By Budd Bailey
“No lead is safe at a UB football game. No lead is safe at a UB football game. No lead …”
No, it’s not. We’ve learned that lesson often during the University at Buffalo’s 2022 season, with surprise wins and crushing losses popping up with amazing frequency. The latest example came on Saturday afternoon at UB Stadium.
The Bulls had a 24-10 lead over Kent State with less than six minutes left. That precious sixth win of the season, and the accompanying ticket to bowl eligibility, seemed almost inevitable.
But not with this team. Not now.
The Golden Flashes scored twice in those final minutes to tie the game at 24-24. Then Kent State spotted UB a field goal in overtime, and responded with a seven-yard pass from Tommy Ulatowski to Devontez Walker for a touchdown to take a 30-27 win.
The Bulls’ loss came 17 days after they couldn’t hold a 24-7 lead at Central Michigan. Before that, UB had rallied to shock Toledo and Miami (Ohio), but lost to Holy Cross on the last play of the game.
“I think it’s so easy to point to any single thing,” coach Mo Linguist of UB said about the team’s recent late game problems. “We’re playing competitive, Division I football. You have to battle, and you have to fight. We’ve had a couple of games when they were up in the air. We haven’t made the right calls as coaches, we haven’t made the right plays in critical moments to pull the game out. It’s just execution. Everyone wants a $50,000 answer, but it’s just about execution.”
“We have to understand in those situations that we have to keep fighting,” linebacker James Patterson said. “This one is on me. I let guys get too relaxed and have a little fun on the sideline. I have to tell guys to finish, finish, finish.”
It was easy to assume that this one was going the Bulls’ way before the final uprising. The teams were tied at 3-3 after the first quarter, and at 10-10 at halftime. But UB pulled ahead in the third quarter, and their method was a surprising one. They relied on the feet of backup quarterback Matt Myers. It had been a difficult season for the former starting quarterback before this game. He hadn’t thrown a pass all season. Then again, he hadn’t run the ball all season.
But the Bulls had noticed that Kent State might be vulnerable to runs by the quarterback. Myers would take the snap out of a shotgun formation, pick a hole, and run through it. It was such a simple approach that UB could have been wearing leather helmets because it was a throwback to the football of a century ago.
But it worked – again and again. And if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Myers finished the game with 109 yards rushing on 21 carries, and he scored three touchdowns along the way. Two of them came in the third quarter, and UB was 20 minutes away from packing for, well, somewhere during bowl season.
“It was talked about,” Myers said. “We put it this week, and it was part of the gameplan.”
But in the middle of the fourth quarter, Kent State went on an 11-play drive that covered 80 yards for a touchdown by Ja’Shaun Poke. Oddly, the Golden Flashes went for two after the score, and missed it. So it was a 24-16 game with 5:56 left.
UB earned one first down after the kickoff and then had to punt. Kent State had to go 76 yards in less than three minutes, and then pick up the two-point conversion to tie the game. KSU did it with a minute to spare. Cooper ran two yards for the touchdown, and Ulatowski – who was listed as the third-string quarterback before the game – passed to Poke to tie it at 24-24.
“They played a little bit harder,” linebacker Shaun Dolace said about the comeback. “When they had an injured quarterback, the backup was ready. I think they caught on to what we were doing defensively, and they wanted it more.”
From there, Linguist had a decision to make after winning the toss before overtime. Should he take the ball immediately, and give his defense a rest? Or should he let the Golden Flashes go first, giving his team an edge like a baseball team with the final at-bat in the bottom of the ninth? The coach went for the first option.
“If we have an opportunity to take the ball, the defense will know what it needs to have,” he said. “It’s all strategy and statistics. … It’s just a back-and-forth game. There are so many moments that you can point to.”
Any decision might have been fated for failure at that point, and Kent State came away with the win. It was a very impressive performance by the Golden Flashes under the circumstances. They came into the game at 4-7, with nothing to play for and too few fans in the stadium to generate any sort of emotion (Thanksgiving weekend and all). They easily could have packed up their season in the middle of the third quarter, but didn’t.
As for UB, the Bulls do have one more chance at a bowl game, and it will come Friday afternoon against Akron. That’s the game that was snowed out a week ago. The Bulls are lucky that the contest was rescheduled instead of cancelled; they’d have all winter to ponder the fact that they had three chances to reach the postseason and lost them all. Now they’ll get a fourth.
“We’ve got to prepare. That’s it,” Dolac said about what’s needed now. “We’ve got to take a look at the film and see what they did and fix that.”
It’s going to be an odd day at UB on Friday, since classes will be in session. Maybe someone can write out some permission slips for students to skip a class or two and supply some fan support. Then again, linebacker James Patterson points out that unusual schedules are part of the bargain for playing in the Mid-American Conference.
“When it comes to the MAC, you have to be ready for the odd type of schedule,” he said. “I think it’s really good, because it puts us in the best spotlight that the conference can have. We have something special that they (other conferences) don’t have – playing Tuesday, Wednesday and now. It’s a special date.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)