As the game clock ran down to zero and the University at Buffalo clinched bowl eligibility, UB coach Lance Leipold thought about his player that wasn't gleefully leaping on the sideline with him.
UB defensive end Solomon Jackson died suddenly in 2016 following an offseason workout. His memory is draped all over the program. Jackson's No. 41 is painted on the field and worn by a player in his honor each season. It's difficult to avoid the ALL41 tagline in the football team's facilities.
"Those are the things that sometimes you think about when something really special happens, some of the people that aren't neccessarily there to be a part of it," a teary-eyed Leipold said. "Solomon wasn't here with us, but I know he was with us."
As the team celebrated earning bowl eligibility for the third time in program history and the first under Leipold, Jackson's father, Steve, was right there with them.
Included in those who heard Steve Jackson speak in the locker room after the game was Khalil Hodge, the man who made sure the mood was bright despite the painful memories. Hodge snagged an interception in the end zone with 1:20 remaining and the Bulls up, 31-24. Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke forced a pass into a congested area, allowing Hodge to tip the pass to himself and win a 50/50 ball with an Ohio receiver.
"No way he was snatching that from me," Hodge said.
His play sealed eligibility, but UB has to wait to see if it gets an invite to a bowl game. The MAC has a secured spot in four bowls -- the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Dollar General Bowl, the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl and the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. It is an alternate to the Quick Lane Bowl contingent upon either the ACC or Big Ten not having a qualifying team.
Acquiring one of the reserved MAC spots is an uphill climb for UB. Two of them will go to the division winners, Akron in the East and Toledo in the West. The remaining two or three will come from the additional five MAC teams with eligibility. Three have better records than UB. The Bulls are likely relying on other conferences not getting enough bowl eligible teams to fill their allotted spots.
Quarterback Tyree Jackson, wide receiver Anthony Johnson and Hodge all said they won't be scoreboard watching.
"I'm turning my phone off," Jackson said. "Hopefully we get a team text that we're going to a bowl."
By downing Bowling Green, Ball State and Ohio, UB ended the season with three straight wins for the first time since jumping to the Division I-A level in 1999.
"After the Akron game, it was a playoff setting," Jackson said. "Everyone sort of counted us out toward the end of the season."
UB's chances for bowl eligibilty looked strong after an impressive first quarter. The Jackson to Johnson connection was clicking, combining for touchdowns of 31 and 54 yards. Jackson put up 168 yards on an efficient 8 of 11, while Johnson had 120 yards to lead the Bulls to a commanding 24-7 lead at the first break.
Ohio slowly chipped away at the lead with the wind at its back in the middle quarters, eventually tying the game at 24 on a 57-yard pass from Rourke to Cameron Odom with 53 seconds remaining in the third.
K.J. Osborn jumpstarted the Bulls' sputtering offense in the fourth, returing a punt 38 yards to Ohio's 5-yard line. Emmanuel Reed ran in the eventual game-winning touchdown from the 1-yard line with 8:10 remaining in the game.
Once the Bulls thwarted Ohio's final comeback effort, UB players showered Leipold in Gatorade. It's been a while since the third-year coach, who won five Division III titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater, had a moment like this.
"He deserves it," Jackson said. "He's took a lot of heat from a lot of people. He's always believed on us and loved on us. To see him that excited, it meant a lot to all of us."