With three fumble recoveries leading to 17 straight points in the fourth quarter, No. 11 Butler overcame a 14-point first-half deficit and pulled off a 34-27 comeback victory to stun No. 3 Garden City in Saturday's regular-season finale at BG Products Veterans Sports Complex.
The win put Butler (9-3 overall, 5-2 conference) back ahead of Garden in the all-time series (41-40-3) and snapped a four-game losing streak against the Broncbusters. More importantly, the victory potentially propels the Grizzlies into a bowl bid, as matchups will be announced in the next few days.
For Garden City (8-3, 5-2), who was held to a season-low 246 yards of offense, the defeat prevented a split with Independence for the Jayhawk Conference title and erased the Busters' hopes of a third national title appearance in four years.
Butler's season looked to be on the brink after last week's 23-13 road loss at Iowa Western, as the Grizzlies suffered multiple injuries, turned the ball over five times and managed a season-low 90 offensive yards. Down 17-3 midway through the first half, Butler again found itself against the ropes.
Making his first start at quarterback, third-string in-state freshman Nick Davenport sparked the Grizzly offense by throwing two touchdowns on just 107 yards with 5-of-13 passing. Davenport also caught a 10-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter from Ke'John Batiste on a trick play, as well as running in the eventual game-winning score on a 1-yard quarterback sneak with 5:10 remaining.
"He did a fantastic job," Butler head coach Tim Schaffner of Davenport. "When you come into the position he came in – being the third guy and taking over – you get the support of the team. The guys rallied around him and willed him to be successful. The energy was palpable on the sideline tonight. We knew we weren't going to be able to line up and run smashmouth and we weren't going to ask Nick to go out and be Dan Marino and throw the ball all over the place."
"We just wanted to find a good game-plan that suited me, that suited what our offense could do and I think we did a good job of that tonight," said Davenport.
In less than a seven-minute span, Garden fumbled its title chances away on three consecutive possessions in Butler territory. The Broncbusters had lost just eight turnovers on the season and had a +13 turnover margin coming into the game.
"(Garden has) been really good of taking care of the football," Schaffner said. "We felt like our best chance to win the game was getting turnovers, and then we knew we had to have a couple of gadget trick plays."
The Grizzly fourth-quarter rally started at the 12:08 mark when Shareal Taylor recovered a muffed punt by Garden's Troy'Von Johnson at the Busters' 17-yard line.
Following the turnover, the Grizzlies converted a 3rd-and-6 for a first down as Davenport completed a pass at the marker to Batiste. On the next play, Davenport threw his second touchdown of the night with a 7-yard pass to Daymonn Sanchez. Davenport made a sideline throw on the run to Sanchez, who slipped to avoid a defender at the Garden 6, cut back to the inside and dove into the end zone for the score.
Butler regained possession just four plays into the Broncbusters' next drive, as quarterback Nate Cox lost the football while being spun around on a Wali Sabree sack. The ball was knocked free by the foot of Derick Newton, who slipped on the ground while Sabree closed in for the tackle. Charlie Gray recovered the loose ball at the Garden 29-yard line.
The Grizzlies only advanced the ball one yard on the ensuing drive, but Jacob Abel cleared a career-long 45-yard field goal to tie the game at 27-27 with 7:28 to play.
Another fumble followed by a return set up Butler's game-winning score, as Tru'Self Cooper jarred the ball loose from Garden's Bryce Parker at the Grizzly 35-yard line. Parker ran upfield after catching a rollout pass from Cox before being blindsided by Cooper. Kway'Chon Chisom picked up the ball at the 37 and returned the fumble down to the Garden 4-yard line.
A personal foul moved the ball to the 2-yard line, but the Grizzlies failed to move the ball following runs by Adarius Thomas and Davenport on the first two plays. Thomas was stopped short of the goal line on third down, setting up 4th-and-goal just inside the 1.
Instead of kicking the short field goal to take a three-point lead, Butler elected to go for the touchdown, falling back on Garden City's offense would have to drive 99 yards against the Grizzly defense if the offense was denied. The gamble paid off as Davenport scored on a quarterback sneak, as he was helped into the end zone by tight end Rhett Weidenbacher.
