The inside track for the Kansas Jayhawk Conference title and a berth into the NJCAA football championship game is on the line at noon Saturday at Gowans Stadium when No. 1 and host Hutchinson and No. 2 Butler square off.
It is the second time in history the two familiar foes have met as the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked junior-college football teams in the country, as No. 1 Butler defeated No. 2 Hutchinson, 28-0, en route to a national title game appearance in 2010.
Both sides know what is at stake on Saturday and that has only escalated an already-intense rivalry between the two Jayhawk powers. But that hasn’t prevented Butler coach Tim Schaffner and Hutchinson coach Rion Rhoades from trying to downplay the No. 1 vs. No. 2 angle of the showdown to their own teams.
“When you start to factor in the rankings, it makes it really exciting for the fans,” Schaffner said. “To our guys, this is why they come to our program to play in games like this. They’re very aware of it, but it’s also not the last game of the season. It’s just one step toward our goal. It’s an important game, but mostly because it’s our next game.”
“I love being a part of any big game, whether it’s Hutch-Butler or Hutch and somebody else,” Rhoades said. “It doesn’t really matter to me who the other team is. But for it to be Butler, I think this is great for junior college football and great for the Kansas Jayhawk Conference. But for us specifically, our team is treating this as just the next game. We prepare every week like it’s our Super Bowl.”
That formula has worked this season to restore each program as a national title contender.
Butler has finished 23-12 the past three seasons; still good, but not up to par to the annual title contender expectations of the program. This season the Grizzlies are off to a 5-0 start, including a win over then-No. 6 Snow, and have pummeled opponents 175-57.
Similarly, it’s taken Hutchinson some time to return as a national power after its standout 2014 season. The Blue Dragons have been a combined 26-20 the past four seasons, but are off to a 4-0 after back-to-back wins on the road over ranked opponents in Iowa Western and Fort Scott.
“I think they’re the the best team we’ve played up until this point and I think we’re the best team they’ve played to this point,” Rhoades said. “You know with Butler, they’re always going to do a great job with their defense. And that’s the side of the ball I’m most involved with and that’s been my calling card in this industry, so you probably get that feeling it could be (a defensive battle) because that is in both of our backgrounds.”
Hutchinson is led by sophomore quarterback Mark Wright, who has completed 61.5% of his passes for 709 yards and thrown for seven touchdowns to two interceptions. He’s also rushed for a team-best 289 yards and three more touchdowns.
Butler has a more balanced attack. Running back Brock Sturges has been dynamic on the ground, rushing for 605 yards on 6.2 yards per carry and seven touchdowns, while quarterback Steven Frank has thrown for 1,023 yards and eight touchdowns.
Both defenses featured standouts and future Division I players, but Butler will have to find an answer for a Hutchinson defense that has already produced 20 sacks in four games. Latrell Bankston has eight sacks alone, while linebacker Lavar Gardner has a team-best 36 tackles and three sacks.
But it’s not the offensive or defensive phase of the game that both coaches are focused on winning on Saturday. Schaffner and Rhoades both claim that the winner will not only win the turnover battle, but also the kicking game. And neither side can feel too confident entering, as Butler has missed four of eight field goal attempts and Hutchinson has missed four of seven.
“The kicking game can be overlooked, but I feel like it might be the most important phase when two good teams like this get together,” Schaffner said. “We’re going to have to be fundamentally sound on both offense and defense, but the kicking game could swing things.”
“I think in any big game where there’s two good teams playing each other, it usually comes down to three or four plays that make the difference,” Rhoades said. “You never know when those plays might happen, but I do have a feeling that the kicking game will play a big part in it.”