Story by: Kalon Fullerton
The Butler Grizzlies capped off their most successful season since 2019 with their 17th bowl victory, ending the first year of the Brice Vignery era with a 28-24 victory over the Kilgore Rangers.
The Grizzlies overturned a 17-7 halftime deficit, outscoring the Rangers 21-7 in the second half to seal the victory. It was the defense and the special teams that propelled the Grizzlies in the second half. Mason Thrash, in his final game of a legendary three year career, blocked a punt and forced an interception that both led to touchdowns. Thrash would earn Heart of Texas Most Valuable Player for his efforts, polishing off an incredible super sophomore year. Aaron Woods recovered the blocked punt in the end zone to give the Grizzlies the lead that they would not give up.
The Grizzlies were able to win the game despite producing only 188 yards of offense. Azhuan Dingle, in his final game as a Grizzly after a first team all conference season, produced nearly all of Butler's offense. He carried the ball 30 times for 165 yards, with a 34 yard trot and a touchdown to his name. He finished his season with 1,195 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. His touchdown on Saturday passed Butler running back coach Dreamius Smith and matched him with Scott Schriner on the all time list for rushing touchdowns in a season, and he'll end his sophomore season tied for sixth in the program's history for rushing touchdowns in a single season.
It was the defense that stole the show, however, particularly the super sophomore linebacker class that has defined Butler's defensive identity all season. Thrash, in addition to the key interception, finished with eight total tackles and a sack. Norman Massey, also in his final game as a Grizzly, led the team with 12 total tackles and one tackle for loss. Malik Berry also was key on the defensive side as he finished with a sack. The Grizzlies held the Rangers to just 3 of 12 on third downs and combined for three sacks as a team.
The Grizzlies finish the season with an 8-4 record, their best since 2019. The win against seventh ranked Kilgore is their third against a team ranked in the top 10 and their fourth against a ranked opponent this season. It's Butler's 17th bowl victory in their 30 bowl game appearances as a program, and the victory is the third consecutive bowl victory for the Grizzlies, with the last coming in a 33-23 win over Trinity Valley in the Midwest Classic Bowl in 2019. They remain undefeated as a program against Kilgore, winning all three games the two schools have played against each other, 2006 (26-0), 2007 (29-28), 2022 (28-24). The win is also the first time a team from Kansas has won the Heart of Texas Bowl since 2008 when Fort Scott defeated Blinn 30-14.