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The Bulldog defense heads off the field following a fourth-quarter interception by defensive lineman Darian Fernandez (94) Saturday during Artesia’s 39-20 Class 5A state quarterfinal victory over Piedra Vista at Bulldog Bowl. With the victory, Artesia advances to the semifinal round, where they’ll square off for the second time this season with Roswell High at 7 p.m. Friday at Wool Bowl for the right to move on to the 5A state game. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

When it comes to the playoffs, one of the best things a team can do is seize the momentum early.

The stakes are high in the state tournament. It’s win or go home, and with that level of pressure already swirling about, putting an opponent in an early hole can result in all sorts of collateral advantages.

The Bulldog football team did precisely that Saturday in their Class 5A state quarterfinal bout against fifth-ranked Piedra Vista at sunny Bulldog Bowl. They held the Panthers scoreless in the opening quarter, compiled a healthy 25-6 lead by the half, and despite a few glitches, they kept the pedal down in the final 24 minutes of play.

The result was a 39-20 victory and a ticket to the semifinal round. And another thing to be thankful for on Turkey Day in the City of Champions.

Clay Houghtaling leaps to haul in a 20-yard pass from Trent Taylor during the second quarter Saturday against Piedra Vista at Bulldog Bowl. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

“We were really pleased with the performance of our guys today,” head coach Rex Henderson said Saturday. “I thought we came out and executed well early, and really jumped out like you need to in a game like this.

“If you can get in front early in a playoff game, usually things are going to go pretty well. And I thought it said a lot about what our kids have done over the last couple of weeks in getting ready for the playoffs.”

With senior quarterback Trent Taylor under center Saturday for the first time since Oct. 26, the boys in orange capped all of their first-half drives save one with a touchdown, then added one more apiece in the third and fourth quarters to keep their breathing room intact.

The Orange Crush, meanwhile, stymied PV in the first 12 minutes of play and gave up just one TD per quarter from there, in amidst a trio of turnovers, two punts, and a turnover on downs.

The ‘Dogs marched upfield with minimal resistance to open the quarterfinal, with Taylor sending a first-down pass to Braxton McDonald to start, then releasing senior running back Jagger Donaghe four consecutive times and JR Bustamante once en route to a first down at the Panther 11-yard line.

A nine-yard pass to Bustamante moved Artesia to the two, and following a pair of incomplete passes, junior slot/QB Clay Houghtaling would step in to take the snap and barrel over the goal line with 8:17 to go in the quarter.

The PAT missed the mark, leaving the score at 6-0.

Senior quarterback Trent Taylor looks for an open receiver during the first half Saturday at Bulldog Bowl. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Piedra Vista hit the ground running – literally – in their first series, turning predominantly to RB McKay Cook and, when needed, quarterback Trent Kiraly as they worked their way toward midfield.

A tackle of Cook after a gain of three by Colin Flood and snag of the senior for a loss of one by Camren Saxon, however, brought about fourth down, forcing a Panther punt. And a subsequent interference call on the catch gave the Bulldogs the start at midfield.

They appeared to score on a 53-yard pass from Taylor to Bustamante from there, but the play was called back on a holding flag. Two plays later, Taylor would do himself one better, finding Alex Fernandez for the 58-yard catch-and-run TD that made it 13-0 with 4:22 remaining in the first.

Piedra Vista was forced to punt from their own territory again as the quarter began to wind down, but the ‘Dogs would hand the ball back to them at their own 31 on a fumble as the second quarter commenced.

Johan Corral snags Panther quarterback Trent Kiraly for a loss of 10. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Panthers took advantage, grinding out a 14-play, 69-yard drive that culminated in a two-yard push by Cook. The PAT attempt was blocked by Ty Johnson to keep it a seven-point game, and the ‘Dogs reinstated their two-score advantage eight plays later on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Taylor to AJ Estrada in the back of the end zone.

Artesia got another shot of momentum on the ensuing kick, which was recovered at the Panther 31 by Anthony Armendariz, allowing the ‘Dogs to bump their lead to 19 by the break on a 20-yard pass from Taylor to a leaping Houghtaling in the checkerboard.

The boys in orange would expand that edge to 26 with 6:21 on the third-quarter clock, as Donaghe took a short pass from Taylor four yards over the goal line, but the Panthers were able to log their second TD with 50 seconds to go in the period on a 10-yard pass from Kiraly to Kyle Ray. A failed conversion attempt, however, kept it 32-12 heading into the fourth.

Colin Flood and Ty Johnson wrangle Cook. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

There, Taylor exited the contest in order to rest up, and although Houghtaling made his entrance by unloading a 54-yard touchdown run on the ‘Dogs’ first play from scrimmage, once again, a rare holding call served to delete an Artesia score.

The Bulldogs would settle for a punt instead, a favor the Crush prompted PV to return. But the ‘Dogs would fumble again near midfield, giving the Panthers a chance to stay in the game they took by way of a 35-yard pass from Kiraly to a wide-open Tyler Roberts to make it 32-20 with 7:43 still remaining in the bout.

Artesia needed just three plays to respond, however, as Houghtaling got his redemption on a 42-yard sprint straight up the middle and onward, effectively setting the final tally, 39-20, with 6:45 left.

Darian Fernandez ended the Panthers’ next drive with a pick, and following a Bulldog turnover on downs, Kaden Chumbley joined him in the interception column as the contest fell under four minutes.

The ‘Dogs were once again kept out of the end zone, opting for a 26-yard field-goal attempt that sailed wide, but time was not on Piedra Vista’s side, and the Crush was able to keep a rein on them through the horn.

The Orange Crush defense works together to take down Piedra Vista running back McKay Cook. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

“I think the execution we saw in all phases of the game is where we wanted to be for this week,” Henderson said. “We knew they could run the ball well, and I thought we did a good job of stopping that overall. They had some drives, but we did a good job of ending others and doing the things we needed to do defensively.

“Offensively, we moved the ball real well with real good consistency in the first half and for parts of the second.”

The Bulldog offense compiled 361 yards on the day, with Taylor going 13 of 21 for 173 and four touchdowns. Houghtaling finished three of six for 10 yards.

Donaghe led the ground game with 86 yards on 12 runs, and in the receiving corps, Fernandez was 2-64, McDonald 4-36, and Bustamante 4-33.

Piedra Vista finished with 320 yards, 239 on the ground, 81 through the air. Cook was 23-137 rushing, followed by Kiraly, 22-82.

Jagger Donaghe heads toward the goal line with a four-yard touchdown pass from Trent Taylor as Taylor looks on in the background. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

With the win, the ‘Dogs move on to a rematch everyone saw coming: They’ll take on Roswell High at 7 p.m. Friday at Wool Bowl for the right to move on to the 5A state championship.

Artesia defeated the Coyotes 36-35 Oct. 19 at home and know they’ll need an improved performance this week to fend off top-ranked Roswell, who defeated Valley 49-8 Friday to reach the semis.

“It’s a quick turnaround this week, but I don’t think the guys will have any problem focusing in on Roswell High,” said Henderson. “The good part is it’s someone we know well. It hasn’t been that long since we were prepping to play them, and when you have a game like we had last time, where you win at the end by a point, the guys know every little thing is going to matter.

“When you have a game like that against a team like that, you knew you were going to have to go through each other again at some point, so the guys have been looking for it, and I think they’ll be real focused on what they’ve got to do to continue to make progress this week.”

JR Bustamante eludes a Panther defender. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)