DETROIT – The University at Buffalo defense collapsed over the final 26 minutes against the 121st-ranked passing offense in the nation Friday night in the Mid-American Conference Championship game.
The Bulls allowed Northern Illinois quarterback Marcus Childers to throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns – both career highs – in losing to the Huskies, 30-29.
Childers had cracked the 200-yard passing mark only once in 12 games, and that was a 215-yard effort. All of a sudden in the third quarter, the second-least productive QB in the MAC looked like Baker Mayfield.
It was a stunning failure for a proud UB unit that had ranked third in the MAC in both points and yards allowed this season.
“Again, I thought he was highly underrated,” UB coach Lance Leipold said of Childers. “You could see the size and athleticism they had also at the receiver spot. It wasn’t overly surprising.”
The loss wasn’t all the fault of the UB defense.
The UB offense, burdened by some poor field position and limited availability of star receiver Anthony Johnson, went scoreless in its final six possessions. Quarterback Tyree Jackson made a bad decision in taking a 15-yard sack on UB’s second-to-last possession, which helped NIU’s field position. UB’s special teams missed an extra point, which was a problem all season.
Nevertheless, the Bulls had a 29-10 lead with 11:25 left in the third quarter, and the defense couldn’t hold it.
Key defensive miscues:
• UB’s best cornerback, senior Cam Lewis, was beaten for a 28-yard touchdown pass on a double move by D.J. Brown, which pulled the Huskies within 29-17.
• UB senior cornerback Tatum Slack was beaten on a double move – an out-and-up pattern by Spencer Tears – for a 32-yard touchdown pass. That pulled the Huskies within 29-24 with 12:51 to go.
• Lewis was beaten again down the right sideline for the winning score, a 35-yard touchdown pass from Childers to Brown with 1:09 left.
“They got us on double moves on a couple things,” Leipold said.
Childers’ mobility was a big problem, too. He extended plays after being flushed out of the pocket, which happened on the winning TD.
Childers rushed for 80, not counting yards lost on sacks.
“He’s in a group of quarterbacks in our league who have a good knack of making people miss once they scramble,” Leipold said. “He did that. All in all, I thought we had a decent tackling night. But he played really well, especially the second half.”
Northern Illinois ranked 127th out of 129 teams in the nation in passing yards per attempt this season at just 5.0.
Childers averaged 9.09 yards per attempt against the Bulls, a figure that only the top 10 passing teams in the nation achieve.
“Offensively I’m just going to tell you I’ve been seeing this in practice,” said Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey. “I just haven’t seen it on the game field to the extent that it’s there. But you saw it tonight. It was certainly explosive. I know people thought I was crazy when I said (it). But I saw it.”
“To be honest, the guys around me all made some great plays,” Childers said. “They executed some great plays.
“On that first touchdown throw, Spencer made a great catch. I hope it’s on SportsCenter. That was a confidence booster for me.”
Tears is 6-foot-1 and long-armed. The 5-9 Slack was giving him cushion when lined up across from him. Tears finished with six catches for 73 yards.
The Bulls tried shaking up the cornerback rotation, using 5-9 senior Aapri Washington in place of Slack at times. It didn’t help.
UB sacked Childers four times, one on a blitz.
But Childers’ mobility discouraged too much blitzing, and his ability to keep plays alive keyed the comeback. Childers was 6 of 8 for 85 yards against the blitz, unofficially.
Childers beat the blitz for a 12-yard gain on a screen pass on a third-and-10 situation on the winning drive. That put the ball at the UB 46. Then Childers found the middle of the UB zone and hit his tight end for an 11-yard gain to the 35. Then came the winning score.