ENMU quarterback Michael Benton runs through the tackle of West Texas A&M’s Lee Orrduring the first half of Saturday’s game at Greyhound Stadium. (CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle)
By Mickey Winfield: Freedom Newspapers
BLACKWATER DRAW — The Wagon Wheel will remain in Canyon for at least more year, and West Texas A&M remains undefeated for at least one more week.
Eastern New Mexico University outplayed the visiting Buffaloes for one half, turning four West Texas turnovers into a 14-0 halftime lead. Then the sixth-ranked team in Division II opened the second half with an 87-yard kickoff return by Jason Jones, the first of three unanswered Buffaloes scores in a 21-14 Lone Star Conference South Division victory Saturday night at Greyhound Stadium.
Early through the fourth quarter, with the score tied at 14, senior quarterback Dalton Bell led the Buffs on a 96-yard, 16-play drive, taking nearly six minutes off the clock and ending in a 3-yard touchdown pass to Shaun Scott-Jones.
On the ensuing drive, quarterback Michael Benton led the Hounds (1-5, 0-3 South) on a 54-yard drive, to the WT 7, but junior running back Kyle Harris was stopped behind the line on a fourth-and-2 run.
West Texas A & M (7-0, 3-0) picked up a first down and ran the rest of the clock out to win the traveling Wagon Wheel trophy for the third time in four years.
After the game, ENMU coach Mark Ribaudo was emotional when talking about the Hounds’ effort.
“I don’t think I could have asked any more of this football team,” Ribaudo said. “Those kids left their heart, their guts, they left it all out there, and they just got their heart stomped on.
“I’m really, really proud of these kids. They didn’t have a hoot in hell against a squad that’s the No. 6 team in the nation, and they came out and played like men, and they represented our university, and they represented our football team. I’m just proud to be associated with them.”
Bell completed 25-of-33 passes for 259 yards, including two second-half touchdown passes to lead the comeback.
“In the first half, we just weren’t playing our kind of football,” Bell said. “Maybe we let the elements bother us a little bit, (but) I knew it was going to be a tough game.”
ENMU quarterback Michael Benton ran the ball 20 times for 69 yards, including two rushes for more than 30 yards in the second half.
“We had the game plan right, the coaches did an excellent job of preparing us to play,” Benton said. “We just shot ourselves in the foot at crucial times, crucial drives, and that’s it, that’s part of football. We can’t do that and expect to win.”
The ENMU defense set the tone in the first half. After a scoreless first quarter, and with West Texas driving, a wet ball slipped out of Bell’s grasp, and ENMU senior linebacker Tony Johnson recovered it at midfield.
Facing a fourth-and-2 from the West Texas 40, the Hounds converted a fake punt as Floyd graduate Fide Davalos took the punt snap and scampered eight yards for a first down. Four plays later, Benton dove into the end zone from 1 yard out to give the Hounds a 7-0 lead.
Late in the half, ENMU senior cornerback Michael Fields intercepted a Bell pass and returned it 39 yards to the end zone, making it 14-0.
But the second half belonged to the Buffs.
Jones took the second-half kickoff at the 13, cutting down the left sideline to give the Buffaloes momentum they would never relinquished.
The Buffs then recovered a Benton fumble on the next drive, and WT cashed in with a 3-yard pass from Bell to Jones to tie the score.
Ribaudo viewed the second-half kickoff as a momentum-changer.
“The combination of (how we allowed) the kickoff return and then (we) fumbled and gave them a short field,” Ribaudo said. “That let them back in the game. That hurt, and then we wore down at the end.”