By Mike Pilosof
Photos by Adam Shrimplin
Council Bluffs, IA-Before the season started, many experts had Sept. 21 circled as a possible No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup at Titan Stadium. And while both team's uneven start to the year tempered this showdown just a bit, the Broncbusters' performance on Saturday etched their name back into the conversation as one of the top teams in the country.
Nate Cox threw for 242 yards and a touchdown, Ramon Jefferson accounted for two rushing scores, and Garden City doubled up Iowa Western, one of the most talented teams in Junior College football, 28-14. The loss was just the third home defeat for the Reivers in the last four years. It was also their third straight loss overall, the first time that's happened in 10 years.
"I'd say this was the most complete performance that we've had this season," Head Coach Tom Minnick said. "This is what we've been waiting for."
Coming off an anemic offensive showing vs. Independence last week, the Broncbusters opened up the playbook on their second possession. On third-and-8 from their own 33, Cox dropped back and launched a majestic beauty down the right sideline for MJ Link, who slipped past Kevin Brewer for a 67-yard touchdown. It was the sophomore's second score in as many weeks.
"Our receivers, especially MJ, were big today," Cox said afterwards. "And the offensive line gave me so much time. On that touchdown pass, I had forever to throw the ball."
While the sophomore quarterback was afforded all kinds of time all afternoon, Iowa Western Coach Scott Strohmeier watched in disbelief as his highly-touted line, was overwhelmed by Jerry Dominguez's front seven.
The Broncbusters recorded a season-high five sacks, two of those were thanks to linebacker Willie Hampton, who followed up last week's 10-tackle performance with nine more stops on Saturday.
"Our defense was tremendous," Cox said. "They got after it all afternoon."
Mixed with a plethora of looks, that unit kept Iowa Western off balance, limiting the Reivers to a season-low 195 total yards. Garden City held the ball for nearly 39 minutes and ran 16 more plays (71-55).
"We controlled this game," Minnick said. "Minus a couple of mistakes, I thought we played really well."
While the Reivers stumbled out of the gates, the Broncbusters went for an early knockout blow. Late in the first quarter, Garden City marched 90 yards in nine plays, highlighted by a 27-yard completion to Link and a 26-yard hookup with Troy'von Johnson on back-to-back plays. Then it was Jefferson, finishing things off with a four-yard rushing touchdown that put the road team up 14-0 with 14:30 left in the half.
"We missed some opportunities to really put the game away in that first half," Minnick explained. "But I thought we moved the ball really well."
The Broncbusters chances of blowing the game open took a hit in the second period, thanks to a bad snap by Martez Jones on a fourth-down punt that Iowa Western recovered, and a strip-sack by Averie Habas that set the Reivers up in plus territory. But Iowa Western failed to capitalize in both instances.
After the bad snap, the Reivers drove to the Garden City 5-yard line. But on fourth-and-goal, backup quarterback Shelton Applewhite's fade pass to Deshon Stoudemire in the back-right corner of the end zone, landed wide of its target. Then later in the half, once Cox was stripped of the ball on third-and-6 at the Reivers' 41, Iowa Western's offensive line imploded. On third-and-6 , Dominguez sent the house, and Sam Moala gobbled up Applewhite for a nine-yard loss.
"Coach Dominguez was not happy at all with how his guys played last week," Minnick said. "It was a long week of practice."
Similar to the Snow game in week one, the momentum started to shift early in the second half.
Trailing by two scores, Florida-State transfer ZaQuandre White finally got loose. The sophomore's elusive style had the Broncbusters' defensive line one step behind. On fourth-and-1 from the Garden City 38, White carried five Broncbuster defenders down to the 7. One play later, it was White again, steamrolling into the end zone, cutting Garden City's lead to 14-7 with 7:20 remaining in the third.
"We needed an answer," Minnick said. "And our guys responded."
Boy did they ever.
Any thoughts that Iowa Western had retaken control of the game were quickly doused the next time Garden City touched the ball. Facing a third-and-17 from their own 40, Cox fired a strike to Link for 16 yards. On the next play, Iowa Western was called for a defensive holding, giving the Broncbusters a much-needed first down. Later in the drive, Jefferson ripped off a nine-yard run that inched the brown and gold closer. It eventually setup Jadon Hayes, who took the wildcat snap on fourth-and-goal from the 1, powered up the middle, and stretched the ball over the goal line for a touchdown.
"We answered every time," Cox said. "I'm so proud of these guys. We needed a spark, and everyone responded."
It was one of two drives that consumed more than seven minutes in the second half. The other one was the dagger: a 15-play, 90-march drive that drained 10:23 off the fourth-quarter clock.
"That last drive was unbelievable," Cox said "That's what we were looking to do; control the tempo and control the clock. We did just that."
That 15-play drive was polished off with Jefferson's second-touchdown run of the game that put Garden City up 28-7 with 3:36 remaining. Game over. Season saved.
"Iowa Western is a really talented football team," Minnick said. "When you go on the road, you have to work like you're 14 points behind."
Cox finished the day 11-of-19 for the Broncbusters, who won for the 19th time in their last 22 road games. Jefferson carried the ball 26 times for 90 yards, and Link caught a season-high five passes for 140 yards and a score.
Cam Thomas was just 12-of-21 for 84 yards. He was victimized once in the second quarter when Kenny White intercepted him. White finished with 14 carries for 126 yards and two touchdowns, stamping his day with a one-yard rushing touchdown with 45 seconds to play.
Next up: Garden City vs. Fort Scott-Saturday, Sept. 28-2:30 pm. Pregame; 3 p.m. kick on 99.9 FM, westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app