COLUMBUS, Ohio – The last three weeks provided evidence of how far the University at Buffalo has come as a football team. Friday's season-ending 21-7 loss to Bowling Green showed how far the Bulls still have to go, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
UB's three-game winning streak came to an abrupt and emphatic halt as its offense sputtered, coughed and stalled against the stingiest defense in the Mid-American Conference. It didn't help that the Bulls had limited use of their top two running backs, Branden Oliver and Devin Campbell. But there was more to it.
While Bowling Green (8-4, 6-2) kept Buffalo's defense guessing with a wide array of formations and receiving weapons, UB came across as decidedly less sophisticated and oftentimes downright predictable.
The Bulls (4-8, 3-5) sauntered in having strung together three consecutive wins for the first time since 2008. Last week they won on the road for the first time in two years, and surged from behind to do it. With that run, coach Jeff Quinn received a three-year contract extension this week and UB came into Friday's finale a win shy of only the third .500 or better Mid-American Conference season in its history and a chance to close out a season with four wins for the first time since 1986.
The defense held tough for a while but the offense provided little in the way of support, producing just 11 first downs and 197 yards against a Bowling Green team that has held seven of its last eight opponents to 14 or fewer points. And the Falcons, who finished second in the East, won't be going away next season. Coach Dave Clawson (Lew-Port) returns all but three starters.
"Very difficult loss," Quinn said. "I was real proud of the way our defense competed today and prepared and they delivered. … Offensively on the flip side, we weren't able to do much. …We just couldn't get in a rhythm. That was really the disappointing part of this."
UB's lone TD came on a 4-yard Alex Dennison run with 9:59 remaining after a Colby Way interception and 22-yard return positioned UB at the BG 19. It was one of three UB picks on the day but the other two had little impact as BG made life difficult by shutting down UB's running game (29 yards) and harassing quarterback Joe Licata with an array of blitzes. Licata was 13 of 30 for 168 yards and was sacked seven times.
"We knew they were going to come put pressure on us," Licata said. "We weren't really surprised by anything they did today. It's all about execution and they got to us."
Bowling Green's defense ruled the first half as the Falcons opened a 14-0 advantage. The Bulls got almost nothing going offensively and managed just three first downs while the Falcons mounted three noteworthy drives, one resulting in a blocked field goal, one in a 1-yard touchdown run by John Pettigrew and the last a 48-yard touchdown connection between Matt Schilz and Shaun Joplin.
Bowling Green's 63-yard march to its first TD was kept alive by a pass interference call against Isaac Baugh on a third-and-5 from the UB 9. Replays indicated there was no foul on the play. Four plays later, on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Pettigrew scooted untouched into the end zone with 5:26 left in the second quarter.
UB had the better of the field position early on but its only drive of note came following the Pettigrew touchdown. Jimmy Gordon returned a short kickoff 20 yards to the UB 44, and the Bulls advanced to the Falcons 30 before Licata was sacked on a fourth-and-4 play by Bowling Green's Defensive Player of the Year candidate, tackle Chris Jones. UB struggled all half to get its receivers open against the MAC's No. 1 pass defense unit.
BG responded with its second touchdown 1:10 before halftime. Joplin took off on a deep post, drawing single coverage from Najja Johnson without safety help. Johnson had good position, but the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Joplin angled in front at the last instant and ran the final 10 yards to the end zone.
"I got to go up and get the football," Johnson said. "I got to be more aggressive. We had the same play similar to that on the first play, when I got the interception. I was a little bit hesitant on this one."
Earlier in the second quarter, Bowling Green came up empty on a drive from its own 12 to Buffalo territory when Means blocked a 28-yard field goal attempt.
The lead grew to 21-0 late in the third quarter when Schilz ran 7 yards to cap a 47-yard drive. UB didn't have the firepower to dig itself out of the hole.?