"It was darn near inside the one," said Schaffner about the fourth-down decision. "I rode with (Davenport). I was thinking about taking the points, but I just felt that if we scored the touchdown… it's the same deal. It's tied up. If we don't get it, they have to go 99 yards. I didn't feel like they could do that. If we scored a touchdown, it would not only have an effect on the scoreboard, but it would affect our sideline as well, which I think it did."
Butler put Garden in good field position following the touchdown, as the Grizzlies were flagged for a facemask and unsportsmanlike conduct on the kickoff return. Garden came out throwing on the first play after starting from the Grizzly 36, with Busters receiver Maleak Bryant appearing to make a sliding reception inside the Butler 5-yard line. However, the pass was ruled incomplete.
The Busters' offense managed one first down to the Grizzly 21, moving the chains with a Cox 10-yard pass to MJ Link on 4th-and-5. Garden failed to advance the ball further, as Butler's defense recorded consecutive sacks before the Busters turned the ball over on downs. Sabree brought down Cox for the first sack on second down, then Newton and Sabree converged on a third-down sack to set up a 4th-and-24 from the Butler 35.
Chisom broke up a pass near the end zone on Garden's final offensive play with 2:16 left. Butler gained a first down courtesy of an offsides penalty, then ran out the clock to set off a Grizzly celebration.
Garden City built a 17-3 lead in the first half, scoring 17 straight following a Abel 31-yard field goal with 2:31 left in the opening quarter. The Busters answered Butler's score with a 46-yard touchdown pass from Cox to Deandre Wallace, then surprised the Grizzlies by recovering an onside kick at the Butler 28.
The onside recovery led to an Andre Dos Santos Aires 42-yard field goal for a 10-3 Garden lead. On Butler's next possession, Davenport threw an interception at the Grizzly 29. Garden City's Cox would complete consecutive 9-yard passes to Link, which led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Ellis Merriweather.
Butler punted back to Garden on the next possession, but Grizzly linebacker Woodly Appolon made an interception with a 30-yard return to the Busters' 40-yard line. Davenport followed with his first touchdown pass as a Grizzly on a 4th-and-1, as he faked a run up the middle and hit a wide-open Lane Lunt for a 31-yard score.
Garden would take a 20-10 lead into halftime, but Butler closed within three points on its second drive of the third quarter with a pair of gadget plays. Grizzly wide receiver Jesse Thomas took a handoff on a jet sweep play off the right side for 33 yards down to the Busters' 30 on the opening play of the possession, then Garden City committed a personal foul on a third-down incomplete pass to continue the drive.
Facing 3rd-and-5 from the Garden 10, Adarius Thomas took a direct snap and pitched backwards to Ke'John Batiste, who then hit Davenport with a pass right on the far sideline just inside the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown.
Garden pushed the lead back to 10 on the following drive, as the Broncbusters grinded out a 10-play, 47-yard drive capped by a Ramon Jefferson 3-yard touchdown run with 13:21 remaining in the contest. Butler was forced to punt on its next possession, where the first of three consecutive Garden fumbles occurred.
As one of the top rushing teams in the nation averaging 240 yards on the ground per game, Garden was limited to just 80 yards on 36 attempts – which was the Busters' second-lowest rushing output of the season. Garden outgained Butler 246-217 in total yardage, but four turnovers – including the three fourth-quarter fumbles – gave the Grizzlies short field to work with.
Adarius Thomas had 39 yards rushing on 14 carries to lead Butler, who finished with 100 yards on the ground. Jesse Thomas finished second on the night in rushing with his 33-yard run in the third quarter and Davenport had 16 rush attempts for 27 yards. George Qualls caught two passes for 63 yards to lead all Butler receivers.
Sabree led the Butler defense with nine tackles, while Newton and Chisom each had eight stops. Newton recorded three of the Grizzlies' five sacks and made five tackles for losses.
NOTES: Butler improves to 21-18-3 all-time vs. Garden City in games played in El Dorado. The Broncbusters had won the last two meetings in El Dorado. Prior to that, the Grizzlies had won 10 straight over Garden City at home… Schaffner matches his highest win total in a season as head coach, as he guided the Grizzlies to a 9-2 record during his first season in 2015.