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THIS WAY TO THE SEMIFINALS — Bulldog linebacker Blake Pruitt (kneeling with the ball) makes his way off the turf with a fumble recovery as fellow defenders Aaron Flores (84), Jorge Avitia (46), Darian Fernandez (94), Miguel Martinez (47), Colin Flood (42) and Eddie Pando (58) help signal the change of possession during the first quarter of the ‘Dogs’ eventual 47-14 state quarterfinal win over St. Pius Saturday at Bulldog Bowl. With the victory, Artesia advances to next week’s semifinals. They’ll travel to Farmington for a 1 p.m. game against the No. 4 Scorpions. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The outcome of Saturday’s Class 5A state quarterfinal between Artesia and St. Pius at Bulldog Bowl – a rematch of the 2016 title game – never felt up for grabs.

From the onset, which saw the Bulldogs score on the game’s first play from scrimmage, the boys in orange had been making the plays they needed, when they needed to make them.

But the 28-14 score heading into the fourth quarter was by no means a comfortable one – particularly against a team that had scored 28 in the final 12 minutes last week to secure a come-from-behind first-round win over Lovington.

What the ‘Dogs needed was to string together a few of those key plays. And after a brief hiccup to start the final quarter, they finally did.

Artesia’s first drive ended in a turnover-on-downs-by-way-of-interception at the St. Pius one-yard line. It was one of those plays the Sartans, given a do-over, would likely have changed, and a few seconds later, the Bulldogs made them regret it.

By picking the pass rather than batting it down, Pius was socked in at their own one, and as sophomore quarterback Diego Pavia dropped back into the end zone, looking for a way out, he saw nothing but a host of defenders bearing down on him.

The safety made it 30-14 with 8:42 to go in the game, and although the ‘Dogs gave the ball right back via a fumble at midfield, a quick turnover on downs brought the offense back onto the grid.

Bulldog slot back Tyler Greenwood shakes off a tackle and heads for the end zone with a 62-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Null on the game’s opening play Saturday at Bulldog Bowl. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

It was a place St. Pius had done a solid job of preventing them from being for much of the third quarter, as the Sartans legged out clock-killing drives that limited Artesia’s chances to bump up the score. The ‘Dogs were unable to breach the end zone for the second time in the quarter, settling instead for a 25-yard field goal by JR Bustamante. But the Orange Crush would step up to compensate two plays later.

After the D sacked Pavia for a loss of five, senior safety Denver Williams skied to snag his second interception of the day, then kept the fun going, weaving his way in and out of the scrambling Sartan offense en route to a 50-yard pick six with 3:38 to go in the contest.

That effectively set a score more indicative of the action, 39-14, and after forcing a final punt, Artesia would lock the final, 47-14, on a 19-yard touchdown sprint by Robert Fernandez with 34 seconds left.

“In the end, we did the things we needed to do to win, and in the playoffs, that’s what you’re trying to do – move on to the next week,” head coach Rex Henderson said Saturday. “People step up and make plays in the playoffs, and we made enough early to give ourselves the opportunity to close out the game the way we did.”

Perhaps the most resounding of those came just 15 seconds after kickoff, when senior quarterback Taylor Null connected with classmate Tyler Greenwood for a 62-yard catch-and-run touchdown that put the ‘Dogs quickly on the board and left the Sartans somewhat shell shocked.

Above, Denver Williams (12) pops up after snagging his first of two interceptions near the end of the first half Saturday. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Pius would punt away their inaugural possession, but a fumble – Artesia’s first of an uncharacteristic three on the day – returned the ball to them in Bulldog territory, and it took an in-kind response to keep St. Pius from tying things up.

On first and 10 from the Artesia 15, Ryan McGaha would lose the ball, and linebacker Blake Pruitt was there to pounce on it, allowing the ‘Dogs to take a two-touchdown lead. They did so on four big passes from Null, who started at his own 20 and hit Chaney Hardt, Jacob Orona, Hardt again, and finally Joe Willingham in succession, the last toss a 35-yarder to the end zone.

Pavia, whose scrambling produced results on several occasions in the bout, was finally able to carry his squad over the goal line as time ran out on the first quarter, following a 45-yard pass to Trevor Garcia with a seven-yard TD run that made it 14-7.

But while the ‘Dogs would punt to end their first drive of the second, the Sartans did the same, giving Artesia the chance to take a 21-7 advantage with 5:55 to go in the half on a 57-yarder from Null to AJ Estrada.

Pius threatened as the final seconds ticked away, reaching first down at the Bulldog 11 with time enough, but Williams laid out to play spoiler, nabbing a Pavia pass at the Artesia seven to preserve the 21-7 halftime tally.

Jacob Orona follows Isaiah Farmer and the rest of his blockers for a 20-yard pick-up. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Camren Saxon posted a pick of his own to start the third and lead in to a 37-yard TD strike from Null to a wide-open Orona at the back of the checkerboard, but Pius was once again able to close out a quarter with a score, this time a 13-yard run by Pavia on third and 11 to cap a six-minute drive.

Despite Pavia’s elusiveness, the Crush was able to wrangle him for more than 40 lost yards on the day, as they held the Sartans to 282 total.

“I was really proud of the way we played defensively,” Henderson said. “I know we gave up some drives, but I think our kids did a good job of hanging in there and making the plays they needed to stop others.

“We had four turnovers on the game, and it’s a big thing defensively to come up with those kinds of stops. I thought our coverage was good overall, and to hold an opponent to 14 points in a quarterfinal game is definitely a good thing.”

The Big Orange offense, meanwhile, finished with 447 yards, 387 of those through the air. Null was 22 of 33 for 366 witah four touchdowns, while Estrada (5-104), Hardt (8-80), Greenwood (2-79) and Orona (2-57) led the receiving corps. Fernandez finished 5-41 on the ground. Mr. Automatic, Favian Carrasco, was 5-5 on PAT.

Taylor Null stands in the pocket and delivers during the first quarter of Saturday’s 5A quarterfinal against St. Pius. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

“Offensively, we did what we needed to do to win,” said Henderson. “Obviously we didn’t finish some drives, which is a little frustrating, but we moved the ball consistently throughout the game.

“There’s a few things we can work on to make sure we’re finishing better, but I was pleased with that consistency and the way we got the ball up and down the field. Our kicking game did a really good job also of doing what they needed to do to make a difference.”

While the Bulldogs were dispatching the Sartans, No. 4 Farmington was busy putting a hurt on No. 5 Los Lunas, 41-14, in San Juan County. And by way of the oft-detested “who owes who” rule, the Scorpions will host Artesia in a 1 p.m. semifinal Saturday at Hutchison Stadium in Farmington.

“Farmington’s fast and throws the ball probably as well as anybody we’ve seen since Hobbs,” said Henderson. “We’ve been working on defending the pass for the past three weeks now, so we’ll just spend this week continuing to cover our pass rush and pass coverage to make sure we keep making good progress in that area.

“Offensively, we’ll probably just be working on tweaking a few things we had issues with today and making sure we’re even more consistent next week.”

  • DEF-Fernandez1

    Darian Fernandez wrangles St. Pius quarterback Diego Pavia. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • DEF-Hammond1

    Stran Hammond takes down St. Pius quarterback Diego Pavia. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • Estrada6

    AJ Estrada blasts through a pair of Sartan defenders for extra yards during the fourth quarter. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • Willingham3

    Joe Willingham looks in a 35-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Null during the first quarter Saturday. (Brienne Gree - Daily Press

  • MISC-AM-Beau

    From left, Tyler Stubbs, Beau Kelley and Aaron Flores celebrate the win with the AHS alma mater. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)