Western Michigan's rally ended with Branden Ledbetter celebrating in the end zone and the majority of the University at Buffalo players with their heads staring into the sky trying to figure out what happened.
The gesture captured the Bulls' emotional state as a 14-point lead with just over five minutes remaining slipped away and Ledbetter's touchdown reception was the final blow in a heartbreaking late-game meltdown. The fourth quarter lead vanished Saturday afternoon at UB Stadium for the Bulls, morphing into a 34-28 overtime loss at the hands of Western Michigan in front of 15,025.
The offense failed to score enough points to win and the defense adhered to the script as well, thriving for much of the game but yielding crucial plays in a crushing defeat. Buffalo (2-4, 1-2 Mid-American Conference) has dropped its last three games and squandered a chance to gain a slight edge in the league's East Division race.
"It's tough to take but there's a lot of senior leadership on this team and we'll come back from it," said senior quarterback Drew Willy. "I think everyone thinks we could have done one or two more things -- I know on my part I could have made a couple of more throws, get a couple of more first downs and the game's over."
But the Bulls couldn't overcome the 345-yard, four-touchdown passing performance by Tim Hiller, who completed 42 of 63. Not even with James Starks, who rushed for 125 yards on 28 carries and scored three touchdowns.
There were ample opportunities to put the Broncos away in what was considered a pivotal conference matchup, including taking a 28-14 lead with 5:14 left in regulation on a 1-yard touchdown run by sophomore tailback Brandon Thermilus. But Western Michigan answered with a Hiller touchdown pass to Schneider Julien with 4:08 left and sent the game into overtime with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Hiller to Jamarko Simmons with five seconds remaining.
Western Michigan (6-1, 4-0), which has now won six consecutive games, outscored the Bulls, 28-7, in the final period and overtime.
"It came down to us making plays," said UB sophomore strong safety Davonte Shannon. "We didn't make plays when we had a chance to make plays."
UB has talked since the beginning of the season about finishing strong, but the Bulls have been outscored in the fourth quarter in their four losses, 55-17. The loss hasn't quite put the Bulls on the brink, but it makes their quest for the East Division title and a possible bowl berth that much tougher. To become bowl eligible, the Bulls must now win four of their next six games, three of which are on the road.
"We have to execute better in the third and fourth quarter, and we will," said UB coach Turner Gill. "We have to learn from this situation and get better for the next time."
The Bulls seemed to right some of their wrongs that plagued them before the bye week and took a 21-6 lead into the fourth quarter with an improved running game and several takeaways that threatened to blow the game open. They led, 21-14, when Hiller fumbled on an option pitch that was recovered by Sherrod Lott at the Broncos' 6. Thermilus punched it in from a yard out and the Bulls held a seemingly comfortable 28-14 lead.
But Western Michigan was aided by a 43-yard kick return by Brandon West and started the drive on the Bulls' 40. It took them less than a minute to compete the 40-yard scoring drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Hiller to Julien.
UB's next drive ended on an incomplete pass from Willy to Ernest Jackson on third down, forcing the Bulls to punt. Western Michigan got the ball at its own 34 with 1:55 remaining. The Broncos got a big play from Simmons on second-and-10 from the UB 33, when he broke several tackles for and spun his way for a 24-yard gain to the Bulls' 9. Four plays later, Simmons scored on a 9-yard pass from Hiller and the Broncos took all the momentum into overtime.
"When it comes down to the wire," said UB defensive end Mike Thompson, "you have to take care of business."
The Bulls didn't. UB received the ball in the extra session and on first-and-10 from the Western Michigan 11, Willy's pass tipped off the hands of Naaman Roosevelt and to Broncos free safety Louis Delmas in the end zone.
"Anytime the ball is tipped over the middle," Willy said, "it's not a good thing."
Hiller hit Ledbetter in the end zone for the 2-yard touchdown four plays later, capping the dramatic come-from-behind win.
"We got lucky, we know that," said Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit. "But it was also a good gut check."
The Bulls, however, are in a situation they desperately wanted to avoid. Their 2-1 start has been followed by three consecutive setbacks, and their odds of reaching the postseason grow steeper by the week as they play host to Army next weekend.
"This hurts a lot," said junior cornerback Kendric Hawkins. "It's probably going to hurt more in the morning."