There was no mistaking the neophytes in the crowd of 21,719 at UB Stadium Saturday afternoon. They were the ones making for the exits when Army's Colin Mooney busted off an 81-yard touchdown run to give the Black Knights a 14-point lead late in the third quarter.
But the regulars among the fifth-largest crowd in University at Buffalo history? They knew from experience that Mooney's unimpeded gallop was merely the prelude to the drama destined to unfold.
Heroes abounded after the Bulls' 27-24 overtime victory -- the third straight home game decided on the final play and the fourth walk-off finish in UB's last five games overall. The fumble linebacker Justin Winters forced late in the fourth quarter proved pivotal, as was Kendrick Hawkins' recovery and 24-yard return. Place-kicker A.J. Principe delivered twice from medium length under pressure, nailing the tying extra point following a celebration penalty and converting a 35-yard field goal when the offense stalled in the extra session. Safety Davonte Shannon returned to the monster form of his freshman year, accounting for an astounding career-high 20 tackles.
However, the enduring images from this comeback are those of quarterback Drew Willy and wideout Ernest Jackson hooking up time and again in crucial situations, revitalizing a passing game that had slipped into dormancy since halftime of last week's excruciating overtime loss to Western Michigan.
Willy's as tough as they come, and good thing too, because lately his offensive line seems set on testing his resolve and durability. Protection crumbled in the second half against Western Michigan, and for the most part it was equally inept against Army. The Black Knights sacked Willy five times and frequently forced him to flee the pocket. The confident rhythm the senior quarterback had shown through the first four games disappeared, and radically so.
Even when granted the luxury of time, Willy pressed, as if thinking he had to make the most of a rare moment in the comfort zone. Late in the third quarter he skipped a simple 15-yard throw 5 yards short of intended receiver Naaman Roosevelt. Beyond ugly is what that was, more than a wee a bit embarrassing, and Willy seemed to sense it, too. Because beginning with the very next play, pressure or no pressure, the steady, unruffled Willy of old returned.
A bullet of a pass on third-and-20 found Jackson on a slant good for a 32-yard gain. Willy followed that up by connecting on one of his favorite throws, a deep left sideline route, this one into the hands of Naaman Roosevelt at the Army 4. It was evident that Willy was getting his swagger back, a development that became all the more important when Mooney's long TD run reinstated Army's 14-point lead.
The fourth quarter belonged to Willy and Jackson, the wideout who'd been unnaturally quiet since his kickoff return for a touchdown against Missouri three games earlier. Willy completed 13 of 18 fourth-quarter passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns. Jackson had five receptions and a touchdown in the quarter, producing 83 of his career-high 134 receiving yards. Roosevelt contributed three of his six catches and added a TD as well.
"We know Willy is a good quarterback," Army coach Stan Brock said. "He bought himself some time. The receivers did a better job of getting open. We continued to put pressure on them but we didn't get to them like we needed to."
What does this victory mean for the Bulls? Just about everything from a confidence standpoint. They played without starting tailback James Starks (turf toe), and lost one of his backups, Mario Henry, to a knee injury. The defense yielded 320 yards on the ground, a positive development only in that it's typically ravaged through the air. The remainder of the schedule pits the Bulls exclusively against the Mid-American Conference East, with a division title still within reach. But you'd have to wonder at the likelihood of such a occurrence had they hit the most meaningful part of the season with a four-game losing streak in tow.
As for Army, the program's finally getting its legs back. Quarterback Chip Bowden's elevated the triple-option run attack. Mooney's a load and a half. If the Black Knights can protect the football -- they fumbled five times Saturday, losing one -- they might find themselves with a chance in the one game that truly defines their season: Dec. 6 against Navy, the archrival they haven't beaten in six straight tries.