By Mike Pilosof
Audio: 1 p.m. CDT pregame; 2 p.m. kick on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and via the KWKR mobile app
Video: 2 p.m. CDT kickoff on NJCAA TV
Yuma, AZ-In a sense, the 2016 National Championship Game is what junior college football is supposed to be: the two best teams duking it out on the field for the ultimate prize; not some ambiguous algorithm that even has the guys at Stanford scratching their heads.
No. 1 Garden City clashes with No. 2 Arizona Western Saturday afternoon in the El Toro Bowl in front of an expected 6,000 fans at Veteran's Memorial Stadium.
"Arizona Western is by far, the best team that we have seen all year," Garden City Coach Jeff Sims reiterated during Friday night's bowl banquet. "They are extremely talented."
The team he's talking about; the one standing in the way of the Broncbusters first-ever national title is a squad comprised of Division-I talent galore.
"When I see their roster, it looks a lot like ours from a talent standpoint," Sims mentioned during Thursday's press conference. "Where a lot of people will see the difference is that we don't have the depth that they do."
Arizona Western comes into this game sporting the nation's No. 2 scoring defense while holding teams to just 139 total yards per game (2nd in the nation behind ASA Miami). But the most impressive number are their takeaways; the Matadors have forced 43 turnovers-the most of any team in the nation.
"We can't turn the ball over," Sims said. "They feast off of that. This game will be won on the offense and defensive lines. But a turnover would be a killer."
Through 10 games, the Broncbusters have played nearly mistake-free football. They've given it away only 12 times; third fewest in the country and have won the turnover battle in all but two contests.
"To play in this game is special," linebacker Alex Figueroa said. "It's a blessing to have this opportunity, and I plan on making the most of it."
Despite missing two games earlier in the season, Figueroa made the all-conference first team, recording 51 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. He, Delshawn Phillips, Rayshawn Wilborn and Gabe Luyanda have combined for 234 stops in 2016.
"We have to know where Figueroa and Jamie Tago are at all times," Arizona Western Head Coach Tom Minnick said. "Tago may be their best player."
Tago is special, but left out in all the glory was last year's national defensive player of the year Jeremy Faulk, who has fought off double teams all season long to record 71 tackles, including a career-best 18 in a 16-14 victory over No. 6 Hutchinson on Sep. 17.
Meantime the Matadors have feasted on the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference. Arizona Western enters this title tilt on a 13-game winning streak dating back to last season. They have won their 11 games this year by an average of 36 points.
"Coach has gotten us prepared mentally and physically all year," said Matadors star outside linebacker Patrick Macon, who is fifth in the nation in tackles with 117 and No. 1 in tackles for loss. "If we do our thing, we will be fine."
Macon is one of only 14 guys that saw significant snaps last season, but the sophomore has quickly become one of the best defenders in the country. The league defensive player of the year has parlayed those numbers into offers from several major Division-I's, including Arizona, Oklahoma State, San Diego State and Utah State.
Then there's defensive lineman Craig Evans, who fell into Arizona Western's lap after he unexpectedly left Michigan State back in the summer time. He arrived on campus a couple of weeks before the season began and has not disappointed. This is a guy who played in every game as a freshman for the Spartans, including a four-tackle outing vs. Alabama in the College Football Playoff last season.
"He's one of the best defensive linemen I've seen," Sims said. "He and Devin Webster are really, really good."
While Webster was not as heralded a high school prospect as prep teammate Evans, the 6-2 sophomore from Sun Prairie High School in Wisconsin has anchored the middle of the Matadors defensive line all season long.
"It's easy to see why they're so talented on defense," Sims added. "They have as talented a roster as anyone."
Trying to navigate through that defense will be Garden City true freshman quarterback Peyton Huslig, who made his debut vs. perennial power Butler in week six where he threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns while earning conference player of the week honors.
"Our goal is to go 1-0 every week," Huslig said. "Our attitude hasn't changed all season long."
In 12 months' time, Huslig has gone from a senior at Andover Central, where he led his squad to their first ever state title game only to come up short against powerhouse Bishop Miege, to now facing arguably the most talented team in the country in the national championship.
Not a bad year for the guy who most thought was the best high school quarterback in Kansas last year.
"I don't pay attention to all of that stuff," Huslig said. "We have a job to finish."
In six starts, Huslig has thrown 10 touchdowns to only one interception-tied with North Dakota SC's Malik Galliard for the fewest in the nation.
For Garden City to have a chance on Saturday, the freshman has to be more than status quo, something that won't be easy against a secondary that features three-star cornerback Keisean Nixon, who has at least one interception in three out of the last four games.
"I've coached in two national championship games and lost them both," Sims said. "I'm not planning on losing a third."
If Sims and his team plans on hoisting the trophy on Saturday, Huslig may hold the key. If they pull it off, he will be enshrined into Garden City football immortality. And if anyone is up for the challenge, it's the 6-3 prodigy.