ARTESIA – With the final minute ticking away at Bulldog Bowl, the large video board at the north end read: “Tradition Never Graduates.”
It was a fitting epitaph on Saturday afternoon as host and top-seeded Artesia (11-2) continued to add to that storied tradition, earning state title No. 30 with a decisive 48-14 victory over Class 5A’s No. 2 Belen (12-1) before a standing room-only crowd at the state’s most famous prep football venue.
“I think it meant more to win it at home after the last four or so being on the road,” said Artesia senior quarterback Taylor Null, who accounted for six of his team’s seven touchdowns. “There’s no better feeling. It was worth waiting (a year) – to win as a senior, with all my brothers who I’ve been playing with since the fifth grade. It’s just great.”
Artesia won its third state title in the last four years. The blue trophy is the first for second-year head coach Rex Henderson.
The Bulldogs outgained the Eagles 440-304, but the real bugaboo for Belen – which was after its first state title – was turnovers. Artesia forced four of them, converting all four into touchdowns.
“Penalties and turnovers when we had a chance hurt us,” said Belen coach Greg Henington. “But our kids fought hard and we’re very proud of them. That’s all that really matters. All turnovers are killers in these types of games.”
Belen took the opening kickoff and ground out a 17-play, 75-yard scoring drive, with junior Diego Casillas going over from the 2 for an early 7-0 lead.
Artesia eventually tied the game 7-7, then took a 14-7 lead with 2:45 left in the first half on the first of two Null TD runs.
The Bulldogs’ defense then helped Artesia seize the momentum, forcing turnover No. 1 from Belen and quickly converting it to points (Null’s second TD run) for a 21-7 halftime lead.
Null wasted no time driving the Bulldogs to a touchdown to start the third quarter, as running back Robert Fernandez went over from 7 yards away. Belen answered with a long drive to cut the deficit to 27-14 with 4:32 to go in the third quarter, and then held Artesia on downs at midfield on their next possession.
But Artesia’s defense forced a fumble after a long run by Casillas, and Null connected for a 63-yard scoring strike to Joe Willingham four plays later to put Artesia in front 33-14.
Belen answered with another long drive, into the Bulldogs’ red zone. But Artesia’s defense came up with an interception to kill that drive. Null and Willingham ended the ensuing drive with a 34-yard touchdown connection and the Bulldogs were cruising at 41-14. After another turnover, Null tossed one more short TD pass with 1:40 left in the game and the celebration was on.
“We came in thinking we had to stop the run. When they tried to throw, we had to be sure to be on lock down,” said Artesia middle linebacker Miguel Martinez. “We knew (Casillas ) was going to get some big plays an we just had to focus and get it done the next time.”
Unofficially, Casillas finished the game with 235 yards on 30 carries, notching the majority of Belen’s 304 yards of total offense and scoring both touchdowns.
For Artesia, Null completed 30-of-33 passes for 340 yards.
Saturday — Bulldog Bowl, Artesia
No. 1 ARTESIA 48, No. 2 BELEN 14
Belen 7 0 7 0 — 14
Artesia 0 21 6 21 — 48
Scoring: B, Diego Casillas 2 run (Tim Bunker kick); A, Chaney Hardt 5 pass from Taylor Null (Favian Carrasco kick); A, Null 12 run (Carrasco kick); A, Null 8 run (Carrrasco kick); A, Robert Fernandez 7 run (2 pt. PAT failed); B, Casillas 10 run (Bunker kick); A, Joe Willingham 63 pass from Null (Carrasco kick); A, Willingham 34 pass from Null (Carrasco kick); A, Jacob Orona 9 pass from Null (Carrasco kick). Records: A 11-2; B 12-1.
First downs: B, 13; A 20. Rushes-yards: B 37-262; A 16-102. Passing: B 7-16-2—42; A 30-33-0—340. Total offense: B 304; A 442. Fumbles/lost: B 2-2; A 0-0. Penalties-yards: B 7-75; A 6-50.