By Budd Bailey
Football is a game that can break hearts as well as bones. The difference is that hearts often taken longer to heal.
Such was the case on Wednesday night, when the University at Buffalo appeared to be on its way to a memorable victory that would keep its bowl hopes alive and give the team’s seniors one last moment of pride and triumph on their home field.
Instead, the Bulls dropped a 33-27 overtime decision to Northern Illinois that wasn’t merely devastating. It was almost cruel.
“It’s as draining as it can get,” UB quarterback Matt Myers said.
“We just didn’t make a play,” Bulls coach Mo Linguist said. “We can point to a number of things.”
Consider the particulars. The teams, who came into the game scoring and allowing an average of more than 30 points per game, played an uncharacteristic first half. They both scored 10 points, and both touchdowns were crammed into 12 seconds of play in the second quarter. The Huskies seemed to take control at the start of the second half, putting up 14 points in less than eight minutes.
And that’s where the game turned interesting.
A huge turnover
Senior Eric Black of UB not only sacked NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi, he stripped the ball as well. Black recovered the ball as well, giving his team the ball on the opposing 28 yard-line and adding a shot of adrenaline.
“I knew it was going to be a big play,” he said. “Obviously we thought they were going to pass it. I was trying to load up. I was able to get the edge on the tackle, and I tried to reach my arm as far as I could. I knew it would be a big play if I could make it.”
Ron Cook rambled 22 yards for a touchdown on the second play after that, and the Bulls were only trailing by 24-17. The Huskies went three-and-out on their next possession, and UB went 62 yards to score and tie the game. While Dylan McDuffie did most of the rushing (43 yards of his game total of 137 yards), the touchdown was scored on a 13-yard pass from Matt Myers to Cook.
Northern Illinois responded with a good drive of its own, picking up five first downs along the way. That set up a 27-yard field by John Richardson to put NIU up by 27-24 with 4:58 left. Buffalo answered with a drive of its own, but it stalled on the Huskies’ 37. With a fourth-and-10 with 1:10 left, the alternatives – kick or go – seemed equality futile. But a strong wind was at kicker Alex McNulty’s back, and he kicked a 55-yard field goal to set a school and stadium record.
“Those decisions were made two and a half hours before the game,” Linguist said. “You talk to Alex and ask, how do you feel? He said with the wind he felt good inside the 40, and against the win he felt really good inside the 20. (Earlier) we gave him an opportunity inside the 20 that fell just short, but we wanted to give him the opportunity. We had zero problem with sending him in there. That’s why we kept the ball on the ground, because we knew we were in field-goal range and didn’t want to risk a turnover.”
Northern Illinois still had time to win the game in regulation, and almost did so. The Huskies advanced the ball 55 yards, helped by a badly timed facemask penalty on UB. Still, a 38-yard field goal into that same wind was a bit of a reach, and Richardson couldn’t convert. Overtime.
On the first possession, UB relied on McDuffie for the most part as it advanced 24 yards toward the goal line. Then at the NIU 1, Myers and McDuffie couldn’t get together on the handoff and the ball came loose. Demond Taylor of the Huskies fell on the ball in the end zone, ending the UB threat.
“I made a mistake,” a downtrodden Myers said. “I didn’t look it in all the way. I’ve got to be better.”
You can feel what was coming next, but its suddenness was still surprising. Clint Ratkovich ran 25 yards around right end to the end zone (giving his team more than 300 rushing yards for the game), and Northern Illinois was a six-point winner. The Huskies (8-3) claimed the MAC West title with the victory, while UB fell to 4-7. The Bulls’ streak of five straight years of bowl eligibility came to a painful end.
“It’s really disappointing,” Black said. “We’ve gotten almost used to it, these last few years. But honestly, I’m really proud of the way we played. … I thought we left it all out there.”
Certainly, UB’s seniors deserved a better exit with that sort of record on their resumes. Their last year on campus was a difficult one, as they had to cope with a coaching change in the summer. That’s never an easy situation, but the effort they showed on Wednesday night – at a time when it might have been easy to roll over – reflects well on that group.
“I’m so proud of the seniors who have done so much for UB football,” Linguist said. “Some of the guys, it’s their fifth, sixth year. You see them so much, you almost take them for granted.”
The Bulls have one more game; it will be on November 23 at Ball State.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)