By Kevin Wilson
BLACKWATER DRAW — Matt Martinez was taking a nap at home Thursday afternoon when a teammate came to tell him he was Friday’s starting quarterback in the Portales Rams’ must-win game against the hated Lovington Wildcats.
“I thought,” the Ram junior said, “I might still be dreaming.”
Well, don’t wake him or his Ram teammates up. Not after Martinez rushed for the go-ahead 9-yard touchdown, ended Lovington’s final drive with an interception and ran for the crucial first down with a minute left to clinch the Rams’ 20-17 win Friday night at Greyhound Stadium.
Behind a pared-down playbook that focused on an option with Martinez and sophomore running back Bronte Staugaard, Portales (6-4, 1-1 District 4-3A) outgained Lovington 449-171 in a game that would have been a comfortable win without Lovington taking advantage of several short fields.
Martinez rushed 26 times for 109 yards and completed seven passes for 98 yards.
“He worked hard out there, and I’m proud of him,” Portales coach Jaime Ramirez said of Martinez. “He made good decisions and audibled well.”
Martinez passed the credit back to Staugaard, who rushed for 187 of his 240 yards in the second half, and had jaw-dropping 40-yard touchdown runs in both the third and fourth quarters as the Rams rallied from a 10-0 halftime deficit.
“He was big tonight,” Martinez said of Staugaard. “He’s stepped up every game. He doesn’t play like a sophomore, that’s for sure. He opened things up a lot for me.”
The close margin knocked Portales out of contention for a District 4-3A title via tiebreaker, but the win by any means gives the Rams some optimism heading into a Week 11 bye followed immediately by Class 3A playoff seeding. A loss to the Wildcats (1-8, 0-1) would have put the Rams on the playoff bubble with four straight losses to close out the season, but now Portales is hopeful for one of the top eight seeds and a home game to open the playoffs.
The win was Portales’ first regular-season win since 1994 over the Wildcats, and even counting Portales’ 48-10 Class 3A state title win in 2008 Lovington had been on a 23-2 run against the Rams since 1989.
“You can’t underestimate them, never,” said Ram defensive lineman Jorge Jimenez, who had three sacks of Wildcat quarterback Zach Molinar. “I just played my heart out and tried to put as much pressure on him as I could, trying to make him throw an interception.”
Lovington staked out an early 3-0 lead on a 21-yard Eladio Menchada field goal when the offense couldn’t capitalize on Laden Blythe’s 43-yard punt return, and went into the locker room up 10-0 when Marc Ybarra went 36 yards to the house on a fourth-down run just four plays after the Rams went for it on fourth at the Lovington 45 and got sacked.
Portales pitched a shutout in the third quarter and scored on a draw up the middle for Staugaard, and took its first lead of the night when Staugaard waited for a lane and raced down the left sideline with 9:41 to go.
The Wildcats took the lead back with 4:32 to play on a 29-yard drive, set up by a Kaiden Ochoa punt block and ended by Jordan Garcia’s 7-yard reception.
The Rams needed just 1:25 to take the lead back on a seven-play drive, with Staugaard carrying the ball five times for 41 yards and Martinez the other two.
But the story was the defense, which only gave up scores when put in tough positions.
“Defensively, I’m so proud,” Ramirez said. “Our defense played outstanding. We gave up two cheap scores because of special teams, but our defense played great all night.”
Lovington, which can still win the district title and get an automatic playoff berth with a win of eight or more at home against Ruidoso next week, drove 83 total yards on its three scoring drives and just 88 the rest of the night.
“That’s been the problem for us all season, not being able to put long drives together,” Lovington coach Jaime Quinones said. “Our kids played hard, and Portales is a good ballclub.”