What a difference a year makes.
The television cameras were gone. It's two biggest stars cast away for good. And, for the first time in three years, the postgame chatter actually revolved around football, not a Hollywood circus. But times have definitely changed, and when the dust settled Saturday night, the Pirates showed the rest of the conference just how potent they can be.
Independence rushed for a season-high 308 yards, the most allowed by Garden City's defense since 2017 vs. Iowa Western, as the Pirates held on for a wild, 31-28 victory at Broncbuster Stadium. It was their first win in Garden City in more than 20 years.
“We gave that game away," Head Coach Tom Minnick said. "Independence is a really good football team, but we just gave them the game."
The Pirates sliced through the Broncbuster defense on their opening drive, marching 98 yards in 11 plays. Indiana-transfer Morgan Ellison ripped off runs of 26 and 27 yards on back-to-back plays. Then on third-and-goal from the 8, Ellison maneuvered his way to the left boundary, and raced into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
"That team is going to go far," Minnick said. "There's no question in my mind about that."
Garden City's first possession went nowhere. But after forcing a Pirate three-and-out, Mike Orthmann's unit finally got going. The Broncbusters moved 57 yards in 10 plays, which included a fourth-and-1 conversion at the Independence 37 when Jadon Hayes ran for six. Five plays after that, Ramon Jefferson, the reigning Jayhawk Offensive Player of the Week, rumbled 13 yards to pay dirt, evening up the score with 33 seconds to play in the first.
"I thought we moved the ball at times today," Minnick said. "But other times, we just couldn't do anything."
Then it was Jerry Dominguez's defensive unit's turn to make a play.
With the Pirate knocking on the door at the Garden City 16, quarterback Stephon Brown's pitch back to Ellison missed it's target, and Anthony Jordan jumped on top of it for Garden City. But the Broncbusters couldn't turn the turnover into the points, eventually punting from their own 32.
"We were our own worst enemy again," Minnick added.
That squandered opportunity cost the Broncbusters dearly. And a third-down penalty on Independence's next drive, was even more detrimental.
On third-and-6 from their 40, Brown fired an incomplete pass to Raekwon Heath up the left sideline. But Broncbuster defensive tackle Darius Johnson was flagged for illegal hands to the face, giving the Pirates a free first down.
With new life, the Pirates went back to work. And three plays later, third-string running back Reggie Williams wiggled to the right sideline and sprinted 34 yards untouched to the end zone, putting Independence up 14-7 with 8:22 left until halftime.
"We did a lot of stupid things in this game," Minnick said. "We didn't play up to our standards."
Garden City's offense in the second quarter looked nothing like the unit that rolled up 583 yards seven days earlier against Ellsworth. Instead, their ground game was completely ineffective, producing just three first downs the entire period.
Meantime Independence extended the lead before halftime when Jalin Troutman drilled a season-long 54-yard field goal, putting the Pirates up 17-7 at the break.
"We needed some type of answer to start the third," Minnick said. "We didn't play well at all in the first half, but we were still in decent shape."
With the wind at their backs, the Broncbusters looked revitalized in the third. On their second possession of the period, Nate Cox made two throws on third down. The first went to Dominick Watt for 19. The second was placed ball over the left shoulder of tight end Bryce Parker, who plucked the ball in for a 22-yard gain on third-and-8. Three plays later, Cox went back to the air, this time connecting with MJ Link in the front right corner of the end zone for a touchdown, slicing the Pirates' lead to 17-14 with 7:10 to go in the frame.
"When you look back at it, we should be 4-0," Minnick said. "But we're not. We're 2-2. At least in this game, they got a taste of some guys that can really play."
Following an Independence three-and-out, Garden City was moving again. Cox threw to Watt for 14 on third-and-four. Three plays after that, he hit Troy'von Johnson in the left flat. The sophomore transfer from Arizona Western did the rest, stampeding 17 yards to the house for the go-ahead score.
"I thought we put together some really good drives in that third quarter," Minnick said. "We threw the ball with more confidence. We just needed to do that earlier in the game."
Kiyoshi Harris's team answered the bell early in the fourth quarter. Facing a third-and-12 at their own 47, Williams ripped off a 16-yard run. Later in the drive, Shermari Jones found a crease for 23 yards down to the 1. That setup Brown, who on third-and-goal, tried to leap over the pile. When that didn't work, he bounced it left to the outside, walking into the end zone, and giving the Pirates the lead for good.
"We have to be able to stop the run," Minnick said. "I mean that's the first thing that needs to happen."
Now down by three, Garden City did something they hadn't done all day, move the ball going into the wind. The Broncbusters marched 56 yards in eight plays, setting up shop at the Independence 19. But on third down, Cox's pass to Watt was incomplete. Rather than keep the offense on the field, Minnick sent out Andre Dos Santos Aires for a 36-yard field goal. But the kick never had a chance. Deylon Williams surged through and blocked it, preserving the Pirates' three-point edge.
"We did things today that lost us the football game," Minnick said. "We made so many mistakes."
None bigger than the one late in the fourth quarter.
Still down three, Garden City got the ball back at their own 11. But a personal foul penalty backed them up before Deandre Butler stripped Ellis Merriweather and recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, putting the Pirates up 31-21 with 3:23 remaining. Butler added his second fumble recovery on the Broncbusters' next possession when Cox lost the ball on a fourth-down scramble.
"There were plays to be made all over the place," Minnick said. "But when you don't make them against a good football team, that's what happens."
Incredibly, as Garden City's eulogy was being written, down 10 with less than 30 seconds to play, backup linebacker Willie Ervin had other plans. The freshman surged through the middle, blocked Brian Pennell's punt and recovered it in the end zone, cutting the deficit to three with 22 seconds.
With no timeouts, the Broncbusters still needed a miracle. On the ensuing onside kick, DJ McCullough jumped on a ball that bounced off Pirate linebacker Corbein Hagans, giving Garden City another crack to tie or win the game.
"With everything that went wrong, we still had a chance at the end," Minnick said.
That miracle nearly became reality on Cox's second-down pass when he floated it down the left sideline that was just out of the reach of Watt's hands in the back-left corner of the end zone. On the very next play, Tyrice Knight intercepted the sophomore's Hail Mary at the goal line, putting an end to the Broncbusters' comeback bid.
Cox finished the day 16-of-28 for 213 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for Garden City, who saw their 12-game conference winning streak come to an end. Jefferson ran 15 times for 42 yards, Link caught a season best five balls for 77, and Krishon Merriweather recorded a team-high 12 tackles.
Garden City will be on the road at Iowa Western on Saturday for an 1 p.m. kickoff.