By Dave Wagner
CMI sports writer
Through five weeks of the 2013 season, it looked as though Eastern New Mexico University’s football team was still going through growing pains under second-year coach Josh Lynn.
The Greyhounds were 1-3 — they also had an exhibition win at the Air Force junior varsity which didn’t count on their record — after a 34-14 loss at home to Tarleton State in their Lone Star Conference opener.
Other LSC coaches said they could see an improved product in watching the team on film, but even Lynn would’ve been hard-pressed to think his squad could put together a six-game winning streak that gave them a piece of the league title with Tarleton.
“As a team, we knew we had the potential to be playing like that,” said senior fullback Christian Long, who rushed for nearly 550 yards and 11 touchdowns in ENMU’s triple-option, run-first-pass-second offense, mostly going inside and often dragging defenders with him. “We just needed to cut out the mistakes that were hurting us. It just took a little time to get the offense clicking.”
A remarkable comeback from a 28-0, second-quarter deficit for a 29-28 win at Angelo State started it. Three weeks later, the Hounds pulled off perhaps an even more remarkable feat — down 38-17 with less than seven minutes left in the third quarter, they rallied for a 39-38 win at rival West Texas A&M, ranked 15th at the time, in the “Wagon Wheel” game.
That led to a surprisingly dominant 40-21 win at home over then-12th-ranked Midwestern State. They capped it off with 42-35 victory in the finale at Texas A&M-Commerce — only their fourth win all-time in 14 road outings against the Lions.
“The fun thing about it was the improvement our guys made and the overall effort they had throughout the year,” Lynn said.
It didn’t start out that way. ENMU lost at home to New Mexico Highlands 31-28 in the season opener — a game Long missed with a partially torn MCL — after a second-half rally fell short,
Lynn, though, said he was encouraged.
“The thing coming off the field against Highlands was you could see the improvement,” he said. “The key thing in (our losses) was turnovers, and most of those came in the first half (of games).”
That game set a trend of slow starts and fast finishes — ENMU was outscored 194-135 during the first half of games, but dominated its foes 186-74 in the second half.
A 13-10 home win over Texas A&M-Kingsville pushed the Hounds over .500 as they sought their first winning — or at least, non-losing — season since 2004. But the road ahead appeared steep, with WT, MSU and much-improved Commerce lying in wait.
“I said, ‘This would be a real coup if we could win two out of the three,” Lynn said. “There really wasn’t any talk about winning the next three.”
A two-point conversion — not by design, but off a bobbled snap — gave ENMU its win at Angelo. Against WT, the Hounds shot the works at the end and freshman D’majeric Tucker carried the ball in for the decisive two-point conversion in the final minute.
Of course, there was some luck involved. WT placekicker Sergio Castillo, the LSC’s all-time leading scorer, missed a 32-yard field goal to keep the Hounds within seven points late, then missed a last-second, desperation 67-yard attempt to win it.
“Generally when you (come) back like that, something happens that (the opponent) puts you away,” Lynn said.
The Hounds set a school record for a 10-game season with 321 points. Long and junior running back Jordan Wells, who rushed for 652 yards and caught 15 passes for 252 yards, were first-team All-LSC selections.
Defensively, only junior safety Kevin Reaves was chosen first-team All-LSC, but the Hounds played a scrappy, swarming style on defense that forced 23 turnovers.
The 5-foot-8, 206-pound Long, a native of Memphis, Tenn., acknowledged the breaks went ENMU’s way this season.
“We had a little luck on our side,” he said. “But I think we were able to wear some teams down in the second half with our style of play.”
With only a handful of seniors moving on, the Hounds appear poised to be a factor again next year.
Long and others can take satisfaction in having helped lay a foundation for what they hope will be a consistent program.
“I feel like the seniors this year, there weren’t many of us,” he said. “But we were groundbreakers. They have something to build on.”