Buffaloes use ground and pound to outlast Panthers

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Garden City, KS (westernkansasnews.com)-More often than not, when a team starts a game the way the Buffaloes did Friday night, all does not end well. But then again, most teams don’t have a Jared Koster on their roster.

Despite not playing in the final quarter because of injury, Koster ran wild; totaling 244 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns as Garden City overcame an early 14-point deficit to beat conference-rival Great Bend 42-28 at Buffalo Stadium.

“We made a lot of mistakes,” Head Coach Brian Hill said afterwards. “We weren’t being very aggressive in the first half. But we got things together after halftime.”

The first 13 minutes saw Garden City (3-0, 1-0) fall behind 14-0, thanks to Great Bend junior quarterback Jacob Murray, who connected with Bryce Lytle on a 38-yard touchdown pass on the Panthers second possession of the game; then capped off a seven-play, 80-yard drive early in the second with a one-yard scoring plunge.

“I know this: if last year’s team would have fallen behind 14-0, they would have gotten blown out,” Hill explained. “A lot of things have changed since last season.”

That was evident in the Buffaloes response to Murray’s touchdown run. Their answer: Koster; who on second-and-7 from the Great Bend 42, took the handoff from Jesse Nunez, sprinted around left end and outraced the Panthers to the end zone. Zeke Herrera’s extra point sliced Great Bend’s lead in half with 10:14 left in the second quarter.

“Hats off to these kids for the way that they responded,” Hill said demonstratively. “We worked too hard in the summer for them not to.”

Then it was the defense’s turn to make a play.

Entering the second quarter, Murray, who was making his third varsity start for Great Bend Coach Tony Crough, had thrown 53 passes without being intercepted. That streak abruptly ended when Dakota Brunghardt outdueled Brayden Smith for the football on a go-route at the 50. The interesting part is that Brunghardt gave up nearly nine inches to the junior receiver.

“Dakota has come such a long way since last year,” Hill said. “He’s easily our most improved player this season.”

Brunghardt had a big night indeed, adding a fumble recovery to a stat line that also included four tackles.

And even though the pick didn’t result in points, the momentum had shifted, and Great Bend’s offense, once rich with fluidity and big plays, went silent. That’s when the light switched on for Garden City.

After a Panthers’ punt, the Buffaloes got the ball back inside their own 30. Facing a third-and-11 from the 27, Hill had a hunch that Great Bend would blitz; they did, and the sixth-year coach had the perfect play call.

Great Bend sent the house. And as Nunez took the snap and drifted back, Koster came free in the right flat. Nunez hit him in stride; the rest was all Koster, who turned to the sideline, exploded past the secondary; absorbed a shove from Nick Reed and dashed 73 yards for the equalizer.

“After week three, you kind of find out who you are,” Hill explained. “I believe our size is going to make it tough for anyone, over four quarters to stop us.”

Garden City grabbed the lead for the first time on their very first play of the second half. Koster again found running room; this time on a lateral back from Nunez-the same play that resulted in a Maize scoop and score last week. They got it right this time around as Koster steamrolled, 65 yards untouched to the end zone. Herrera’s extra point gave the Buffaloes a 21-14 edge with 11:49 to play in the third.

After a special teams mistake by Ramses Lopez that pinned Great Bend (2-1, 1-1) deep in their own end, the Panthers were staring at a third-and-6 from their own 18. This time it was Dominick Dingle and Drew Thon’s chance to make a game-defying play call. They did just that.

Murray was blindsided by Herrera, who knocked the ball out in the process. Brunghardt bounced on top of it for the Buffaloes at the Panthers 11. Five plays later, Koster’s 15-yard rushing touchdown capped off a 14-minute sequence that saw Garden City score 28 unanswered points and build a 14-point lead.

The problem was it didn’t stick.

The Panthers, who trailed at the half in each of their first to wins over Leavenworth and Hays, rallied back, thanks in large part to Murray who fell a yard shy of his second straight 200-yard passing game.

Following Koster’s score, Murray marched his team 75 yards in just four plays, accounting for all of it; 11 on the ground and 64 yards through the air. He put an exclamation point on the drive with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Lytle, who beat Christian Coreas on a post pattern. The score pulled the Panthers to within seven 28-21 with 8:25 to go in the third.

“It wasn’t perfect by any stretch,” Hill said. “But our kids fought back every time.”

Koster, who produced one of his best games as a varsity starter, did have one blemish, and the Panthers capitalized on it later in the period.

Koster’s fumble on first-and-10 gave Great Bend the ball back at the Buffaloes 32. Of more concern, the senior tailback was knocked out of the game with a possible concussion. He did not return.

The turnover paid huge dividends when Murray capped of an eight play drive with a five-yard touchdown scamper. Carlos Franco’s extra point tied the game with 3:40 to go in the third quarter.

Great Bend then had their chance to regain the lead after Crough’s defense forced a Garden City three-and-out. But Lytle fumbled the punt return away, and Derek Cook recovered for the Buffaloes at the Panthers’ 39.

That was the little sliver of momentum the Buffaloes needed.

Five plays later, Nunez put the Buffaloes back in front with a two-yard dive to pay dirt at the 11:56 mark of the fourth.

Benny Hernandez and Jose Coreas quickly derailed any hope of a Great Bend equalizer, sacking Murray for a seven-yard loss on Great Bend’s next series. It ended with a punt.

Leaving no doubt, Nunez and the Buffaloes sealed the game with a 14-play, 65-yard drive that ate up nearly seven minutes of the fourth-quarter clock. Three times, the Buffaloes extended the drive; two third-down conversions and one on fourth down. Then on second-and-goal from the 2, Nunez bullied his way into the end zone, giving Garden City a two-touchdown lead with less than four minutes to play.

“That’s one of the best drives we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Hill said. “The execution was nearly flawless. We ran the same thing for all but two plays. We won it at the point of attack.”

Any chance of Great Bend making a miracle comeback ended on their next series, when Lytle fumbled a lateral pitch from Murray that Herrera recovered for the Buffaloes. Two kneel downs later, Garden City was 3-0 for the first time since 2009.

“Aside from the mistakes, you have to admire how our kids fought tonight,” Hill said. “They earned this one.”

Nunez finished the night with 131 yards rushing on 24 carries. It was his fifth career 100-yard rushing performance. He also completed 4-of-12 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown.

Koster had 13 carries for 155 yards and three scores while hauling in one ball for 73 yards and a touchdown.

Murray was 13-of-25 for 199 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. He ran it for a team-best 88 yards on 21 carries and two scores. Lytle caught eight balls for 167 yards and two touchdowns.

Notes: Garden City has now outscored their opponents 35-0 in the second quarter of games this year…Koster is now 106 yards from tying Greyson Tempel for second on the all-time rushing list…Garden City now leads the all-time series with Great Bend 35-28…Great Bend became the first team all season to crack 300 total yards against the Buffalo defense (316)…The Panthers were just 2-of-13 on third down…The Buffaloes forced four turnovers bringing their season total to nine (They’re plus-3 for the year)…Brian Hill passed Faye Henson for fourth all-time on the career wins list (32-21 overall)…Great Bend has not started 3-0 since 2003 (Bo Black’s second season)…The win ended Great Bend’s two game winning streak in Garden City (Brian Hill is now 3-3 all-time vs. Great Bend)

Next up: Garden City at Hays-Friday, September 25-6 p.m. kpreps pregame; 6:30 p.m. pregame; 7 p.m. kick on 99.9 FM ESPN; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and tuneinradio: KWKR