(Photo Courtesy of Buffs Athletics)
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Garden City, KS (westernkansasnews.com)-Brian Hill has accomplished a lot of things during his six seasons as Buffaloes’ Head Coach: two state-semifinal appearances in 6A; an upset-win over Hutchinson in 2013; grooming quarterback Greyson Tempel, who compiled one of the greatest-statistical seasons in school history in 2013; conference titles and winning seasons in four out of his previous five years. But there was still one thing missing on his resume: an opening-night “W”.
It isn’t anymore.
Quarterback Jesse Nunez notched his fourth-career 100-yard rushing game, carrying the ball 22 times for 141, and the defense forced five turnovers as Garden City won a week-one contest for the first time since 2009, beating Olathe East 28-16 Friday night at Buffalo Stadium.
“It was a good night,” Hill said afterwards. “As I told our kids: it was a collective effort all the way around. When we got together this summer, this was what we were aiming for.”
Aesthetically pleasing it wasn’t, but when you haven’t won a season opener in six years, the Buffaloes will take it.
And considering how things started; with Garden City’s offense sputtering on their opening drive, the sequence of events could not have worked out any better.
After stalling at the Hawks’ 37 early in the first quarter, Peyton Hill punted away to Zac Cahill, who was standing back inside the 10-yard line. But as he signaled for a fair catch, the ball bounced off of his hands, and Christhian Correas recovered at the Olathe East 3. Three plays later, Nunez plunged in from a yard out to give the Buffaloes a 7-0 lead.
“We took advantage of those opportunities,” Hill said. “And we had a lot of them.”
The Hawks responded with an eight-play, 80-yard march that was capped off with slot back Braden Wingate’s 43-yard dash to paydirt down the left sideline. But Gabe Otero blocked Clayton Augustine’s extra point and Garden City led 7-6.
It was all Buffaloes from there.
21 unanswered points, fueled by three Olathe East turnovers broke the game open.
Following Nunez’s second rushing touchdown of the first quarter: a four-yard sprint that finished off a 10-play, 61-yard drive and gave Garden City (1-0) a 14-6 advantage, the Buffaloes defense went for the kill.
When Hawks’ senior quarterback Connor O’Malley dropped back to pass on third-and-14 from his own 33, he expected his fullback Alex Conley to clear into the flat for what was supposed to be a routine screen. But the Buffalo front, spearheaded by junior linebacker Zeke Herrera, never allowed the play to develop. Herrera charged into the backfield, bear hugged O’Malley, knocked the ball out, and Jose Correas recovered at the Olathe East 18.
“Our defense was outstanding tonight,” Hill said. “They made plays. They played to their assignments.”
Less than two minutes later, the strip sack paid huge dividends when Ethan Yardley darted in from five yards out. Herrera added the extra point, and Garden City had a 21-6 cushion.
After the teams exchanged punts, the Hawks got the ball back at their own 20 late in the second quarter. But on second-and-9, Conley put the ball on the ground, and the Buffaloes recovered at the Olathe East 24.
That setup the most spectacular play of the night.
Staring a third-and-7 from the Hawks 21, Hill called for a little trickery. Nunez ran left on a zone-option read, but instead of keeping it, he flipped it back to Yardley, who sprinted right, followed a devastating block from (Peyton) Hill and stampeded into the end zone. Herrera’s extra point pushed the Garden City lead to 28-6.
“We did the things we needed to do to win,” Hill said. “These guys put in too much work during the summer for it not to pay off.”
But it wasn’t without mistakes. Three times in the second half, the Buffaloes put the ball on the ground. One of those was by Yardley early in the fourth that led to a Brett Kelsh 11-yard touchdown run. The Hawks added a two-point conversion to cut the Garden City lead to 28-14 with 5:47 to go.
“We left a lot of points out there,” Hill explained. “Three turnovers; that’s a killer.”
The last of those came on the Buffaloes next possession when Nunez, who was trying to milk the clock while protecting the football, was stripped and Ben Waldron pounced on it for Olathe East.
But any hopes of a miracle comeback were quickly dashed when Otero picked off O’Malley’s wobbly spiral and returned it 20 yards to the Hawks 36.
“Our defense made plays,” Hill said. “When we needed one, they came up big.”
That unit stymied the Hawks and held them to just 230 yards of offense. O’Malley was only 2-of-5 passing for 30 yards and a pick. Kelsh led the way for Olathe East on the ground with 72 yards on eight carries. He also had the team’s longest reception of 28 yards.
On the other side, Nunez finished 4-of-10 for 52 yards, 21 of those coming on a third-down completion early in the first half. He carried the ball 22 times for 141 yards and two scores. Koster had 14 totes for 46 yards and Yardley four for 18 with two touchdowns and two catches for 35.
Notes: The five turnovers forced are the most in a game since November 8, 2013 vs. Wichita Northwest when they had five takeaways in a 40-36 upset win in the opening round of the 6A playoffs…Koster is now three yards shy from passing Jerrell Phannenstial for fifth on the school’s all-time rushing list (1934 career yards)…This was Garden City’s first opening-night victory since beating Ulysses 30-6 on September 4, 2009
Next up: Garden City at Maize-Friday, September 11-6:30 p.m. pregame; 7 p.m. kick on 99.9 ESPN Radio; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr; mobile app: KWKR and tuneinradio: KWKR