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Erik Cueto leaves the Ruidoso defense in the dust en route to a 68-yard touchdown on the pass from Clay Houghtaling (18) during the first quarter Friday at Bulldog Bowl. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Bulldog football team didn’t have any elaborate goals for their final game of the 2018 pre-district season. What they wanted was simple: four full quarters of solid football. A complete team effort.

That didn’t mean perfection. And the boys in orange had a hiccup or two, particularly in the penalty department. But in the big picture, their 56-13 win over Ruidoso Friday at Bulldog Bowl had a little of everything they were seeking.

Of nine complete offensive drives on the evening, the ‘Dogs scored to cap seven. In terms of total yardage, they outgained the Warriors 421-326. Ruidoso, meanwhile, managed to breach the end zone just twice on the contest – once in each half – while the remainder of their possessions ended in four punts, one turnover on downs, three turnovers, and a failed field-goal attempt. And the Orange Crush defense forced nearly 30 yards the wrong direction.

“I was really pleased overall,” head coach Rex Henderson said Saturday. “I think that we came out and did what we needed to do offensively and defensively, and in the kicking game, as well. We had the kind of complete game that we had talked about.

“We continued to make strides in several areas – with the exception of penalties, which were mostly mental – and I think we saw what we wanted to see in that game.”

The Bulldogs wasted no time laying down the gauntlet in their first meeting with Ruidoso since 2001.

AJ Estrada charges up the field for a 55-yard punt-return touchdown in the final seconds of the first quarter Friday at Bulldog Bowl. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Warriors made little progress out of their own red zone on the game’s first series but were looking to make a statement when they elected to go for it on fourth and two from their own 28. That statement would wind up being something along the lines of “ugh” when running back Leo Mora was met at the line of scrimmage by Darian Fernandez and Camren Saxon for no gain.

That set the Big Orange offense up with a short field, and they took full advantage, scoring on a 15-yard scamper by Jagger Donaghe with 9:22 to go in the first quarter.

Ruidoso fared better in their second drive, working their way methodically from their own eight-yard line to midfield. But a trio of backward plays and a false start flag forced the punt.

The Warriors would get the ball back quickly following a Bulldog fumble near the 50 but were once again forced to punt, and junior quarterback Clay Houghtaling needed just a single play to log his first touchdown toss of the evening – a 68-yard catch-and-run to Erik Cueto, who turned the home sideline into a passing lane while bolting past the Ruidoso defense to make it 14-0 with 1:38 to go in the first.

The Crush, meanwhile, would force the Warriors’ third punt of the quarter with just seconds remaining on the clock, but seconds were all return specialist AJ Estrada would need, as he legged out a 55-yard punt return for a score that sent Artesia into the second with a 21-0 advantage in hand.

Ruidoso would reach Artesia territory for the first time on the contest in their subsequent drive, but after achieving first and goal at the seven, Saxon was there to pounce on a fumble that negated the effort.

Garrett Thomas sacks Ruidoso quarterback Gage Guardiola. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

A pair of penalties combined to facilitate the ‘Dogs’ first punt of the game, however, and starting near midfield, the Warriors were finally able to storm the goal line, scoring on a 23-yard pass from Gage Guardiola to Gabriel Dorame with 6:16 remaining in the half. The conversion pass attempt fell short, leaving the score 21-6.

What looked to be a kick return touchdown for Cueto was called back due to holding, but the Bulldogs weren’t discouraged, marching from their own 21 to the Ruidoso 29 before Houghtaling found Alex Fernandez for the score. Artesia opted to try for two of their own and were successful on the run by Nathan Barrera, making it 29-6 with three-and-a-half minutes on the clock.

Houghtaling and Fernandez would connect again just over a minute later, this time from 32 yards out, to set the halftime tally, 36-6.

The Warriors looked as though they might alter that in the final moments, driving to a first down at the three. But Guardiola attempted to take out his frustrations on a less-than-advisable target – Bulldog linebacker Johan Corral – and was ejected for his trouble. That forced Grant Oberheu under center, and his first pass attempt ended in a Canon Carter interception that also ended the half.

Jagger Donaghe follows his blockers. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The ‘Dogs kept the momentum flowing as the third quarter commenced, scoring a minute-and-a-half into the third on a 16-yard dash by Donaghe, and following a fumble recovery in the Ruidoso red zone by Anthony Armendariz, they’d swiftly attain checkerboard again on a five-yard pass from Houghtaling to Jacob Orona that made it 49-6.

With the mercy-rule clock in motion, the sluggishness of the first half began to speed up a bit, but the Warriors were still able to sneak in a touchdown prior to the start of the fourth on a 53-yard ramble by Oberheu.

The Bulldogs began to work the second string onto the field as the final 12 minutes began, but that didn’t stop the scoring, as sophomore QB Cord Cox hit Orona from the six to round out the final, 56-13.

Hindered in the Artesia red zone after a sack by Jonathan Flores, the Warriors’ final scoring attempt of the night – a 36-yard field-goal attempt – fell short, and the ‘Dogs were able to run out the clock from there.

The Bulldogs closed out the “first season” with another solid night offensively both on land and in the air.

Camren Saxon chases down Grant Oberheu. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Houghtaling finished 13 of 18 for 231 yards and four touchdowns, while Donaghe was eight for 100 with two scores. Fernandez and Cueto led the receiving corps, going 4-68 and 1-68 respectively, while JR Bustamante contributed 47 yards on three catches, and Cox was five of eight for 49 yards and a TD.

“Offensively, our consistency in moving the football has come a long way since the start of the year, and our running game in particular has gotten better in recent weeks,” Henderson said. “I think that’s going to be really helpful to us moving forward.

“On defense, I think our pass rush and our coverage have really improved the last couple of weeks. We’re definitely doing some things better in those areas.”

The Bulldogs will now head into their 2018 open week, affording the team plenty of time to prepare as they look ahead to the start of District 4-AAAAA play. They’ll host Roswell High Oct. 19 at the Bowl.

“The open date is a good time to get back to the fundamentals and making sure you’re sound in what you’re doing,” said Henderson. “Without a game to prep for, you can kind of focus on yourself and making sure you’re getting better.

“At the same time, we’ll start to introduce elements of Roswell High and Goddard, looking toward district play and making sure we’re ready. Roswell and Goddard in particular do a lot of things different from what we’ve been seeing, so we’ll start turning our attention both offensively and defensively to that.”

Braxton McDonald finds open field. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)