UB comes up short in MAC Title game, falls to NIU

Northern Illinois stuns the Bulls with a second half comeback to win the conference championship

Jon Simon
December 01, 2018 - 1:30 am

Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports

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The UB football team played in their first MAC Championship game in over a decade on Friday night. Unfortunately for the Bulls, they came up short at Ford Field in Detroit, falling to the Northern Illinois Huskies in heartbreaking fashion 30-29.

It was a tale of two halves for the Bulls. The offense came out swinging early in the game, scoring a touchdown on their first three drives and adding a field goal on the fourth.

The Bulls rushing attack was a big part of their early success. Kevin Marks got the first touchdown of the game for UB, and would finish with 72 yards on 17 carries. Jaret Patterson broke the UB freshman record for rushing yards in a season during the game; he finished the night with 72 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown.

Tyree Jackson used his legs quite a bit in the first half too. Between Jackson, Patterson and Marks, UB racked up 144 rushing yards in the first half. Oddly enough, the Bulls offense was as balanced as one could be and finished with 144 passing yards in the first half as well.

The Bulls offensive line did a nice job holding off the MAC’s No. 1 pass rushing defense this season in NIU. And after a so-so start, Jackson really settled in and started making some nice throws.

Anthony Johnson made his presence felt early. NIU’s defensive backs were hit with pass interference calls twice on balls thrown to Johnson on the first couple drives. The senior receiver was able to haul in two touchdown catches, both in the second quarter. Johnson’s first score was 13-yard touchdown catch on the first play of the second quarter. His second touchdown was on a 26-yard pass from Jackson about 10 minutes later.

One thing that came back to bite UB was the play after Johnson’s first touchdown. Backup kicker Alex McNulty missed the extra point, leaving the score at 13-0. After their third score, UB would go for two and fail to convert. If UB would’ve gotten those two points, who knows how the game would’ve ended up playing out.

Special teams have been an issue for UB all year, especially kicking. But, it was still strange that usual starter Adam Mitcheson, the program’s all-time leader in scoring, was not starting after he had all season.

For a while though, it didn’t seem like the missed extra point would matter. The Bulls took a 22-10 lead into the locker room after Mitcheson came into the game and nailed a 24-yard field goal right before the end of the first half.

The Bulls continued to look strong at the start of the third quarter. After receiving the opening kick of the second half, UB marched down the field again and Patterson’s nine-yard rushing touchdown put them up 29-10 just 3:30 into the third quarter.

UB punted for the first time with about seven minutes left in the third quarter, shortly after Tatum Slack intercepted a ball over thrown by NIU quarterback Marcus Childers and gave the ball back to the Bulls deep in their own territory.

Oddly enough, the game took a complete 180-degree turn after the forced turnover by UB.

The Husky pass rush finally woke up and the 2018 MAC Defensive Player of the Year Sutton Smith sacked Jackson at the UB two-yard line on the ensuing drive. The Bulls were able to get away from their own end zone but the drive didn’t end well, Jackson was sacked two more times before UB had to punt from their own five. Before the drive had started, Jackson had yet to be sacked in the game.

NIU capitalized on their defense’s resurgence and scored a touchdown with 17 seconds left in the third quarter on a 28-yard pass from Childers to D.J. Brown, cutting into the UB lead and making it 29-17 going into the final frame.

The momentum continued to shift in the Huskies’ favor in the fourth quarter. Jackson and the UB offense went cold and the NIU front seven continued to cause problems for the Bulls offensive line.

“The down and distance situations and third-and-longs are what allowed [NIU] to pin their ears and get after us,” Bulls head coach Lance Leipold said post-game. “They caused some problems and had some sacks. Those are the things they did that prevented us from stopping their comeback.”

Childers got his second touchdown pass of the game on a 35-yard throw that found Spencer Tears in the end zone, making the score 29-24. The go-ahead score came with 1:09 left on a 30-yard pass to Brown. The Huskies went up 30-29 and attempted to go for two but failed, giving UB a chance to win with a field goal.

To NIU’s credit, they played an outstanding second half. They made all the right adjustments on defense and found a rhythm on the offensive side of the ball. Childers completed 12 of 19 passes for 172 yards in the final 30 minutes. The red-shirt sophomore finished the night 21/33 with 300 passing yards. He also led the Huskies in rushing with 58 yards on 15 carries.

While everything began to go right for NIU, everything went wrong for UB. The defense wasn’t getting the timely stops they were in the first half and the offense couldn’t find a way to help them out. After scoring on their first five possessions of the game, the Bulls would end up punting on their next five drives.

Despite the rough stretch in the second half, the Bulls had one last shot to redeem themselves and come out with a win. The offense came back on to the field with 1:09 left and after a 20-yard catch and run from K.J. Osborn got ball to the Bulls 45-yard line, it looked like a game-winning drive was unfolding before the crowds eyes.

After a pass interference call put UB at the NIU 41-yard line, the Husky defense really tightened up. Jackson would throw four-straight incomplete passes and NIU would take over on downs and kneel the clock out en route to victory.

The finish was certainly a heart-breaking one for the Bulls. For a team that had fought so hard to get to the conference title game, it was tough to see a win slip through their hands the way it did.

“It’s a blessing to be on this team,” Tyree Jackson said after the game. “It’s a blessing to be with these coaches and players. It’s tough man. It’s tough when you see your brothers like that. It’s a sad locker room, but I’m proud to play for this team and for Buffalo. I’m proud for all of it.”

“This entire year we waited for this moment and it definitely hurts,” Bulls senior linebacker Khalil Hodge said. “But, the guys in that locker room, we’re a family and we’re going to find a way to get through it. To be a part of this group means a lot. This locker room isn’t like any other team’s, that’s why this is going to sting for so long. But going back to Buffalo, I’m definitely going to be proud.”

Regardless of Friday night’s finish, this 2018 team is still one of, if not, the best UB has ever had. They have a record of 10-3 and will now sit and wait to see where they’ll play the program’s first bowl game since 2013.

“This team still has the opportunity to do something this program has never done before, and that’s win a bowl game,” Leipold said. “When we find out who we play, we’ll have an opportunity to prepare for that.”

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