By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, UB knew the Bowling Green defense as well as the Falcons knew it themselves. The Bulls had a handle on when pressure was coming and where it was coming from. They had a good idea when the Falcons would feign blitz and drop into coverage. They were as ready as ready can be, downright brimming with confidence, that this time they owned the solutions to a puzzle that last year left them befuddled.
Yet despite all that knowledge acquired through first-hand experience and intensive study, the final exam once again proved a bear. A UB offense that rang up 30 or more points in eight straight games was roped and tied like a rodeo calf in a 24-7 Bowling Green victory good for the Mid-American Conference East crown.
Bowling Green spotted UB a 7-3 halftime lead and then played to season-long form. The Falcons came in having outscored opponents, 114-14, in the third quarter and by 185-49 in the second half. What transpired on this Black Friday at Ralph Wilson Stadium meshed with the script.
UB managed just four of its 10 first downs in the second half. It didn’t have a second-half series longer than five plays until the Falcons led, 17-7. The Bulls couldn’t run it and couldn’t pass it effectively enough to give a swarming defense pause. Quarterback Joe Licata was sacked five times, some due to line breakdowns, some while he held the ball looking for cracks in coverage.
“We had a great plan coming in,” Licata said. “We knew what they were going to do to us and we just didn’t execute. They didn’t fool us with anything. It just came down to them beating us. That’s a great football team. Our hats are off to them. They beat us today.”
Bowling Green’s front seven proved overpowering. The Falcons limited Branden Oliver, the top rusher among MAC running backs, to just 46 yards on 18 carries with a long of 9. It was a virtual repeat of a year ago, when UB was limited to 29 yards rushing in a 21-7 loss to the Falcons in Columbus.
“We saw that they like to run the ball so our plan was to just set the edge and to get off blocks,” said BG tackle Ted Ouellet (five tackles, two sacks). “Once we made them pass the ball we knew we could take advantage of that.”
“They whipped us up front,” UB head coach Jeff Quinn said. “I said it when we went into this game last year. We needed to play better up front and we didn’t do that. Give Bowling Green credit too. It wasn’t anything schematically. It was just the one-on-one match-ups that at times we had some breakdowns. They’re a credit defense. We knew it. But we see a great defense every day though. I thought we’d made a lot of progress. I expected us to move the ball better than what we did.”
So did his offensive line.
“They had great schemes,” lineman Trevor Sales said. “They’re a tough team. We knew what they were going to do for the most part when we started this game. We watched a ton of film of these guys. It’s not that we didn’t know what they were hitting us with. The game on the line comes down to one-on-one match-ups and the bottom line is they won those more than we did up front.”
The big game-changing plays belonged to the Falcons (9-3, 7-1). Quarterback Matt Johnson completed a 48-yard pass to tight end Alex Bayer that set up a 23-yard touchdown strike to Shaun Joplin with 8:07 left in the third quarter. UB went three-and-out its next series but came away in great shape when a Tyler Grassman punt pinned the Falcons at their 7. Get a quick stop and UB could well have started its next drive inside Falcons territory.
Instead, Johnson pulled off a sleight of hand so convincing he could have passed for David Blaine. Johnson faked a handoff to running back Travis Greene (129 yards) that put UB’s defense in misguided pursuit. The Bulls massed in the direction of Greene running left while Johnson, the ball still in hand, took off down the right side. He covered 56 yards before Derek Brim caught him from behind. Six plays later Greene scored on a 14-yard run and UB was mired in a daunting 10-point hole.
“At halftime we knew we could take control of the game as long as they didn’t score any more points, said UB linebacker Khalil Mack.
“We came into this game knowing that they had a good defense on the other side of the ball and we were going to try our best to keep their offense to limited points. Unfortunately it didn’t work out the way we planned.”
UB (8-4, 6-2) now awaits word on whether it’ll play in a bowl for the first time since 2008. Bids typically are extended upon completion of the conference championship games (a week from Sunday).
“It would be a great thing to get back out there with this great team,” said Mack, who has tied the NCAA FBS career record with 75 tackles for loss. “I’d be glad to get that chance to play with them again.”