By Mickey Winfield: PNT sports writer
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 outplayed the visiting Buffaloes for one half, turning four West Texas turnovers into a 14-0 half-time lead, but 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 Buffalo scores in a 21-14 victory Saturday night at Greyhound Stadium.
Midway through the fourth quarter, with the score tied at 14, West Texas senior quarterback Dalton Bell led the Buffs on a 96-yard, 16-play drive, taking nearly six minutes off the clock and ending with a three-yard touchdown pass to Shaun Scott-Jones.
On the ensuing drive, Greyhound quarterback Michael Benton led the Hounds on a 54-yard drive, to the Buffalo 7, but junior running back Kyle Harris was stopped behind the line on a fourth and 2 run.
West Texas (7-0) 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 head 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 West Texas squad) that’s the number six 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 and two second half touchdown passes to lead the Buffs second half come-back.
“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, 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 Greyhound 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 mid-field.
Facing a fourth and two from the West Texas 40-yard line, the Hounds converted a fake punt, Floyd native Fide Davalos took the punt snap and scampered eight yards to keep the ENMU drive alive. Four plays later, Benton dove into the end zone from one yard out to give the Hounds a 7-0 second quarter lead.
Late in the first half, West Texas turned the ball over again, as enior cornerback Michael Fields returned an interception 39 yards for ENMU’s second touchdown.
But the second half belonged to the Buffaloes.
Jones took the second half kick-off at the 13, and cut down the left sideline to give the Buffaloes momentum they would never relinquished.
The Buffaloes recovered a Benton fumble on the next drive, and West Texas cashed in with a 3-yard pass from Bell to Jones to tie the score.
Ribaudo viewed the second half kick-off as a momentum changer.
“The combination of (how we allowed) the kick-off return and then fumbled and gave them a short field, let them back into the game,” Ribaudo said. “That hurt, and then we wore down at the end.”
Eastern New Mexico (1-5, 0-3) continues their LSC-South schedule Saturday afternoon at Tarleton State.