Early deficit too much to overcome, Lincoln falls to Eastern New Mexico

Lincoln running back TY Maxwell runs past Eastern New Mexico’s defense to score a touchdown during the second quarter of Thursday night’s game at Dwight T. Reed Stadium. (Collin Yung/News Tribune)
Lincoln running back TY Maxwell runs past Eastern New Mexico’s defense to score a touchdown during the second quarter of Thursday night’s game at Dwight T. Reed Stadium. (Collin Yung/News Tribune)

Thursday night’s game went south from the opening kickoff for the Lincoln Blue Tigers.

The Blue Tigers fumbled the opening kickoff and trailed 14-0 just more than five minutes in after the Eastern New Mexico Greyhounds scored the opening touchdown eight plays after the fumble, forced a punt after just four plays on defense and then struck for a 92-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the ensuing drive.

“It started about as bad as you can start in a football game,” Lincoln coach Jermaine Gales said following the Blue Tigers’ 62-17 loss at Dwight T. Reed Stadium. “We have to protect the football at all times.”

Lincoln followed with a three-and-out, and the Greyhounds made quick work with a four-play, 45-yard drive ended with Elijah Zeh running in a 1-yard dive.

The snap was fumbled on the extra-point attempt and Eastern New Mexico held a 20-0 lead with 6:01 left in the first.

But the Blue Tigers were able to get on the board to follow.

Xzavier Vaughn hit Nathan Valencia, who transferred from Eastern New Mexico before last season, for a 54-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 20-7 with 4:39 left in the opening quarter.

“It was exciting,” Gales said. “We had his number dialed up quite a bit tonight. We just wanted to make sure we put the ball in play.”

The Greyhounds were able to respond with a pair of touchdowns to end the first quarter, though.

Zeh ran in his third touchdown from 7 yards out for the first and Jonathan Watson added his own 7-yard rush on the final play of the opening quarter to extend the lead to 34-7.

“We never see it, and they are very good at it,” Gales said of the Greyhounds’ triple-option attack. “We got to make sure that we pay attention to details. It’s a lesson learned. We will in the future be better against that.”

A long kickoff return from DaWan Lomax set Lincoln up at the Eastern New Mexico 40-yard line to start the following drive, and Vaughn was able to find TY Maxwell for a 20-yard touchdown pass four plays later on a wheel route.

“I think once we were able to catch a little spark there, I knew we would be able to move the ball,” Gales said. “We topped it off with a touchdown, so I was excited.”

The remainder of the first half belonged to the Greyhounds.

Eastern New Mexico added a 14-yard touchdown run from Isaiah Tate and a 2-yard score from Nicholas Harper with 1:17 left to take a 48-14 advantage to the locker room.

“At halftime it was about do your job,” Gales said. “Against a team like that that runs the type of offense and defense they run, each individual has to do their own job. We failed in some of those areas tonight.”

The third quarter was not any kinder to the Blue Tigers.

The Greyhounds outscored Lincoln 14-0 in the period to take a 62-14 lead into the fourth, adding a 4-yard touchdown run by Mario Sanchez and a 1-yard dive from Tyler Cleveland.

And to make things worse, Blue Tiger wide receiver Damon Bell was hit in the helmet late following an incompletion. Bell remained on the ground for over 10 minutes and had to be stretchered off the field

Trey Cain of Eastern New Mexico was ejected for targeting following the play.

“We have to protect our young men,” Gales said. “To me, it’s apart of the football game. I don’t think it was done intentionally by any stretch. Sometimes things like that happen, and we have to make sure we continue to educate ourselves on it.”

Lincoln was able to get back on the scoreboard with a 40-yard Mo Alwaely field goal less than a minute into the fourth to create the final margin.

Eastern New Mexico (4-5) ended with 669 yards of offense with 548 coming on the ground, led by Sanchez with 10 carries for 109 yards and a score, while also completing 4-of-5 passes for 121 yards with another touchdown. Zeh finished with 19 rushes for 82 yards and three scores.

Lincoln (0-9) dropped its 35th straight game. Vaughn finished 13-of-27 passing for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Valencia led the receiver room with two catches for 77 yards and a touchdown and Omar Allen led the backfield with eight rushes for 54 yards.

The Blue Tigers will be back in action next Saturday at Nebraska-Kearney, another offense that is based around a triple-option.

“Kind of, not exactly the same (offense as Eastern New Mexico),” Gales said. “It’s a little more shotgun-oriented. They’ve kind of moved onto some more spread-type principles, but I know the triple(-option) piece is in there.”