. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

An Artesia Bulldog watches as a Roswell High Coyote attempts to extricate itself from a prickly situation in this drawing by Artesia High School senior art student Maegan Lemon. The ‘Dogs will open District 4-AAAAA play at 7 p.m. today against Roswell at Wool Bowl.

On paper, today’s showdown between Class 5A’s No. 1 and 3 teams looks to be evenly-matched. Very evenly-matched, in fact.

Artesia and Roswell High will both carry overall records of 5-2 into their District 4-AAAAA opener at Wool Bowl. The teams had similar results, for the most part, against their three in-common opponents.

Perhaps the only glaring difference is the Bulldogs’ and Coyotes’ offensive philosophies, which promise a classic battle of by air and by land. Beyond that, the contest seems destined to come down to one simple determining factor: Who wants it more?

That turned out to be the ‘Dogs by a nose in 2016, when Artesia was able to pull away from the Coyotes in the game’s final minute for a 42-34 win. To that point, Roswell had gone blow for blow with the boys in orange, trailing 29-20 at the half before pulling within three points early in the third quarter and two in the fourth.

Leading the charge was talented fullback Gabriel Najar, who powered the Coyote offense with 208 rushing yards and three short-yardage touchdowns on 25 carries. Roswell attempted just 12 passes on the night.

“They like to run the ball,” Artesia head coach Rex Henderson said Thursday, “and they run it well.

“People probably remember the big fullback from a year ago, and they also do a good job of getting their speed guys to the outside. They can give you a lot of matchup problems in terms of stopping the run.”

The Bulldog defense has been essentially solid in that capacity thus far in 2017, giving up a total of 939 rushing yards over the course of their past seven games, an average of 134 per outing.

As for the Artesia offense – which, while struggling at times with its consistency has still hung an average of 45 points per game on its opponents – they’ll need to be ready to protect senior quarterback Taylor Null as the Coyotes attempt to turn on the heat in the pocket.

“They like to bring pressure, if they can, on defense and cause you problems that way,” said Henderson. “If they can confuse your offensive line, that’s something they want to do a lot of.

“They do several things on both sides of the ball that make you think and make you be sound in what you’re doing, so it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”

The fact Roswell High does present a significant challenge is a reality many in the state are still getting used to. Artesia, Goddard and Lovington certainly saw them coming, but the Coyotes surprised the rest in 2015 and 2016 respectively with their runs into the state quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.

“Coach (Jeff) Lynn has done a really good job of rebuilding that program,” Henderson said. “He’s really got them back to playing like they did a long time ago, when they were one of the powers in the state.

“They’re definitely not the team some people probably got used to over the last 15 or 16 years; the way they’ve played these last few is more typical of how they’re playing people across the state now.”

Roswell will enter tonight’s contest fresh off a 51-0 mercy-rule of Alamogordo last week that was preceded by two more blowout wins over Santa Fe (48-0) and Farmington (44-16). The Coyotes suffered their second loss of the year Sept. 22 against Belen (29-7).

The Bulldogs had a near identical result against Alamo (50-0) in their regular-season finale Oct. 6, and the ‘Dogs and Coyotes also had similar outcomes versus Los Lunas, with Artesia defeating the Tigers 30-27 and Roswell topping them 22-18.

They also have in common the squad that handed each their first defeat: Hobbs. Artesia was edged by the Eagles in Week Two, 56-49, while Roswell fell 42-15.

The Bulldogs have had a full two weeks to prepare for the start of district play, and the time off has been beneficial.

“We had a good week off, kind of got rested and well as far as some injuries, and we’ve just been getting back to the basics and working on fundamentals,” said Henderson.

He and his staff will be looking to see that fine-tuning in action today against an opponent with the potential to make them pay for any mistakes.

“Defensively, we have to make sure we align well and get that done quickly, and we have got to do a good job of wrapping up, particularly on that big back,” said the coach. “Offensively, we need to do a good job with our pass protection and communication across the line.

“That’s stuff we’ve been working on, so I think this will be a good test for us at this point in the season. They’re ready to start district and get after it.”