Published: 12:05 am, Sun. Sep. 29th, 2019
By BRIENNE GREEN Sports Editor Who decided Homecoming games should be boring, anyway?
Artesia High School alumni from as far back as the Class of 1947 and as far away as 900- plus miles were likely expecting an evening of reminiscing with old friends against the backdrop of a calm Bulldog victory Friday at Bulldog Bowl. That was certainly the indication at halftime, with Artesia leading Lovington 32-14. The same went for the start of the fourth quarter, which saw the ‘Dogs up 46-21.
But there was also a lesson learned Friday about leaving the game early – by both some of the fans who called it an early night and the Bulldogs themselves.
Because what followed Artesia’s early-fourth-quarter touchdown was 11 minutes and 50 seconds of the most exciting high-school football action many have seen in years. A 25-point comeback, a 40-second drive, and a touchdown pass of the most clutch of calibers, all of which was followed by a torrential downpour and a lightning display of epic proportions.
It was a Homecoming night for the ages in the City of Champions, one the Bulldogs and their generations of fans won’t soon forget.
“I was really pleased with our effort last night,” head coach Rex Henderson said Saturday.
“I felt like, in this game, our kids fought all the way through.
They dealt with a lot, and they overcame it in the end.”
After finally finding their rhythm against the Class 4A second-ranked Wildcats Friday, the boys in orange were rolling.
The third quarter ended with Artesia forcing a Lovington punt from the ‘Cats’ own oneyard line, and the fourth began with senior quarterback Clay Houghtaling lofting a short pass to Johntae Rodriguez, who sprinted to the corner of the end zone to make it 46-21 Bulldogs with 11:50 remaining in the game.
But Lovington had already proven this season that they weren’t the sort of team to make a quiet exit, mounting a fourthquarter comeback effort against defending 5A state champion Roswell High before ultimately coming up short. The Wildcats followed a four-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that ended in a 39-yard pass from standout quarterback Casey Perez to Julian Fuentes with an onside kick recovery and a three-play, 45-yard series that saw Perez hitting Fuentes again, this time from the Bulldog 35.
That trimmed Artesia’s lead to 10, 46-36, with 8:43 still to go in the contest. The ‘Cats tried another onside kick, but this time it was snatched up by Matthew Davis at the Lovington 49-yard line. And although the ‘Dogs would manage just two yards over the course of the next three plays, a 12-yard pass from Houghtaling to Erik Cueto on fourth and eight gave Artesia a first down at the Wildcat 35, and from there, Houghtaling turned Nathan Barrera loose for a 35-yard TD run that gave the Bulldogs back a bit of their breathing room, 52-36, with 6:03 on the clock.
Lovington would score again to cap their next possession on a 10-yard pass from Perez to Fuentes, but after covering 72 yards in 10 plays, only 2:28 remained in the contest. And after the onside kick attempt sailed out of bounds, setting Artesia up at the Lovington 45, it looked as though the ‘Dogs should be in prime position to put the contest on ice.
The boys in orange lost six yards on their first run play of the drive, however, and on second and 16 from their own 49, Lovington’s Joseph Perez would pick off a Houghtaling pass to return the ball to the Wildcats with an eight-point deficit, a fresh burst of momentum, and a visiting crowd going berserk.
Riding that wave, the ‘Cats proceeded to follow a 37-yard scamper by Perez with two consecutive passes from the QB to running back Kaleb Franco, the second from the Artesia 11 for the score. With 47 seconds remaining in regulation, Perez found Franco again for the conversion and the Bulldogs found themselves tied at 52-all.
The order was a tall one, but with the exception of a thirdquarter turnover on downs borne of the elusive offensive holding penalty the Bulldogs couldn’t seem to get all evening and the interception, Artesia had scored at will in the contest. All that was left was to do it one last time.
“We told the offense, ‘We’re going to get it one more time,'” Henderson said, “‘and it’s either going to be to seal the game after the defense has stopped them or to win it if they tie this thing up.’ We talked about how they hadn’t really stopped us all night other than our last two drives and that all we had to do was keep playing the way we’d been playing.
“The biggest thing was staying positive and keeping them focused on the fact that we were driving to win the game, not settle for the tie.”
Starting at their own 41, Houghtaling found Jacob Barrera for a yard and Braxton McDonald for 11 as the contest fell under 15 seconds, and with the clock continuing to tick, the senior QB dropped back and launched a missile upfield. Cueto was waiting, taking the ball the remaining few yards to the house to send the Bulldog sideline and the Sea of Orange into a frenzy. Simon Jimenez tacked on the PAT to make it 59-52 with seven seconds left.
As the crowd continued to roar its approval, the ‘Dogs’ special forces chased down Lovington’s kick returner until the final second had clicked off, ending the bout.
“I don’t know that anybody in our program pictured the game being that close, but sometimes, you need a game like that,” Henderson said. “I think it can do a lot for your team, not just for their confidence but for not having the first close game you play be in district or the playoffs.
“We hadn’t had a game like that this season. We’d lost two by a couple of touchdowns and then won big, so to have a game where you had to do some things well at the end and see who was going to make the play to get the victory was good for our team. Whether or not we thought we’d be in that situation, I was proud of them for being able to do it.”
