Photo by Adam Shrimplin
By Mike Pilosof
Garden City, KS-Ben Raybon's route to Garden City had many different twists and turns.
He played at three different high schools in Colorado before earning a scholarship to Fort Lewis College, an NCAA Division-II school in Durango, CO. There, he was nearly automatic, converting 14-of-17 field goals last season, including a season-long 46 yarder in a 44-35 victory over South Dakota School of Mines. Raybon collected second-team all-conference honors and was an All-RMAC Academic selection.
But to play at the highest level, sometimes a detour is necessary.
That brings us to Saturday, where Raybon not only confirmed his decision to leave the NCAA for the rugged Junior-College ranks, but he kept the Broncbusters hopes of a National Championship firmly within reach.
The sophomore drilled two field goals in the final 42 seconds, Charles West and Dedrick Mills each hit the century mark on the ground for the second straight week, and seventh-ranked Garden City knocked off No. 2 Iowa Western 16-13 at Broncbuster Stadium.
"Iowa Western is such a good football team," Head Coach Jeff Sims said. "And the truth of the matter is, they have to get on a bus and drive 10 hours thinking that they lost this game. But in reality, they could have won it. But that's how this thing works."
Raybon, who had never kicked a game-winning field goal in his career, got his chance late. But before he did, the Broncbusters and Reivers took turns trading body blows, with each team missing out on early scoring opportunities.
With the game scoreless in the opening quarter, the Broncbusters methodically marched to the Reivers' 3-yard line. But a false start penalty on Idris Patterson backed them up. David Moore fired an incomplete pass and Mills was stuffed by Elijah James for no gain. That setup what appeared to be a chip-shot field goal for Raybon. But the kick bounced off the left upright as Garden City squandered a chance to take the lead.
"Ben is really talented," Sims said after the game. "But sometimes he gets in his own head. That's exactly what happened there."
Iowa Western (3-1), who came into Saturday's game 2-0 lifetime in Garden City, stole some momentum, driving 78 yards to the Garden City 2. But on first-and-goal, Dillon Williams stripped backup quarterback Clay Beathard, who was filling in for T.J. Starks after the starter took a helmet-to-helmet shot from Kenny White, and Heston Lameta recovered for the Broncbusters.
Disaster averted, at least for the time being.
"We couldn't get out of our own way at times on offense today," Sims explained. "But that's why we always stress play each play. You never know when it's going to break."
The Reivers were afforded another scoring chance early in the second period when Michael Zachary's punt return set Iowa Western up at the Garden City 43. Beathard then hit Nick Singleton for 17 yards before finding Zachary for 17 up the left sideline. On first-and-goal from the 2, running back Nyfease West blasted into the end zone, giving the road team a 6-0 advantage (Eddie Ogamba missed the extra point) with 12:58 remaining in the first half.
"We played well at times but we didn't finish," Sims said. "We had way too many penalties."
Garden City's offense had trouble finding traction until late in the second quarter. The Broncbusters' dynamic rushing attack finally got going, and Mills and West helped Garden City reach the Iowa Western 20. But another false start penalty coupled with Moore's tipped pass that was intercepted by No.1 JUCO recruit Chester Graves, ended another scoring threat.
"I have nothing but respect for Iowa Western," Sims said. "That's a great coaching staff, and they have great players that work extremely hard. This was a battle."
The Reivers had a chance to put an emphatic stamp on this game right before the half. Garden City's (4-0, 2-0) defense appeared gassed, and Scott Strohmeier's offense smelled blood. Running back Milton Sargbah, who finished his high school career as one of the all-time leading rushers in Iowa history, moved Iowa Western inside the 20. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed them to the 9.
Enter defensive back Trae Meadows, the transfer from North Carolina State, who completely flipped the game.
On first-and-goal, Beathard fired a pass to Zachary in the right flat, who thought he had beaten his man to the outside. But Meadows never flinched, plucking the ball from the sky and racing 95 yards for the game-tying touchdown. Raybon added the go-ahead extra point, and Garden City had a 7-6 advantage with 1:21 left in the half.
"We were actually in man coverage," Meadows said. "I was actually squeezing one receiver but watching the second one. So when I saw the one receiver do the slant, I got my eyes straight to the two. I baited the quarterback a little bit to make it look like he was open, and once he raised his arms to throw it, I just broke on the ball."
Instead of trailing 13-0 at the break, Meadows' pick-6 gave Garden City a one-point halftime edge.
"We don't take any plays off," Meadows said. "We play line for line and note for note."
That lead was short lived in the third quarter.
