INDEPENDENCE, Kan. — Five turnovers - including a key 100-yard interception return for a touchdown - doomed #4 Butler in a 49-20 road loss at Independence Saturday night at Shulthis Stadium.
The defeat was the second in as many contests for Butler (5-2 overall, 3-2 conference), but also damaged the Grizzlies' chances to be in the national title hunt. Butler entered Saturday's contest with a potential inside track to the title game as both No. 3 East Mississippi and top-ranked Hutchinson suffered losses.
Instead it was Independence (3-2, 2-2) continuing the trend of Top 5 upsets this week, as the Pirates scored 28 points off Butler turnovers - with two interceptions returned for scores.
Butler fell behind 14-0 after one quarter, yet pulled within one point midway through the second quarter behind three Independence fumbles. The Pirates would recover to score 21 straight points and led 35-13 late in the third quarter before the Grizzlies attempted a late comeback try.
Down 35-20, Butler looked to pull within one possession while driving deep into Independence territory, but a back-breaking 100-yard interception return by Pirates linebacker Tyrice Knight ended any hopes of a Grizzly victory.
Independence's opening score came off an interception during the Grizzlies' second drive of the game, as Butler quarterback Jack Samsel was hit while attempting to pass. Pirate lineman Nadame Tucker plucked the loose ball out of the air and returned it 36 yards untouched for the score.
Two drives later, Samsel was picked off by Indy's Knight, who returned to the ball to the Butler 11-yard line. Three plays later, Pirates quarterback Stephon Brown jumped over the pile for a 1-yard score to give Independence a 14-0 lead with 1:51 remaining in the opening quarter.
Butler benefited from three straight Indy fumbles, with all three giving the Grizzlies possession in red zone territory. Despite recovering the turnovers, the Grizzlies managed just 13 points – getting two Jacob Abel field goals and an Brock Sturges 9-yard touchdown run.
The first two Pirate fumbles occurred on special teams, as Indy's Denzel Houston muffed a punt which was recovered by Hunter Armijo at the Pirates 20-yard line. Butler managed one first down as the drive stalled at the Indy 4, setting up a 22-yard Abel field goal for the Grizzlies' first points.
On Butler's kickoff, Independence returner Teon Dollard had the ball bounce off his facemask, allowing JaQuez Durham to easily grab the loose ball after running downfield. Abel booted another field goal from 34 yards out, but a Pirate personal foul extended Butler's drive to the 9-yard line. Sturges then scored from nine yards out running off left tackle for his eighth rushing touchdown of the season.
Down 14-10, Butler recovered its third fumble when Brown failed to secure a high snap out of the shotgun formation. Grizzly linebacker Charlie Gray recovered the ball, which led to an Abel 43-yard field goal and pulling Butler within one with 6:46 before the break.
Independence responded with two long plays – a 35-yard pass from Brown to Raekwon Heath and a 42-yard Morgan Ellison run – to set up a 7-yard Ellison touchdown and extend its lead to 21-13. Butler punted on its next possession, but an errant snap went past Taiten Winkel for a 23-yard loss to the Grizzly 15 and Indy cashed in two plays later with a Dollard 2-yard rushing score.
Independence padded its lead to 35-13 midway through the third quarter following an errant Winkel punt that landed out of bounds at midfield. The Pirates moved the chains with a 16-yard pass from Brown to Quentin Moore on 3rd-and-11, then Brown connected with Anthony Duffy for 29 yards to the Butler 6. Three plays later, Brown threw an 8-yard scoring pass to Nathaniel Dell.
Butler battled back with a Samsel 17-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Ziegler. Sturges opened the drive with a 40-yard run to the Indy 37, then Adarius Thomas added an 11-yard run for a first down on 3rd-and-2. On 3rd-and-9 from the Pirate 17, Ziegler snuck behind the Independence secondary down the left side and caught a Samsel pass in stride for the score with 1:55 left in the third quarter.
Following an Indy punt, Butler appeared determined to close the deficit to one possession. Sturges had runs of 8, 2 and 12 to begin the drive, then Thomas busted loose for a 39-yard run to the Indy 3. On second down, Samsel targeted George Qualls on an inside slant, but the ball deflected right to Knight for a 100-yard touchdown with 10:22 remaining.
Independence would add another touchdown off a Butler interception, as Dollard capped the scoring with a 30-yard dash into the end zone.
Butler, who outgained the Pirates 413-386, racked up a season-high 261 yards on the ground. Thomas had a season-best 148 yards on 19 carries, while Sturges added 138 rushing yards on 26 carries and went over the 100-yard plateau for the third time this season.
Samsel completed just 11-of-28'passes for 152 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions. Qualls led Butler with four receptions for 73 yards.
Butler will look to end a two-game skid with a home non-conference matchup against Air Force Prep next Saturday. Kickoff from BG Products Veterans Sports Complex is at 7:30 p.m.
NOTES: Independence has won two of the last four meetings with Butler, who maintains a 54-26-3 lead in the series… Indy's 29-point victory is the largest over Butler since a 51-23 win back on Oct. 28, 1978… Butler had two 100-yard rushers in the same game since Makiya Caesar (157) and Ja'Kevious Vickers (111) achieved the feat at Dodge City on Sept. 22 last year… The 49 points allowed matches a team-high under head coach Tim Schaffner. Butler gave up 49 points in a 49-7 road loss at Iowa Western on Sept. 16, 2016.