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From left, Cord Cox, Camren Saxon, O’Ryan Begay, Zach Ingram, Josh Ebert, JuLonnie Luevano, Cole Kincaid, Thomas Keesee and Justin Samora salute the crowd Friday in Lovington following the Bulldogs’ 50-21 win over the Wildcats. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Consistency. It’s been the mantra of head coach Rex Henderson and his staff since Aug. 24. Something their Bulldogs have shown in bits and pieces over the course of the 2018 season to date but never quite to the point any effort could be declared complete.

Friday in Lovington, however, the basic statistics told the tale: eight offensive drives by the starting lineup; seven touchdowns.

On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats were bound to get their share while the Artesia defense adjusted to the talents of Lovington quarterback Casey Perez. But in the second half, a trio of punts, a turnover on downs, and an interception were all the ‘Cats could manage prior to trash time.

Anyone present would attest that putting together a complete, efficient game was a particularly monumental task when pitted against the rather erratic officiating – 27 flags flew on the night, often to the bafflement of all – and the Wildcat defense’s tackle-the-receiver strategy. But regardless, it’s what the Bulldogs did, and the result was a 50-21 victory in their penultimate pre-district outing.

“I think we made a big step as a team last night,” Henderson said Saturday. “We’ve been talking about consistency for a long time, and offensively, we only had to punt one time, and we’d gotten the first down before being called for holding. So from a consistency standpoint, we were able to move the ball much better than we have.

“Defensively, it was about what we thought. We had a little bit of trouble early. That quarterback is really good, but once we were able to get in the game and adjust to the angles and how they continued to stay on routes after he broke out of the pocket, we started playing better and really didn’t give up much in the second half.”

The ‘Dogs stepped up on the game’s first possession to prove that flattening receivers would not an effective game plan make, as junior quarterback Clay Houghtaling busted loose for a 51-yard dash through the Lovington D for a touchdown less than a minute in.

Clay Houghtaling surveys the Lovington defense during the first half Friday on the Smurf Turf. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Wildcats’ inaugural drive was much more methodical, but it put Perez’s versatility on display as the junior legged out an 18-yard run of his own between passes to Evan Cesareo, Josh Beaird and Brian Tapia en route to the Artesia six-yard line, from whence Perez called his own number at the 6:57 mark. The PAT was off the mark, however, leaving the ‘Dogs in the lead, 7-6.

A short pass for a loss of four marked Artesia’s first aerial attempt of the night, but Houghtaling and senor running back Jagger Donaghe were able to hoof it from midfield to a first down at the Wildcat 40. Three more plays, however, only saw them advance to the 35, but that turned out to be all they needed, as – with a defender accessory around his waist – Houghtaling fired one off to a leaping JR Bustamante, who proceeded to juke his way through the defense for the score with 3:46 to go in the opening quarter.

The Crush would force a turnover on downs as the second quarter commenced, setting the offense up with a short field at the Lovington 43. And after converting on fourth down from the Wildcat seven, Donaghe took Artesia’s third touchdown of the night in from the five to make it 21-6 at 8:32.

Lovington was able to pull back within a score just over two minutes later, using a 12-yard run by Perez and a 19-yard pass to Jayden Contreras to reach the Artesia 30, then scoring on a 26-yard Perez-to-Contreras connection. The successful two-point conversion made it 21-14.

Houghtaling appeared to respond immediately, tearing down the Lovington sideline for an 81-yard touchdown that was called back for offsetting penalties. The junior would’ve repeated the performance on the second play from scrimmage had he not been a bit winded, settling instead for a 30-yard scamper.

Jordan Pando (21), Johan Corral (48), Colin Flood (42) and a host of other Bulldogs work to take down Lovington’s Casey Perez. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Donaghe added a 23-yarder of his own to convert on third and 16, then took it the rest of the way, scoring from the 10 with 1:17 to go in the half. And after fending off a few wild calls that propelled Lovington from their own 45 to the Artesia 25 with seconds remaining, that 28-14 tally would stand at the break.

An unusual halftime stat for the Bulldogs was their pass-to-rush ratio: 67 yards to 143.

“Lovington’s always going to try to do something to get in your head and be different, and last night, it was to be real physical and try not to let us run routes, so I was proud of our kids for handling that well,” Henderson said. “We’ve got some guys that normally would get pretty upset, but they didn’t. And I was proud of them for keeping their composure and doing what they had to do in what could’ve been a very frustrating game.

“We had to just go back to the huddle and make a play the next time, and we did a good job of finding a way to make those plays.”

After forcing a Wildcat punt to start the third quarter, the Bulldogs were finally able to reel off a big passing play, as Houghtaling found Bustamante for a 63-yard catch-and-run. The ball was immediately placed back in the hands off the offense following a Canon Carter pick, but a holding call forced a punt. The Crush – with help from two sacks of Perez, one by Garrett Thomas, Anthony Armendariz and Camren Saxon for a loss of eight, another, decidedly more painful one by Darian Fernandez for a loss of 10 – forced Lovington to answer in kind, however.

This time, Houghtaling sent a short toss to Erik Cueto, who achieved Ludicrous Speed in a 77-yard sprint to the end zone to make it 43-14 as the fourth-quarter rolled around.

Johan Corral declined to knock before bursting into the backfield to introduce himself to Perez on fourth down, sacking the junior for a whopping loss of 16. And following Artesia’s final score of the night – a 38-yard dash up the middle by Donaghe with 10:11 to go in the game – the appropriately-named Bulldog linebacker corralled the Lovington QB deep behind the line of scrimmage once again, this time for a loss of 14.

With the second string on the field, the Wildcats were able to take advantage of an interception and return to the Artesia 38, scoring one last time on a four-yard run by Tapia.

Bulldog running back Jagger Donaghe flips the ball to the referee as Kino Aguirre moves in to congratulate him following a first-half touchdown. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The ‘Cats got the ball back after a Bulldog turnover on downs, but an interception by Jerron Arredondo effectively ended the game.

The boys in orange finished with 402 yards in a balanced offensive performance on the night: 210 by air, 192 by land. Houghtaling was nine of 17 for 210 yards and three scores, two of those to Bustamante, who led the receiving corps with four catches for 121 yards.

Houghtaling also posted 82 yards rushing and Donaghe 108 with a trio of TDs.

Lovington posted 297 yards Friday – 245 passing, 52 rushing – with Perez going 25 of 46 for 245 yards, one touchdown, and two picks. Cesareo was 7-66 receiving, Tapia 5-64.

In addition to their five sacks, the Crush added two tackles for a loss for three negative yards, and two tackles for no gain in the contest.

With the win, the Bulldogs evened their record at 3-3 as they prepare to close out the pre-district season against Ruidoso at 7 p.m. Friday at home.

“Overall, this was a positive game for us,” Henderson said. “I think you can see that progress being made, and that’s encouraging. We were able to get better at some coverage, have better consistency in offense, and we did well in the kicking game.

“This group has as good perspective on what their end goal is and what needs to be happening. You can tell every week that they’re really working at trying to be better with things they didn’t do well the week before, and it was nice to get a big win where you feel good about it being a complete victory. These guys know they just need to be patient and keep working, and we’re going to end up where we want to be.”