Published: 2:14 pm, Sun. Oct. 1st, 2017Updated: 2:10 pm
For a while prior to Friday’s showdown between Class 5A top-ranked Artesia and No. 4 Los Lunas in the South Valley, it looked as though a weather delay was inevitable.
Just to the south, rain was coming down in sheets, rendering visibility next to nil. Black, ominous clouds filled the sky, and lightning flashed dangerously nearby.
But game time came, and somehow, it all stayed at bay. Clearly, even Mother Nature wanted to see this one. And it didn’t disappoint.
The Bulldogs took it down to the very wire, but with an offensive and defensive one-two punch in the game’s final minute, Artesia fended off former quarterback and assistant coach Jeremy Maupin’s Tigers by a final of 30-27.
“I’m really proud of our guys and how hard they competed and battled last night,” Artesia head coach Rex Henderson said Saturday. “I thought we played hard and competed to the end, and any time you can score at the end to win a game, I think it does a lot for you in terms of giving a team belief that they can accomplish something like that.
“We’ve been close in three games this season and came up short in the other two, so to come out on top of this one is a big step for us and will hopefully carry over for us down the road.”
Up 20-15 heading into the fourth quarter Friday, the Bulldog defense was finding itself hard pressed to squash a Los Lunas drive that began near midfield in the final minutes of the third.
The ‘Dogs’ D had stepped up its game to start the second half after a sluggish first, forcing a pair of Tiger punts to start the third quarter. But after converting thrice on third down — including a third-and-16 from the Artesia 28-yard line — the boys in blue were finally able to make their way over the goal line in the 12-play, 48-yard drive on two rushing plays by junior quarterback Nick Gaerlan and a five-yard pass to Andrue Garcia.
That gave the Los Lunas a 21-20 lead after the failed conversion pass.
The Artesia offense had the opportunity to start in Tiger territory, thanks to a big kick return by Alex Fernandez, and with QB Taylor Null and junior running back Jagger Donaghe trading rushing duties, the Bulldogs pounded their way to first and goal at the Los Lunas nine.
From there, however, an incomplete pass and two tackles for a loss brought about fourth and 13, and the ‘Dogs opted to send in the field goal unit. JR Bustamante delivered from 30, putting Artesia back on top, 23-21, with 7:04 to go in the game.
Gaerlan, as he had all night, continued to spark the Tiger offense as the final moments ticked away. After breaking a seven-yard run for a first down, he was nabbed in the backfield for a loss of seven but managed to hurl under pressure to Cody Vocu on fourth and 15 from the Los Lunas 38. The pass appeared from the Artesia sideline to have been incomplete, but it was ruled a catch with an added bonus for LL — a targeting call that propelled the Tigers all the way to the Bulldog 20.
A pair of Jacob Luna runs and a 14-yard scamper by Gaerlan later, Los Lunas had retaken the lead — albeit with another missed conversion attempt — 27-23 with 2:21 left on the clock.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that was enough time for the Bulldogs to answer. But getting their hitherto out-of-sync passing game firing on all cylinders against a Tiger defense now bolstered by the late score made the order even taller.
The ‘Dogs went straight to work, with Null finding Tyler Greenwood for 12 yards for one first down, Bustamante for 15 for another.
Following a pair of incomplete passes and a toss to Bustamante for five, Artesia converted on fourth down with a Null-to-Chaney-Hardt connection that netted eight, and another pass to Greenwood took Artesia to the 20 with a little more than half a minute remaining.
Another incompletion brought about third down, but Null would turn again to Greenwood with 33 seconds left, and his fellow senior delivered, snagging the 20-yarder in the end zone to put the ‘Dogs up 30-27 and the Tigers on the ropes.
Starting from their own 22 after a solid stop on the subsequent kickoff, Gaerlan tried to go deep, but Kaden Chumbley was waiting for his second – and biggest – pick of the night to put the three-point win on ice.
The Bulldogs had gotten the game off to a quick and decisive start Friday, as Null launched a 57-yard catch-and-run TD to Bustamante to put Artesia up 7-0 just under a minute-and-a-half in.
But Los Lunas’ backs were able to elude the Artesia D at every turn, taking to the air just once in a seven-play, 73-yard drive that culminated in a Gaerlan score from the 13.
From there, the ‘Dogs’ offense had trouble regaining its rhythm.
Despite achieveing first and goal at the Los Lunas seven in their next series, Artesia would turn the ball over on downs. And after the defense returned it to them by way of a Colin Flood fumble recovery at the Tiger 49, an interception at the Los Lunas six left the door open once again for the boys in blue.
Fortunately, the Orange Crush was able to come through with another turnover – Chumbley’s first INT in Bulldog territory – to keep the Tigers at bay, and with a 70-yard pass from Null to Greenwood propelling the ‘Dogs into the Los Lunas red zone once again, they’d not squander another opportunity, scoring on a six-yard scamper by Robert Fernandez.
The Tigers were forced to punt away their ensuing possession, but the Bulldogs responded in kind, and Los Lunas was able to nab their elusive second touchdown just prior to the half on a 23-yard pass from Gaerlan to Joel Avila. The two connected again on the conversion to put the Tigers up 15-14 at the break.
The Crush came out with a visibly renewed sense of aggressiveness to start the third quarter and quickly forced a Los Lunas three and out. The offense took advantage, regaining the lead on a 27-yard pass from Null to Greenwood, but the ‘Dogs once again echoed a Tiger punt as the quarter came to a close, giving Los Lunas the chance to go up by one to start the fourth.
“Just in terms of the game itself, it wasn’t our prettiest game as far as execution offensively and defensively,” said Henderson. “They had a good game plan, and their kids played really hard, but at the same time, we talked today about some of the things we didn’t do as well as we could have on both sides of the ball and the things we have to get fixed and be more consistent at.
“Any time you leave three touchdowns out there in the red zone, it makes a difference. It could be quite a bit different ballgame if you get those finished.”
Artesia finished with 392 total yards of offense to the Tigers’ 355 on the night.
Null was 19 of 39 for 301 yards and three scores, and Robert Fernandez led the squad’s limited ground game with 10 carries for 39 yards and a touchdown. Greenwood posted 144 yards and two TDs on seven catches to top the receiving corps, while Bustamante was 5-101 with a score.
Workhorse Gaerlan went 15 of 32 for 154 yards, two touchdowns, and two picks for the Tigers and was 29 of 144 rushing for two more TDs.
With the win, the Bulldogs improve to 4-2 on the season as they prepare to return home for the first time since Sept. 8 to take on the Alamogordo Tigers (0-5).
The Tigers have struggled thus far in this first year under head coach AJ Cisco and will no doubt be hungry for their first win.
“Alamogordo does a lot of different things, so this is going to be a good game for us to have to get ready for,” said Henderson. “They’re not just a one-dimensional kind of team. They line up in a lot of different schemes both offensively and defensively, so it’ll be good for us to have to work at identifying some things and communicating on both sides of the ball, which are areas we struggled in Friday night.
“I think last night is going to carry over well as far as the things we need to work on this week to get ready.”