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By Mike Pilosof
Iowa Falls, IA (westernkansasnews.com)-During his team's final scrimmage of the preseason, Garden City Head Coach Jeff Sims walked over to Athletic Director John Green after Taylor Thomas had just gained a first down vs. Dodge City.
"That's the offense you expected to see when you hired me," the second-year coach muttered with a chuckle. Green responded with a smile, grinning from ear to ear. It was somewhat poetic.
During Saturday's regular-season opener at Ellsworth, the Bronbusters once non-existent running game soared to heights not seen in nearly 24 months.
Tra Minter ran for 155 yards and two scores, while the Garden City defense forced five turnovers on their way to a 30-7 laugher of a win over Ellsworth in their season opener at Cadet Field.
"I don't know how good of a team we will be this year," Sims said afterwards. "But they are the best team I've ever coached as far as traveling. 10 hours on a hot bus with no air conditioning. I couldn't be more proud."
Outnumber 2-to-1 from a roster standpoint (Ellsworth had more than 90 players suited up to Garden City's 50), the Broncbusters took complete command of the game early on.
On the fifth play from scrimmage, Ellsworth (0-1) starting quarterback Lamont Toney fumbled, and Kahewai Kaaiawaawa recovered for Garden City at the Panthers 42. Though they didn't score off the takeaway, the tone had been set.
"Our defense made plays early," Sims said. "There's a lot of guys out there that you will see playing on Sundays."
Following an Ellsworth three-and-out on their second possession, Garden City got the ball back at the Panthers' 37 after a 16-yard punt return by Daniel Davis. Three plays later, facing a third-and-11 from the Ellsworth 38, sophomore quarterback Jayru Campbell hit Taylor Thomas on a middle screen. The redshirt freshman appeared to be bottled up before breaking two tackles en route to the end zone and a 7-0 lead.
"We have to improve on offense," Sims said. "But I thought the offensive line played well. They did their job."
That was most evident in the ground attack, where the Broncbusters ran for 183 yards on 55 carries. Ironically, it was the most in a game since going for 243 in a 36-30 victory over Ellsworth two years ago.
"The funny thing is, I was a wide receiver in college," Sims said." So I love throwing the football. But championships are won with an elite defense and a solid running game. Today, we had both."
Minter was the leading catalyst of that bruising attack, and early in the second, the redshirt freshman broke off a 54-yard run that set the Broncbusters up first-and-goal at the Ellsworth 6. On the very next play, Minter slammed off left guard for his first collegiate score, giving the Broncbusters a 14-0 advantage with 12:35 to go in the first half.
"Tra (Minter) has waited his turn, and he's done the work," Sims said. "Our rushing numbers made me smile more than anything else we did in this game."
But as impressive as the ground game was, the defense may have outshined them.
Meantime Blunt thwarted one drive when he intercepted Joe Hess in the end zone in the third quarter; then halted another in the first half when he picked off a telegraphed Hess offering and returned it 38 yards to the Ellsworth 22.
"I'll tell you this, (Bryan) Blunt can play," Sims said of his three-star recruit.
But maybe the most impressive stat was this: Ellsworth did not pick up a first down over the final 22:30 of the first half.
"Our defense was tremendous," Sims said. "But the 1's played a lot of snaps. They were spotted a few times, but for the most part, they were out there the entire game."
Unlike last year though, they got some help from their other two units.
Mike Hughes electrifying 60-yard punt return, where he started on the right-side numbers before zigzagging all the way back to the left, gave Garden City a commanding 21-0 edge with less than four minutes to play in the second.
Then Minter and the offense put the game on ice in the third. The former 2,000-yard rusher at Schley County High School in Georgia, capped off a five-play, 55-yard drive with a 44-yard burst on a counter trey that put the Broncbusters in front 28-0.
"I thought we looked like a team playing football," Sims said. "It wasn't Barnum and Bailey out there."
The only circus on Saturday was the Ellsworth offense, which produced just 108 total yards. Their lone score of the day came in the fourth when backup quarterback Austin Sowers, who replaced Toney earlier in the game after the Dupage transfer injured his shoulder, connected with Marcel Williams on a 12-yard touchdown.
Other than that, the Panthers' offense was a shell of the one that ranked seventh in the country last year in total yardage.
And nothing epitomized Ellsworth's day more than a snap that went over punter Austin Kneeland's head and rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety in the final 90 seconds.
"The key for us is that we don't have a lot of depth," Sims said. "So hopefully, some other guys can step up."
Campbell did not have to do much. He was just 3-of-7 for 32 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked once. Backup Peyton Hueslig was 2-for-2 for 18 yards, including an impressive 16-yard strike to Daniel Davis on third down late in the game. It was Davis's only catch while Thomas reeled in three balls for 32 yards.
Austin Sowers was 5-of-17 throwing for 60 yards, a touchdown and a pick. Toney, who started the game, went 4-of-7 for 17 yards and an interception.
Ellsworth's ground attack produced just 26 yards on 24 carries.
Notes: Garden City held Ellsworth to just 49 yards and two first downs in the first half…The Panthers had more punts (6) than first downs (2) in the first 30 minutes…With the win, the Broncbusters evened the all-times series with the Panthers 2-2…At one point, Garden City forced six straight three-and-outs from the first quarter through half of the third…Jeff Sims improved to 7-1 in season openers as a Head Coach, while Garden City won their fifth straight first game…Tight End Jeremiah Jackson appeared to be the only Broncbuster with a slight limp after the game…The two teams were a combined 2-of-32 on third down conversions (Garden City was 1-of-17; Ellsworth was 1-of-15)…The Broncbusters controlled the clock (35:01 time of possession) and ran eight more plays (64-56)…Minter became Broncbusters first 100-yard rusher since Undre Williams ran for 107 vs. Ellsworth two years ago–18 straight games without one
Next up: Garden City vs. Highland-Saturday, September 3-12:30 p.m. pregame; 1 p.m. kickoff on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr; mobile app: KWKR and tuneinradio: KWKR