By Mike Pilosof
Photos by Adam Shrimplin
Garden City, KS-During their run to the 2018 National Championship Game, Garden City got plenty of breaks along the way. There was the Iowa-Western collapse in the final minutes, and the game-saving drive to beat Hutchinson. They staved off a week-two upset by outlasting Ellsworth before climbing out of a 21-3 hole to beat Independence.
Unfortunately, some of that good fortune did not carry into their season opener in 2019.
Braxton Kerr threw for 377 yards and two touchdowns, Jose Pizano drilled a 32-yard field goal at the horn, and No. 6 Snow knocked off No. 3 Garden City 30-27.
"We didn't help ourselves," Broncbuster Coach Tom Minnick said. "I mean, how many dropped balls did we have?"
Garden City was afforded every chance to put Snow away early in the game. The Badgers turned the ball over three times in the first quarter. Renard Bozeman intercepted Kerr on one drive, and linebacker Willie Hampton dropped a couple of other would-be picks. Then there was a snap on fourth down that deflected off of the punt protector that Willie Ervin recovered for the Broncbusters. Snow even turned the ball over on downs after failing on a fourth-and-1 in their own territory, and still the Broncbusters mustered only 13 first-half points.
"We left so many points out there," Minnick said. "But it comes down to holding onto the ball. We will find guys that can do that."
Garden City grabbed the lead early in the first quarter on Andres Dos Santos Aires 26-yard field goal. But the Broncbusters had to be kicking themselves when they let a touchdown opportunity slip through their hands. On second-and-goal at the 4, quarterback Nate Cox and running back Jadon Hayes, muffed the exchange, costing Garden City five yards. On the following play, Gerald Wilbon knocked the ball away from Dominick Watt in the end zone, forcing the brown and gold to settle for three.
"You know what's amazing is that we were right there, even though we made so many mistakes," Minnick explained.
The Broncbusters added another field goal in the second quarter before Snow Coach Andrew Mitchell rolled the dice on a fourth-and-1 at their own 34. Weston Barlow had no chance and was dropped for a two-yard loss, giving Garden City the ball at the Badger 32. Four plays later, Cox hit Deandre Wallace for a 12-yard gain on fourth-and-5. That eventually setup Garden City's first touchdown of 2019: a three-yard dash to pay dirt by Hayes that had the Broncbuters on top 13-0 with 6:24 to go until halftime.
"When we look back at this, it's just so many missed opportunities," Minnick said. "That's the unfortunate part."
Snow grabbed some momentum late in the second period, thanks to back-to-back personal-foul penalties that pushed the Badgers out near midfield. Two plays after that, Kerr zipped a pass to Keashawn McCoy, who strolled 34 yards down to the 1. But Garden City's defense stiffened and limited the Badgers to just a field goal.
"We showed a lot of things in this game," Minnick said. "But we lost as a team."
Whatever Mitchell said to his guys at halftime, galvanized them, because Snow was a totally different squad once they returned to the field in the third quarter.
Kerr marched the Badgers 69 yards in seven plays, punctuating the drive with a one-yard touchdown toss to Ron Tiavaasue.
The tidal wave kept coming following a Broncbuster three-and-out. Kerr hit Tejhaun Palmer for 27 yards, Shammah Luani found a crease for a 27-yard score, and all of the sudden, Snow had a 17-13 advantage.
The Badgers tacked on another field goal before Kerr lofted a perfect spiral to McCoy for a 43-yard touchdown. On the play, defensive back Kenny White slipped near the sideline, leaving the secondary exposed.
"Snow is always good; they're well coached," Minnick said. "You have to give them a lot of credit for coming back."
The Broncbusters took a massive right cross in the third quarter. In less than 10 minutes, their 10-point lead had turned into a 14-point deficit.
As anemic as the Broncbuster offense was in the third, Mike Orthmann's unit came alive in the final period. Cox drove his team 53 yards in nine plays, converting a third-and-25 with a beautiful 37-yard dime to Hayes. Minutes later, Cox was at it again, this time hitting MJ Link for 21 yards and a first down on third-and-15. All of that led to Hayes' second rushing touchdown of the afternoon: a one-yard plunge that brought Garden City back to within seven, 27-20 with 2:59 remaining.
"I think Snow's defense got a little tired in the second half; that's why we were able to move the ball," Minnick said. "We just have to be better."
On life support, and with only two timeouts, the Broncbusters needed a quick stop. Ryan McCalin had the answer. His pulverizing hit on Luani on first down set the tone, eventually forcing the Badgers to punt from their own 29.
With one last chance, Garden City took full advantage. And Cox was brilliant, setting up Hayes perfectly on a 22-yard screen pass. Later in the drive, facing a fourth-and-6, Cox completed a pass to Watt, who wrestled the ball away from Wilbon for a first down. That was followed up by a pass interference call on Snow in the end zone, giving the Broncbusters the ball at the 2. With less than a minute to go, Cox finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bryce Parker, Dos Santos Aires added the extra point, and the game was tied.
"We put ourselves in a position to win the game, despite playing pretty poor," Minnick said.
After making a 13-hour bus trip from Utah to Kansas, the Badgers had no plans of playing for overtime. With two timeouts, Kerr moved them 60 yards in six plays, with the backbreaker coming on a 19-yard completion to McCoy on third-and-10 that set Snow up at the Broncbuster 20. An illegal substitution penalty on Garden City made the field goal try a bit more manageable. And that's all Pizano needed, splitting the uprights from 32 yards out as time expired, giving Snow a dramatic three-point win.
The Badgers outgained Garden City 458-299. The Broncbusters lost the game despite winning the time of possession battle (35:33 to 24:16). Kerr was 24-of-38 for 377 yards and two touchdowns, while Luani carried the ball 14 times for 40 yards.
Cox finished 20-of-44 for 241 yards and a touchdown for Garden City, who lost a season opener for the first time since 2011. The Broncbusters, the nation's best rushing team in 2018, totaled just 58 yards on 36 carries vs. Snow. Hayes had 17 totes for 36 and two scores, and Ellis Merriweather touched the ball 10 times for 31. But the stat of the night was this: Garden City was just 5-of-20 on third down.
"We struggled last year at Arizona Western on third downs," Minnick said. "It's something that we have to get better at."
Next up: Garden City at Dodge City, Saturday, Aug. 31-6:30 p.m. pregame; 7 p.m. kickoff on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app