In a bit of foreshadowing, the game had been a see-saw affair through the first quarter of play Friday.
Things started out well enough, with the Bulldog defense forcing a turnover on downs on Lovington’s inaugural series and the offense following with a two-play scoring drive that ended in a 20-yard toss from Houghtaling to McDonald at the 9:07 mark. The Wildcats would regroup for a 12-play, 63-yard march that ended in a 17-yard pass from Perez to Isaac Hinson, and the teams traded touchdowns again as the opening quarter gave way to the second, Artesia scoring on a 41-yard catch-and-run from Houghtaling to McDonald and Lovington on a five-yard run by Franco.
McDonald continued to add to his TD total, taking the ensuing kick 65 yards to paydirt with 7:40 to go in the first half, but the PAT failed, the first of several missed point-after opportunities by Artesia that proved problematic late.
Lovington’s next two series, however, would end in a turnover on downs and a fumble into the end zone, and the Bulldogs capitalized on both, scoring on a 67-yard strike from Houghtaling to McDonald with 3:23 left in the second and a three-yard pitch from the QB to the junior slot back with one second left to set the halftime tally, 32-14, after the PAT attempt failed following the first TD and the conversion attempt had the same result after the second.
After the ‘Dogs scored on another two-play drive to start the third on a 53-yard pass from Houghtaling to Cueto that made it 40-14, it looked as though Artesia had things comfortably in hand. Even after the ‘Cats scored on a four-yard run by Franco and the ‘Dogs turned the ball over on downs, Lovington was forced to punt away their final possession of the third quarter and a 20-yard touchdown toss from Houghtaling to Johntae Rodriguez set the score at 46-21 to start the fourth.
From there, of course, the real fun began.
“Offensively, we did what we needed to do,” said Henderson. “We had two drives in the second half that we didn’t get points on, which puts you in that situation where they were able to get back in and tie it. But outside of those two drives, we were explosive, we were moving the ball, and I was really pleased that we were able to close both halves with a two-minute drill where we only had seconds to work with. Those were big growth signs for what we’ve been able to do this year, to be able to get that done with that little time on the clock.
“I think the kicking game saw some big plays, too, but there are still some issues that need to be worked on. Our PAT unit, we needed to do a lot of things there, and we had some trouble last night, but I think we’re getting more solid in our kickoff coverage and several other things as the season’s moved on.”
In terms of offensive yardage, there was literally no shortage. Artesia finished with 518, Lovington 630. The Bulldogs’ eight touchdowns on the night were achieved on just 26 total plays.
Houghtaling was 19 of 24 for 418 yards on the night and seven touchdowns, tying the program record for TD passes in a game set by Landry Jones against Goddard in 2007. McDonald led the receiving corps with seven catches for 190 yards and four touchdowns, which – added to his KOR score – place him into a now four-way tie for third on the record list for touchdowns in a game with Zeke Montoya (2011 vs. Roswell), Andy Lopez (2009 vs. Aztec), and Gavino Saiz (2012 vs. Deming). Cueto was 7-172 on the night with two TDs, and Nathan Barrera led the ground game with 50 yards and a touchdown on five carries.
Perez was 17 of 30 for 269 yards and five touchdowns passing for the Wildcats, 28-229 rushing. Franco finished 21-126 on the ground, and Fuentes was 3-84 receiving.
“Defensively, we knew their quarterback was going to pose a lot of problems,” said Henderson. “He has for everybody this year. There’s a reason they scored 54 points on Roswell and beat Hobbs. He does a really good job, and I thought we covered well overall. We had a decent pass rush at times, but when he gets out of that pocket and the pass rush doesn’t get there, there’s a lot of room for him to go or move around and throw the ball.
“I felt like our initial coverage was pretty good. We had some stops in the first half that were big, and we were able to hold them to 14 by halftime, so we did the things we needed to do there. I think we’re continuing to see strides from our defense of developing into the team we want to be. This is the first team we’ve played that really threw the ball consistently well, so it was a good test for us, and we grew up a lot from that.”
Henderson said he felt the Bulldogs could see what could have been done to prevent the game from becoming the nailbiter it did in the fourth while also recognizing that Lovington is a much-improved squad than they’ve been in recent seasons past.
The boys in orange will now prepare to close out their 2019 regular season Friday against Ruidoso on the road. The Warriors stand at 3-3 on the season with losses to Roswell (53-13), Alamogordo (34-6) and Robertson (21-20) and wins over Hatch Valley (22-0), Tularosa (33-18) and, on Friday, Silver (15-13).
“Ruidoso typically presents a lot of different sets, so that’ll be a good test for us in the sense of having to be ready for a lot of different things,” Henderson said. “Getting lined up right and reading our keys is something that, as a young defense, we’re getting better at but is still an emphasis at this point. And offensively, we cut out a lot of our penalties last night, but when you figure in the goal-line plays we ran as two-point conversions, we weren’t nearly as good in the red zone as we’ve got to be. That hurt us against Cleveland and hurt us on conversions last night, so that needs to be a focus next week.
“And then, in our kicking game, we’re doing some really good things, we just have to do those really good things consistently. We were inconsistent and then we got explosive, so now we just have to get explosive and consistent.”