Sep. 2—PORTALES — It's not often a team can lose four fumbles in a half, leading to four scores for the opposition, and live to tell about it.
Helped by a penalty, Eastern New Mexico University's football team survived a tying 2-point opportunity by New Mexico Highlands in the closing moments and edged the Cowboys 28-26 on Thursday night in the season opener for both teams at Greyhound Stadium.
After a successful conversion try was negated by a false-start penalty, junior linebacker Colten Madison chased down Highlands quarterback J.D. Jerry as he tried to reach the left corner of the end zone on the 2PAT with 1:02 left, preserving the win.
ENMU led 21-0 at halftime with a relatively clean first half, and extended it to 28-13 early in the fourth frame when sophomore quarterback Mario Sanchez scored his third touchdown of the night on a 22-yard run.
In the end, though, the Greyhounds were hanging on by their fingernails.
ENMU outgained Highlands 195-64 in the first half, but managed only 116 net yards the rest of the way.
"We just didn't take care of the ball in the second half," said ENMU coach Kelley Lee, making his return to the Hounds' sideline for the first time since 2019. "Four turnovers makes it tough to close out a ballgame, especially when two of them came on the first play of a drive."
Sanchez tallied on runs of 5 yards and 1 yard, capping lengthy drives, before junior running back Ja'Calvin Newsom went in from 14 yards out to finish the first-half scoring.
"We had a great first half," senior tackle and Clovis High grad Hunter St. John said. "We were probably overconfident. Give credit to Highlands, but you've got to play a 60-minute game, not just 30 minutes."
After receiving the second-half kickoff, Newsom fumbled on the first play at the ENMU 30, and Highlands scored six plays later on the first of two J.D. Jerry-to-Teneil Nichols TD passes, this one covering 17 yards.
After a fumbled exchange by ENMU, the Cowboys closed to 21-13 when Jerry hit Nichols on a 25-yard scoring pass.
ENMU then stopped Highlands on downs on its next possession, and Sanchez kept around the left side for a 22-yard score just over a minute into the final period.
But Highlands junior cornerback Isaiah Hayward recovered a Sanchez fumble and returned it 59 yards to the end zone to make it 28-20, and the Cowboys were positioned at the ENMU 45 with 4:44 left after a Newsom fumble. They scored five plays later on Jerry's fourth-and-goal, 1-yard sneak.
After the penalty wiped out a 2PAT carry by running back Shawntay Mills Jr., forcing the Cowboys to try from the 7, Madison chased down Jerry on a run-pass option near the 10.
"It was definitely a roller coaster of emotions," St. John said. "I'm proud of our defense. We own that (win) to our defense."
ENMU limited the Cowboys to 208 total yards, including 5-for-15 for 66 yards by Jerry. Highlands' longest scoring drive of the night was 55 yards.
"I felt like some of the stuff our defense gave up was due to the number of plays they were on the field," Lee said. "I'm proud we were able to move the ball. We just didn't take care of it in the second half."
Sanchez finished with 77 yards rushing on 11 attempts, and went 4-of-5 passing for 60 yards — all in the first half to sophomore wide receiver Andre Jones.
Sanchez, from Denver City, has been competing for the starting spot with sophomore Rashad Carter, and got the start in this one with Carter nicked up. It's still a competition, Lee said.
"Mario's going to get better, and we're going to get better," Lee said. "I'm proud of our guys that we could turn it over four times in a half and survive it, because usually you don't."
ENMU's next outing is against Sul Ross State in an 11 a.m. (MDT) kickoff on Saturday at Alpine, Texas.