Garden City, KS (westernkansasnews.com)-The year was 1986. Ronald Reagan was president; the Rolling Stones were touring the country; Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me was No. 1 at the box office, and the Chicago Bears and Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense had just won the franchise’s only Super Bowl title. It’s also the year Jerry Cullen directed Dodge City to a 6-4 finish. More importantly, it was the last time the Conquistadors had beaten Garden City in back-to-back years.
Until Saturday night that is. How’s that for some history?
Florida commit Mark Thompson ran for a career-best 201 yards while the defense and special teams combined to score 20 third-quarter points, as the Conquistadors overcame a 14-point second-half deficit to beat their arch rivals 40-35 at Broncbuster Stadium.
“Our guys at the end of the day, gave us a chance to win the game,” Garden City Coach Jeff Sims said afterwards. “They showed how athletic they are. They showed me how tough they are.”
All those attributes shined through during a sequence in the third quarter where the Broncbusters scored 14 points in less than two minutes. Freshman quarterback Jayru Campbell, who tossed four touchdown passes for the second straight week, connected with Jeff Thomas for an 18-yard score to give Garden City (1-1, 0-1) a 21-14 edge.
Moments later, after forcing Dodge City (2-0, 1-0) to go three-and-out, Lonnie Johnson knifed his way through the line and blocked Dillon Burkhard’s punt. The ball popped up into the air before Jeremy Faulk recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. But that play went much deeper than that; call it a premonition of sorts.
Earlier in the week, Sims told his players during a post-practice speech, that he believed the key to beating Dodge City was special teams. He was confident that they would have an opportunity to block a punt. Not that Sims will be reading palms when he retires from coaching, or taking a job as a hedge-fund manager, but the guy who has coached for three national titles was spot on.
The special teams score gave the Broncbusters a 28-14 cushion with 5:44 to play in the third quarter. Then the wheels fell off.
“We had that two-touchdown lead, and I should have called timeout,” Sims said afterwards. “That one is on me. That’s my fault. I have a young team, and I should have called it to settle them down. They were very emotional at that point.”
The Conquistadors answered resoundingly when Marquice Flowers promptly returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown. Then when Garden City got the ball back, Antwon Turnage, who was beaten earlier by Ben Phillips for a 41-yard touchdown, picked off a weary Campbell and returned it 20 yards to the end zone to tie the game at 28.
“I know where we messed up,” Sims explained. “I let them get the momentum back.”
On the Broncbusters next offensive possession, Campbell completed a pass to Felton Hatcher. But as the redshirt freshman turned up field, he was stripped of the ball. Linebacker Gary Johnson scooped it up and raced 15 yards for a touchdown.
When the flurry was over, Dodge City had erased a 14-point deficit and scored 20 unanswered points in a 90-second span to take a 34-28 lead with 4:22 to go in the third.
Campbell’s second interception of the night, which came at the hands of Ty Clark at the end of the period, set the Conquistadors up at midfield. True freshman quarterback Tommy Lazzaro then engineered a 10-play, 50 yard drive that ate up nearly six minutes of the fourth-quarter clock and ended with the Colorado native plunging into the end zone from three yards out. Dodge City missed out on the two-point conversion but led 40-28 with 12:02 to play.
“In the end, we were five points short,” Sims said afterwards. “It’s that simple. We have to do a better job.”
But when it seemed like the Broncbusters were dead in the water, Campbell bounced back. He connected with Thomas and Quincy Watts on back-to-back 30-yard pass plays. Then after Marquis Blair tackled the quarterback behind the line on first down-and goal, Campbell use a little improvisation on the next play, hitting Watts on a shovel pass for a nine-yard touchdown to pull Garden City to within five with 9:47 left.
“Our kids gave us everything they had,” Sims said. “They did everything we asked them to do.”
Garden City was afforded another opportunity when Burkhard pushed a 36-yard field goal to the left. But two plays later, Campbell forced a lob pass down the middle that was intercepted by Desmond Henderson.
Campbell finished the night 23-of-40 passing but misfired on 15-of-his final 30 throws. Yet, after Garden City’s defense forced a three-and-out near midfield, the freshman would get his chance to engineer a game-winning drive. And for 60 heart-stopping seconds, it appeared as if the magical ending that Broncbuster fans were clamoring for was playing out right in front of them.
With less than a minute to go and no timeouts, Campbell went to work. First he converted a fourth-and-one play with his legs. Then facing fourth-and-22 from his own 22, Campbell uncorked a bomb that Thomas miraculously snagged out of the air for 56 yards to the Conquistadors 22. It was almost David Tyree like minus the ball sticking to his helmet.
As the offense frantically raced to the line to spike the ball, thoughts of the Air Force Prep game two years ago flashed in the minds of Broncbuster fans everywhere. On that night, Akeem Jones, calmly directed Garden City down the field in the final seconds before hitting Brandon Snell for the game winner.
Fast forward 24 months and Garden City was 22 yards away from pulling off the same feat. And as Campbell’s second-down pass landed on Hatcher’s hands in the end zone, the crowd let out a scream of jubilation. But they quickly went quiet when Kyle Martin knocked the ball away at the last second to preserve Dodge City’s second straight victory over the Broncbusters.
“We were right there,” Sims said. “We made the plays, we just didn’t finish it.”
For all his trials and tribulations in the third and fourth quarters, Campbell enjoyed a stellar first half, completing 8-of-10 passes, two of those for scores. Twice in the first 30 minutes the freshman hooked up with Phillips: once for a 24-yard touchdown; the other a 41-yarder late in the second.
Thompson’s one-yard score and Lazzaro’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Christian Booker in the final minute of the first half, pulled Dodge City even going into the locker room.
Lazzaro had an uneven night at best, finishing 12-of-25 for 133 yards, one touchdown and one interception when he was victimized by Andrew Brown in the opening quarter. Booker added two catches for 23 yards and a score.
Despite suffering a lower-leg injury in the fourth, Thomas never missed time, catching seven balls for 190 yards and a touchdown. Phillips added four receptions for 82 yards and two scores.
Notes: Dodge City sacked Campbell seven times; the Broncbusters have now given up 16 sacks in their first two games (They allowed a conference-worst 51 last year)…It’s Dodge City’s first 2-0 start in more than 30 years…Dodge City ran 14 more plays than Garden City (75-61) and held the ball for 11 minutes longer (35:00 to 24:00)…Garden City turned it over four times in the final 30 minutes…The five points separating the two teams was only the second time in the last eight meetings that game was decided by single digits…It’s the first time in his career that Jeff Sims has lost a game to Dodge City (4-1)…Garden City was just 3-of-12 on third down; Dodge was 6-of-16…Garden City was held to minus-74 yards rushing
Next up: Garden City vs. Ellsworth-Saturday, September 12-12:30 p.m. pregame; 1 p.m. kick on 99.9 ESPN Radio; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and tuneinradio: KWKR