The Garden City Broncbusters are going to the NJCAA Championship game for the second time in three years.
With a 22-10 win over No. 14 Butler on Saturday, the Busters finish the regular season at 10-0, win the outright Jayhawk Conference title and will assuredly remain No. 2 in the NJCAA rankings to be released Sunday, which would put the Busters in the title game on Nov. 29 in Pittsburg.
It would be their second trip to the national title game in three seasons after beating Arizona Western, 25-22, in 2016 for the first NJCAA title in program history.
But when the clock hit all zeros on Saturday, it was a muted celebration from the Busters.
“It’s just a relief,” running back Charles West said. “Just all the hard work paying off, being undefeated.”
The celebration was a week ago, when the Busters beat Hutchinson in dramatic fashion on the road. Saturday’s game vs. Butler (7-4, 5-2) was a formality.
“It was, ‘don’t mess this up,’” GCCC head coach Jeff Sims said.
It was anything but an orthodox victory, though. It included rare penalties — sideline interference, snap infractions — several quick kicks by GCCC and a thrown away pass on fourth down because the refs had skipped second down, resulting in the Busters turning it over on downs inside the Butler 5.
But in the end, it was the Busters answering 10-consecutive points from the Grizzlies in the third quarter that pulled them within 15-10 with a 45-yard Charles West run to cap a three-play drive and push the Garden City lead back up to two touchdowns.
From there, the Buster defense held, including a goal line stand to begin the fourth quarter. The Busters stuffed Butler on three-consecutive runs inside the 3-yard line, including a Kahari Foy-Walton tackle for a 5-yard loss. Then the Busters batted away a fourth-down pass.
“It was tremendous,” Sims said of Foy-Walton’s play. “I have to give so much credit to coach Hager because he has done a tremendous job.”
The Busters out-gained Butler 351-290, and held Butler to 1 of 11 on third downs, allowing the Busters to run 79 plays to Butler’s 53.
The Buster offense was led once again by its running game, as West had 179 yards on 36 carries, and Ellis Merriweather had 77 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Dedrick Mills was limited after suffering an injury a week ago at Hutchinson, rushing for 24 yards on five carries.
Though, it was Mills’ score at the end of the second quarter that put the Busters up 15-0 at half, and only a skipped second down that resulted in a turnover on downs due to confusion and miscommunication on the Buster sideline kept the advantage from being more lopsided.
After Mills’ touchdown, Butler made a mistake by returning a bobbled kickoff from the end zone, and GCCC’s kick team got the stop at the 10. The Busters were able to force a three-and-out and get the ball back with two minutes remaining in the half.
The offense drove down to the Butler 11, and on first down a pass to the back corner of the end zone was incomplete, making it second down. However, offsetting unsportsmanlike penalties after the play seemed to have confused the officials, who declared it to be third down instead of second.
“I heard the official tell them to change the down marker, and I was sitting there thinking, they already did,” Sims said. “The problem is, the clock was running down, so I don’t have time to argue that.”
The Busters completed an 8-yard pass on what turned out to be third down, making it 4th-and-2. That’s when the Busters went to the air again, but Moore was hurried and scrambled to his right and then just threw the ball away, turning the ball over and costing the Busters a scoring opportunity.
“It messed our offensive coordinator (John Powers) up because he has a series of plays he wants to run, and so then we threw on fourth down, which is a horrible call and then I’m livid,” Sims said. “And he’s (Powers) sitting there going how did we end up in this situation? They (refs) just messed it up.”
Fortunately for the Busters, it did not cost them much as they dominated the rest of the first half.
The Grizzlies and Busters gained 3.8 yards and 3.9 yards per play, respectively, in the first 30 minutes, but the Busters defense held on all five third downs Butler faced, while Garden City’s offense was able to convert 2 of 9, and also convert 1-of-2 fourth downs.
Those conversions allowed the Busters to extend drives — each of their scoring drives were seven plays.
They opened scoring on Merriweather’s 6-yard run with 2:13 remaining in the first quarter, and then took advantage of Kenny White’s interception late in the second quarter for a seven-play, 45-yard scoring drive, capped by Mills’ 9-yard run.
After a Butler penalty on the extra point, the Busters went for 2 from the 1-yard line, and Mills easily found the end zone for the 15-0 lead.
The Grizzlies cut that to 15-10 near the end of the third quarter, with a 27-yard field goal and then a 36-yard Larry Jones reception from Trae Self. But the Busters immediately answered with West’s score.
“It was an inside run, but I just saw an edge and I hit it,” West said.
Butler’s ensuing drive got to the GCCC 1, but Foy-Walton’s tackle for loss stalled that one. The Busters then took four minutes off the clock with a drive, before punting to the Butler 9 and holding the Grizzlies to a three-and-out.
The Busters then took another 6:29 off the clock with an 11-play drive, ending any chance of a Butler rally, and all but guaranteeing the Busters a spot in the NJCAA title game.
The final regular season NJCAA rankings will be released on Monday. With No. 1 East Mississippi also winning Saturday, beating Jones County (Miss.) in the league title game (19-14), the Busters likely will remain No. 2 and meet the Lions on Nov. 29.
“Bring on the Lions,” Sims yelled as he walked out of post-game interviews on Saturday.