coyotes late in the first half, the ‘Dogs allowed a touchdown with four seconds remaining to make it a nine-point game at the half, 29-20, and had to call on backups to step quickly into key roles due to injuries on defense.
“We ended up having to play without two of our three leading tacklers on the season for three quarter of the game, so for those other guys to step in and fill the gaps, play hard, and be able to help get those critical stops in the fourth quarter – we were really pleased with that,” said Henderson.
And in a game where leaving a drive unfinished was simply not an option, the Bulldog offense delivered touchdowns on seven of their six series, converting thrice on third and long in the contest, twice for TDs, and four times on fourth down for two more scores.
“We had the consistent type of offensive performance that we need to have to be successful,” Henderson said. “We were able to consistently move the ball and get points, and I also thought we had a pretty good game overall in the kicking game. That’s been an area of concern at times this year, but I feel like the last few weeks we’re starting to see the development there and see some kids step up and make some plays like we need them to.”
One of those key special forces plays came on the game’s opening kick, as Weideman reeled off 32 yards to set the ‘Dogs up at the Coyote 33. A 13-yard run by the senior took them to the red zone, and back-to-back runs of eight and two yards by Ryan Gallegos, the latter on fourth and goal, made it 7-0 Artesia after the Tanner Harris PAT.
Roswell High was able to get its inaugural burst of momentum with the help of an onslaught of penalties, as the ‘Dogs were whistled for a horse collar on the kickoff, then flagged twice in the drive for phantom pass interference.
Najar would ultimately take it in from the two, and Kyser hit Watley for the conversion to give the Coyotes the lead, 8-7, with 6:30 left in the first.
Null covered a good portion of the Bulldogs’ ensuing 67-yard drive on passes to Chaney Hardt and Tyler Greenwood, then would find Weideman for a catch-and-run on third down from the seven to put Artesia back up, 14-8, at the 2:53 mark.
But the Coyotes would carry their second series into the second quarter before scoring on a one-yard plunge by Najar to knot the game following the missed conversion, 14-14.
The ‘Dogs continued to utilize a balanced attack en route back to the Roswell red zone, but two incomplete passes and a sack brought about fourth and 18 from the 30. Null found Dominic Madrid streaking into the end zone, however, for the score with 7:53 to go in the half, and Fernandez carried in the conversion to put Artesia up 22-14.
The Bulldogs were able to bump their lead to 15 after the Crush forced a three and out, with Null distributing passes to Hardt, Aguilar and Greenwood on the way to a first and goal at the three. From there, Fernandez picked up one yard before finishing off the drive to make it 29-14 with 1:24 to go.
But the Artesia D was unable to hold the Coyotes at bay through the horn, as Najar took Roswell from its own 20 to the Artesia 43 and Kyser made his first pass completion of the night count, hitting the fullback for an 18-yard gain.
A 17-yard toss to Daniel Sosa made it first and goal at the eight, but the ‘Dogs stiffened as the seconds ticked away. On fourth down with four seconds left, however, Kyser found Sosa again for the score to set the halftime tally, 29-20.
The Coyotes would pick up where they’d left off, grinding out an 11-play, 80-yard, four-minute drive to start the third quarter to pull back within three, but the Bulldogs answered quickly after Weideman broke a run from near midfield to the Roswell 20. Null would dial his own number from the half-yard line four plays later to make it 36-26 heading into the crucial fourth.
“We were really pleased with the effort our kids gave last night,” said Henderson. “Roswell High is a good football team, and you can definitely see Coach (Jeff) Lynn has them playing at a high level. We were up two touchdowns on them at one point, and they went right down and scored before the half, and that kind of energy and excitement are things you didn’t always seem from Roswell High teams in the past.
“They have things headed in the right direction, and I think that’s good for us and good for our district. It made for a good game for us and an exciting game for the fans.”
The Bulldogs finished with 357 total yards of offense on the night to Roswell’s 331, 91 of those on the ground and 266 through the air. Null was 21 of 31 for 266 yards and three touchdowns, Weideman carried the ball five times for 50 yards and Fernandez 10 for 48, and Aguilar and Hardt finished 7-105 and 6-73 respectively receiving.
Najar did the bulk of the Coyotes’ damage, going 25-208 rushing. Kyser was seven of 12 for 58 passing yards, one touchdown, and a pick.
With the win, the ‘Dogs improve to 7-1 on the season, 1-0 in D4 play, as they prepare to finish out their district slate on the road beginning Friday against Goddard at Wool Bowl. The Rockets stand at 5-3 on the year, 1-0 in district following a 54-0 shutout of Lovington Friday.
“Obviously, there are some things we need to work on to make sure we’re better next week against Goddard, but we feel real good about the effort we got,” said Henderson. “When you look over the course of things, we’ve played some tight games but not that tight, I don’t feel like, and I think it was good for us to kind of have our backs against the wall in the fourth quarter and have to come back and make plays on both offense and defense to be able to get the win.”