By Mike Pilosof
Photos by Adam Shrimplin
El Dorado, KS-Garden City will want this one back in the worst way.
In his first collegiate start, freshman Nick Davenport threw two touchdown passes, Butler's defense forced four turnovers, and the 11th-ranked Grizzlies ended the Broncbusters National Title hopes with a 34-27 come-from-behind win Saturday night at BG Products Sports Complex. The loss means Independence is the outright Jayhawk champs. It also signifies a likely end to the Broncbusters' season.
"We made way too many mistakes to win this game," Garden City Head Coach Tom Minnick said afterwards. "Hats off to Butler, because they had an unbelievable game plan."
That attack was built behind a smoke-and-mirrors offensive scheme, one that completely caught the Broncbusters off guard. In the end, Garden City put together their worst offensive performance of the season.
The most disappointing aspect of this game was that it should never have been close. Butler used a third-string quarterback and a third-string running back. Their defense was missing two players because of suspension and one because of a dislocated knee. And still, the Grizzlies found a way.
"We couldn't finish the deal," Minnick said. "It's a sad way to end the season."
"We left so many plays out there," Minnick explained. "You can't turn the ball over four times and expect to win the game."
The Broncbuster offense was stuck in mud for most of the first quarter. But after Butler surged in front on a 31-yard field goal by Jacob Abel late in the period, Garden City finally put something together. Nate Cox, who was under constant pressure all night, engineered a six-play, 70-yard drive. And on the first play of the second quarter, he delivered a 46-yard scoring toss to Deandre Wallace that gave Garden City a 7-3 advantage. Moments later, the Broncbusters recovered an onside kick, which eventually setup Andre Dos Santos Aires for a 42-yard field goal that stretched the lead to 10-3 with 12:42 to play in the first half.
"Butler is a good football team," Minnick explained. "But we had them where we wanted them in the second quarter. We just couldn't finish the deal."
The Grizzlies fortunes went from bad to worse the next time they had the ball. On first-and-10, Davenport was picked off by Avery Thornton, who set Garden City up at the Butler 28. Five plays later, Ellis Merriweather powered into the end zone, and the Broncbusters had a 17-3 cushion with 10:13 remaining in the second.
"Our offensive line did not play well at all," Minnick said. "This was the second straight week that was the case."
With a chance to blow the game open after the Broncbusters forced a three-and-out the next time the Grizzlies had the ball, Cox made a costly mistake. Derick Newton put the pressure on, forcing a high throw from the freshman quarterback that was picked off by Woodly Appolon and returned 20 yards to the Garden City 40. That eventually setup a perfect play call, one in which Davenport sucked in the secondary by faking the pitch and the hand off before lofting a spiral down the middle to Lane Lunt, who walked into the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown to get Butler within seven.
"They had to use trick plays to move the football on us, and it worked," Minnick said. "We didn't look like we were ready."
The Broncbusters answered with a 39-yard field goal by Dos Santos Aires to stretch the lead to 20-10, but the momentum had already shifted. And boy was that ever on display in the second half.
Garden City had back-to-back three-and-outs to begin the third. Then on Butler's second possession of the period, the Grizzlies once again used some crafty deception. Once they reached the Broncbuster 10, offensive coordinator Brice Vignery called for a reverse with a wide-receiver option pass. The play call was magnificent, and Ke'John Baptiste executed it perfectly. The freshman took the pitch, ran to his right; then fired a dart to a wide-open Davenport, who waltzed into the end zone, cutting Garden City's lead to 20-17 with 3:23 to go in the quarter.
"We couldn't get a stop when we needed one tonight," Minnick said. "That's what it came down to."
As they've done most of the season, Garden City responded in a big way. The Broncbusters drove 63 yards in 13 plays, picking up two massive third downs. Then, on first-and-10 from the 24, Ellis Merriweather ripped off a 22-yard run down to the 2. Two plays later, Ramon Jefferson blasted across the goal line, giving the Broncbusters what appeared to be a comfortable 27-17 advantage with 13:21 to play.
"We had every chance to win this game," Minnick said. "We put ourselves in a position to win it. We just did things that were really out of character."
The downward spiral started following a Butler punt, when the normally surehanded Troy'Von Johnson muffed it, and the Grizzlies recovered. A couple of minutes later, Davenport was at it again, firing a flare pass out in the flat to Daymonn Sanchez, who dove into the end zone, cutting the Garden City lead to 27-24 with 10:48 to play.
Then the wheels completely fell off. On the Broncbusters next possession, Josh Davies strip sacked Cox, and Butler recovered. That setup Abel's 45-yard field goal that tied the game at 27.
Unfortunately for the Broncbusters, the nightmare was just beginning.
When Garden City's offense returned to the field, Cox fired a strike to tight end Bryce Parker. But the sophomore lost the ball, and Kway'Chon Chisom recovered for Butler. Four plays after that, Davenport called his own number, sneaking it across the goal line on a substantial second effort, giving Butler a 34-27 edge with 5:10 to play.
"We couldn't get off the field," Minnick said. "I mean, what do you expect is going to happen when you turn the ball over and you can't stop anyone on the other side."
Now trailing by seven, Garden City got a major break when Butler was called for two personal foul penalties on the kickoff, giving the Broncbusters the ball at the Butler 36. The Broncbusters then converted a fourth-and-5 when Cox hooked up with MJ Link for 10 yards. But the play Minnick will remember happened just minutes earlier when Cox fit one into Link, who made a sensational catch down the left sideline, setting Garden City up first-and-goal at the 8. But the center judge, who never had an angle on the play, overruled his crew member, saying the ball hit the ground. Further review on Butler's videoboard showed what everyone in the stadium already knew: Link made the catch. And as you would expect, that would eventually come back to haunt them.
Back-to-back sacks by Wali Sabree and an incomplete pass in the end zone on fourth down, gave the ball back to the Grizzlies, who then salted the game away once Kenny White was called for offsides on third-and-3, putting an end to any miracle comeback. Game over. Season over.
"We did a lot of good things this year," Minnick said. "We could have easily hung it up after we lost those two games earlier in the season. But we didn't, and we put ourselves in position to possibly play for a National Championship. You couldn't ask for anything more."
Cox finished the game 16-of-26 for 172 yards, one touchdown and one interception for Garden City. He was also sacked five times. Jefferson ran it 18 times for 60 yards and a touchdown, and Wallace had six catches for 82 yards and a score.
Davenport was 5-of-13 for 112 yards, two touchdowns and a pick for Butler, who snapped a four-game losing streak to Garden City. He added 40 yards on the ground with a score, while George Qualls had two catches for 68 yards.