BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — Strands of pink silly string clung to the hair of some of the linebackers.
Lance Leipold’s baseball hat and black pullover were still damp from having a cooler full of water dumped onto his shoulders, a rite of passage when a team earns a significant win.
The shouts of excitement of the Bulls from inside the visitors' locker room at Doyt Perry Stadium were louder than usual — louder than the previous nine wins the Bulls have notched this season.
The moments after the University at Buffalo football team’s 44-14 win Friday at Bowling Green had all the requisite trimmings of a title celebration. The only thing missing was the MAC East Division championship plaque. That will be delivered to Buffalo next week.
The Bulls didn’t need a piece of hardware to validate the best season in program history.
The Bulls (10-2, 7-1) won their first MAC East title since 2008. UB plays for its first MAC championship in 10 years when it faces Northern Illinois (7-4, 6-1) at 7 p.m. Nov. 30 at Ford Field in Detroit.
“It means a lot,” said linebacker Khalil Hodge, who recorded his 400th tackle at UB on Friday against the Falcons. “It’s really a testament to coach Leipold and his staff and the job they’ve done, and the lessons on and off the field that they’ve instilled in us. To turn this program around the way he has, it’s a blessing and I’m so glad to be a part of it.”
The Bulls got back into the form that helped them open the season with four straight wins, and then helped them win five straight games that put them in position to clinch the division title.
The Bulls were poised to win the division title Nov. 14 at Ohio, but couldn’t seal the deal in Athens. The Bobcats handed the Bulls their most lopsided loss of the season, a 52-17 decision at Peden Stadium.
That gave UB plenty of resolve to finish the task of winning the MAC.
Brandon Williams’ 69-yard fumble return for a touchdown 20 seconds into the second quarter, and Jaret Patterson’s 11-yard touchdown run with 9:55 left in the first half, helped the Bulls open a 13-7 lead to 34-7 at halftime, and Emmanuel Reed led the Bulls with 109 yards on 15 carries, a single-game best this season for Reed.
Patterson and Kevin Marks combined for four rushing touchdowns as the Bulls ran for 332 yards and outgained the Falcons (3-9, 2-6) 483-205.
For Leipold, watching how his team responded nine days after getting drubbed at Ohio was as gratifying as molding his program into a MAC championship contender.
“It says a lot about this group, the work they’ve gone through and the ups and downs,” Leipold said. “It says a lot about the assistant coaches, and their perseverance through the tough times, and when people doubted. For us, it’s a huge step, and the opportunity to build a consistent, winning program, which is difficult in the Mid-American Conference. Two-and-10 two years ago to 10-2 is a huge jump, and I’m extremely happy and proud.”
It wasn’t an overnight process; it took the Bulls four seasons under Leipold to become a winner. The process continued down to the final week of the regular season, too.
In the days leading into the matchup at Bowling Green, the Bulls changed a few things about their routine as they prepared for one of the most important games in the program’s history.
UB held a practice at New Era Field in Orchard Park and worked out at 9 p.m. on weeknights inside UB Stadium, including a couple nights in which the temperatures dropped into the 20s.
“I’m not too sure how much it helped, but it shows how much we can adapt,” Hodge said. “That’s kind of how life works. Adapt and keep moving forward. That’s what we did and we approached the week that way. Whatever was thrown at us, we knew what was at stake and we were going to adapt.”
In the final days of the regular season, as the Bulls prepared for a must-win game, the coaches continued to provide the Bulls with motivational quotes, a practice they started during the preseason.
One philosophy, in particular, stood out to Marks.
“One of the good ones was about getting hit and being able to come through and fight harder,” said Marks, a redshirt freshman who ran for a 1-yard touchdown with 55 seconds left in the first half, then scored his second on a 3-yard run with 4:33 left in the third quarter. “That’s what we did. We got put down. We got knocked down on our tail last week by Ohio. We had to come back and fight more, and fight stronger. That was the difference.”
Either a win at Bowling Green or an Ohio loss to Akron guaranteed the Bulls a spot in the MAC championship game in Detroit.
The Bulls didn’t want to do it the hard way, and the Bobcats didn’t do UB any favors, as they defeated Akron 49-28. When it came to winning the MAC East, the Bulls had to leave no doubt.
Now, the Bulls prepare for a conference championship game, and another chance to make more history.
“After we went 6-6 and kind of got cheated out of a bowl game opportunity, we knew the kind of team we had, the weapons we had on offense and defense, that’s how we worked,” Hodge said. “We worked the entire offseason for this moment.”