By Budd Bailey
The comparison is almost uncanny.
The University at Buffalo football team had one of the great up-and-down seasons in its history. It started painfully, then had a series of successes, followed a period of near-hopelessness. Then, out of almost nowhere, all became well in the final moments as the Bulls reached their season’s primary goal.
That also describes UB’s final game of the season. The Bulls earned their magic sixth win by defeating Akron, 23-22, at UB Stadium on Friday afternoon. Buffalo’s victory means it will be headed somewhere for a bowl game. The destination will be determined on Sunday.
“Being a bowl-eligible team and going into the postseason is something to be recognized,” UB coach Maurice Linguist said. “Not a lot of teams achieve this moment. We’ve been to five or six bowl games in the 60 years of our program. To be one of those teams that is bowl-eligible is the next step for us.”
The difference in the game and the season turned out to be a 16-yard pass from UB’s Cole Snyder to Quian Williams with 1:15 to play. What appeared for much of the day to be a collapse for the ages turned out to be the happiest of endings.
“We talked about what was on the line,” Snyder said. “In those pressure situations, it’s all about executing your job, We saw a coverage out there, and put together a play.”
“I’m so proud of this team doing what was necessary,” Linguist said. “It’s not always going to be the prettiest, and not always going to be perfect, but you have to play a complete game. You have to know how to do things in the moment.”
It was a fitting climax for a season that always offered the unexpected. The Bulls lost their three games in ways that prompted visions of a meltdown. Then they won five straight to allow dreams of conference championships to appear. But then UB lost three straight, usually in discouraging ways, to end title talk and delay any celebration of bowl eligibility.
This figured to be a slightly spooky contest. The UB-Akron matchup originally was scheduled for November 19, but was snowed out. The Mid-American Conference didn’t want any competition among its members for Saturday’s championship game. The contest couldn’t be played on Sunday, as those trying to work out the postseason bowl schedule needed everything to be settled the day before.
That left a Friday afternoon starting time for the contest. In other words, classes were in full session a few hundred feet away from the stadium while the game was going on. The odd scheduling left UB Stadium more or less empty, since it’s hard to get off work or school on short notice on a Friday. In other words, social distancing was not a problem.
Akron came into the game with 2-9 record, and had zero at stake. Still, no one told the Zips that they were supposed to lie down. They completely dominated the first quarter of play, to the tune of 130 total yards for Akron to minus-1 for the Bulls. After less than 18 minutes of play, the Zips held a 16-0 lead … and if truth be told, it could have been much worse.
“The biggest thing was just our mindset,” Snyder said. “I don’t think we came out came out ready to play, honestly, and we need to do a better job of that.
Finally, UB moved the ball a bit in the second quarter. Alex McNulty kicked a 43-yard field goal, and Snyder hit Justin Marshall with a 38-yard scoring pass. The Bulls were within 16-10 at halftime – but that wasn’t good enough.
“I thought our team played as poorly in the first half collectively as I’ve seen,” Linguist said. “Our defense kept us within striking distance. We didn’t play our brand of football. We did things that we don’t do, like drop a punt. We have great ball security in our program. We did some things that were uncharacteristic of us.”
The situation improved even more for UB in the third quarter. Snyder and Marshall teamed up again from six yards away, and Buffalo had a 17-16 lead. But nothing was going to come that easily for UB in this particular game or season. Clyde Price III ran it in from 17 yards to put Akron ahead 22-17. And when Tyson Durant of the Zips intercepted a pass with less than four minutes again, it seemed like a good time to start writing the obituary to the Bulls’ season.
“We saved the timeouts on purpose for the end,” Linguist said. “We were going to have to score on offense no matter what. So (a few minutes before the interception), we started to talk about getting our plays together and knowing what to do.”
Then the Governor called with a stay of execution – in the form of a Price fumble on Akron’s first play of the drive. Jaylon Bass recovered for UB, which had the ball on its own 40. On the Bulls’ eighth play, Snyder threw the pass to Williams that put them in the lead.
Buffalo finally was allowed to relax when Marlon Fuqua intercepted an Akron pass with about a minute left. “That’s who we are,” Fuqua said. “We knew we had that mindset, to finish. Everybody’s seeing it now.”
Two victory formations later, the Bulls could pack for … well, somewhere. The Mid-American Conference has alliances with a few bowls, but trying to figure out who goes where is quite complicated.
No matter. UB is happy to have one more game on the schedule. The one who might be most curious about the destination is, oddly enough, the wife of coach Mo Linguist, Stacey.
“We had a golf tournament over the summer, and I told the golfers – the alumni – that we had our third child on the way,” he said. “I said that wherever that bowl destination was, that was going to be the name of the baby. So let’s see what happens, although I don’t think Stacey’s going to let me to do that.”
Boise Linguist? Mobile Linguist? Orlando Linguist? We’ll find out Sunday.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)