Published: 12:49 pm, Sun. Nov. 27th, 2016Updated: 12:33 pm
Through one half of play Saturday at Bulldog Bowl, it looked as though it might be anyone’s game between top-ranked Artesia and the No. 5 Tigers of Los Lunas.
The Orange Crush defense had done a solid job of holding an offense anchored by Division 1 running back O’maury Samuels at bay, but the ‘Dogs were struggling to settle in offensively. Those woes continued as the third quarter commenced, when, with Artesia up by just a score, 14-7, a fumble at the Bulldog 41-yard line handed the Tigers a short field.
Los Lunas quickly breached the Bulldog red zone and appeared to be picking up steam. But Crush isn’t just a clever nickname.
The Artesia defense squashed the burgeoning momentum swing on second down from the 26 as linebacker Miguel Martinez picked off a Nicholas Gaerlan pass and returned it 35 yards. And this time, the offense would capitalize, kicking off a three-touchdown run that punched the ‘Dogs’ ticket to their third consecutive Class 5A state championship appearance, 35-7.
“We were obviously really pleased to come out with a win and with the way we played in the second half in particular,” head coach Rex Henderson said Saturday. “Overall, it was a good team effort and what you want to see at this point in the year.”
Artesia held Los Lunas to 245 yards of offense Saturday, allowing the Tigers just 70 in the second half of play. And while the ‘Dogs had their hiccups on the other side of the ball, they were able to put together 411 yards of their own and five scoring drives on the afternoon, including two that spanned nearly the length of the field.
The Crush came out hungry to start the semifinal contest, snagging Samuels on his first rushing attempt of the day for a gain of just two and sacking Gaerlan to force the three and out.
The ‘Dogs found themselves facing a fourth and long in their opening series after recovering a fumble for a loss of four, but pass interference by the Tigers gave them a first down at the Los Lunas 21. Junior quarterback Taylor Null would then find Tyler Greenwood from the 11 to make it 7-0 with 6:42 remaining in the first.
A turnover on downs by the Tigers at the Artesia 38 gave the offense a chance to create some early breathing room, but the ‘Dogs were unable to secure a first down, sending the D quickly back onto the field.
Three plays later, and with the help of some holding, Samuels was able to break a 51-yard TD run that knotted the game going into the second, 7-7.
After trading punts, the Bulldogs found themselves staring down 92 yards on their penultimate series of the first half, but the offense was able to diversify to find a groove.
Isaiah Weideman picked up nine yards to start and JR Bustamonte reeled off 16 more to take the ‘Dogs to their own 33, and following a pair of incomplete passes, Null hit Chaney Hardt for a 35-yard catch-and-run into Tiger territory. Ryan Gallegos was facemasked at the end of a six-yard scamper, pushing Artesia to the 11, and an eight-yard toss to Cody Fuentes and two-yard run by Weideman later, Robert Fernandez powered in from the one to make it 14-7.
Los Lunas threatened in the final moments of the half, but a bobbled pass was snatched before it hit the turf by Tanner Harris to preserve the seven-point lead at the break.
The Crush’s second pick of the day gave the ‘Dogs the shot in the arm they needed to start the third, and Weideman upped the dosage with three straight carries for a total of 27 yards and a first down at the Tiger 15. Bustamonte converted a third and long with a 12-yard dash, and Gallegos went over the pile from the two to make it 21-7 Artesia with 6:30 on the clock.
Artesia quickly made that 28-7 after a Tiger turnover on downs, courtesy of a 38-yard pass from Null to David Barlow, and the fourth quarter began with the Bulldogs marching 99 yards on a mixture of passes to Weideman, Fuentes, Kameron Aguilar, Hardt and Dominic Madrid and runs by Fernandez and Gallegos.
Fernandez would push forward
four yards on fourth and one from the Tiger 13 to take the ‘Dogs to first and goal, and Null found Aguilar in the corner of the end zone from the nine to set the final, 35-7, with eight minutes left in the game.
The Crush forced a quick three and out, but a sack and a delay of game penalty stymied the Bulldogs’ ensuing drive. And with time running out, a Los Lunas fumble at midfield was recovered by Colin Flood to allow Artesia to run out the final seconds.
Null finished 23 of 34 for 268 yards and three touchdowns on the bout, with Hardt (5-76), Aguilar (4-60) and Barlow (3-49) leading the receiving corps. Weideman carried the ball 10 times for 62 yards, Bustamonte three for 41, and Fernandez 10 for 40.
Samuels finished with 147 yards on 21 carries for the Tigers, with 51 of those yards coming on Los Lunas’ lone scoring play. Gaerlan rushed 16 times for 46 yards and completing four of nine passes for 37.
“To have a guy like Samuels who’s really had a good career in New Mexico and to, for the most part, hold him in check I think says a lot about the way our defense played today,” said Henderson. “Holding them to one touchdown was a real credit to our defense, and we were really proud of their effort.
“Offensively, we struggled with our consistency a little
bit in the first half. We move the ball but not with great consistency, so I was pleased to see us come back in the second half and sustain some drives. The one where we went 99 yards showed more of the offense that we can be, so we were pleased with that, and I thought we also had another solid playoff game in the kicking game.”
With the win, the ‘Dogs improve to 10-2 and earn the right to vie for their record 30th state championship at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at Nusenda Community Stadium in Albuquerque against the second-ranked Sartans of St. Pius.
St. Pius (11-1) defeated Roswell High 42-7 Friday in Albuquerque to advance.