Iowa Western running back Gayflor Flomo found some wiggle room up the middle, carrying twice for 16 yards to the Broncbusters 34. On third-and-8, Garden City jumped into the neutral zone before Starks, who returned from injury, scampered 17 yards to the 10. Three plays later, Starks called his own number, walking untouched into the end zone while giving the Reivers a 13-7 lead with 9:52 to go in the period.
Garden City answered back with a 33-yard field goal by Raybon to slice the deficit to three. On the ensuing kickoff, the Broncbusters executed what looked like a perfect onside kick. Garden City recovered it and started to run off the field. But official Manu Preston said the Broncbusters were offsides. Then Sims was flagged for a 15-yard penalty, which in turn, had Garden City kicking off from their own 15.
"That is such a difficult play to execute," the fourth-year coach said. "And Ben did it to perfection. It's unfortunate that they called that."
The Reivers had another short field, and quickly went to work, driving to the Garden City 15. But instead of passing on third-and-10, Strohmeier decided to play it safe, calling for a draw that Williams diagnosed perfectly before dropping Flomo for a two-yard loss. Then Ogamba misfired on a 34-yard field goal, keeping it a three-point contest with 1:45 to play in the third.
"I get all the credit, but the truth is, I just structure this thing," Sims said. "People always ask why I don't ever wear a headset. And I tell them I don't because my work is done Sunday through Friday."
Twice in the fourth quarter, the Broncbusters drove into Iowa Western territory. Both ended with a turnover. Mill's fumble ended one march before Moore coughed the ball up another, giving the Reivers the ball back with 4:46 to play at the Garden City 46.
"Hats off to Josh Hager," Sims said. "He takes a lot of grief, but he coached his butt of today."
While the game hung in the balance, Strohmeier was faced with another decision on fourth-and-5 at the Garden City 30. Instead of trying a long field goal, the veteran head coach, who helped start the program back in 2009, decided to go for it. But his play call was conservative again, and Starks quarterback draw went nowhere thanks to Kyshonn Tyson and Jabarr Price.
With no timeouts, the Broncbusters started to drive. Facing a fourth-and-2 at the Iowa Western 46, Moore hit Travis Powell for an 11-yard gain to the 35. Two plays later, West found a crease and sprinted for 17.
"These guys deserve all the credit," Sims said. "They never stopped fighting."
More followed with three straight incompletions, setting up a decision for Sims. But in reality there was no decision at all.
"People may not believe me, but I don't really get nervous in those situations," Sims said. "I just want good things to happen to show these guys that their work means something."
Sims summoned Raybon, who sprinted towards the right hashmark. And after missing from 23 earlier in the game, you could sense a nervous tension in the crowd. But Raybon delivered, splitting the uprights with 42 seconds left to tie the score at 13.
"I was definitely nervous," Raybon said. "I think over the years, I've gotten a little bit better with nerves. I just trusted in my technique and knocked it through."
With overtime looming on the horizon, Raybon hit a perfect squib that Zachary struggled to field on the kickoff. Deric Rucker knifed in and jarred the ball loose before recovering it at the Reivers' 20. It was an unbelievable moment for Rucker, who was knocked out of the game earlier with a chest injury.
"I didn't even see who recovered the ball," Sims said with a smile.
Moments later, Raybon was called upon again, this time to deliver the final knockout blow. He calmly obliged, nailing a 42-yard field goal to put Garden City on top 16-13 with 12 seconds remaining.
The guy who had never kicked a game winner, suddenly had drilled two gut-wrenching kicks in a matter of 30 seconds to give the Broncbusters a stunning three-point victory over the nation's second-ranked team.
"As soon as we recovered the fumble, I wanted to hit the game winner so bad," Raybon said.
Mills finished the afternoon with 117 yards on 26 carries for Garden City, who improved to 7-3 vs. ranked opponents under Sims. West added 116 yards, and Moore was 10-of-19 for 94 and one pick.
Beathard completed 6-of-12 passes for 97 yards and one interception for the Reivers, who failed to score 20 points for only the 15th time in their history. Flomo notched 66 yards on the ground, and Zachary caught four balls for 50.
Notes: It was Garden City's first victory over a top-five opponent since the 2016 National Championship Game…Garden City again owned the clock, possessing the ball for nearly 39:00…They outgained Iowa Western 341-230 while running the ball 62 times…Garden City has forced only three turnovers, but two of them have gone for scores (Meadows 95-yard pick-6 and Price's 20-yard fumble return vs. Dodge City)…The Broncbusters limited the Reivers, an offense that was averaging 400 yards per game, to just 2-of-10 on third down
Next up: Garden City at Fort Scott-Saturday, Sept. 29-10:30 a.m. pregame; 11 a.m. kick on 99.9 FM; westernkansanews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app