DETROIT – Tyree Jackson sat in front of a microphone and a placard with his name on it, wearing a sullen expression, a stark contrast to the brightly colored lei around his neck. His eyes were still damp.
To Jackson’s right, Khalil Hodge wore a long face, a cream-colored towel draped over his head. His eyes were damp, too.
To Jackson’s left, coach Lance Leipold sat stoically, trying to process how the University at Buffalo football team crumbled in the fourth quarter in the Mid-American Conference Championship game.
Lodged in the basement of Ford Field late Friday night, they each tried to comprehend what had just happened.
The Bulls had just lost the MAC title game, 30-29, to Northern Illinois, in dramatic and stunning fashion. Jackson, Hodge and Leipold had just watched and played in the only – and biggest – collapse of the season by the Bulls.
“These boys in the locker room, I just wish it was the other way,” said Jackson, who was 18 for 35 passing for 252 yards and two touchdowns, and was sacked four times. “They played their heart out, and it’s tough when it happens like this. But it’s life sometimes.”
Hodge was more succinct.
“This entire year, we waited for this moment,” Hodge said. “It definitely hurts.”
As the celebratory shouts echoed from the nearby NIU locker room, Jackson, Hodge and Leipold attempted to process the loss.
So, likely, were the rest of the Bulls. This wasn’t like the Bulls’ previous two losses to Army and Ohio, one-sided blowouts. This was a collapse.
The Bulls (10-3) squandered a 19-point lead in the final 15 minutes, 17 seconds, as the Huskies cut the deficit to five early in the fourth quarter, on a 28-yard touchdown reception by D.J. Brown with 17 seconds left in the third quarter and a 32-yard TD reception by Spencer Tears, 2:09 into the fourth. Then, Brown’s 35-yard catch lifted the Huskies to a one-point lead with 1:09 left, and the Bulls had to scramble to create anything that resembled a comeback drive.
The Huskies had possession for only 11:23 of the second half, but kept the ball out of UB’s hands at the most opportune time – the final drive of the game.
After the Bulls opened from the 25 on Jackson’s 19-yard pass to K.J. Osborn, Jackson couldn’t complete his next two passes to Anthony Johnson. Pass interference against the Huskies put the Bulls at the NIU 41, but UB couldn’t move any further. Jackson’s next four passes fell incomplete, including a fourth-and-10 attempt to a diving Osborn inside the sideline on UB’s final play.
“He’s a great football player,” NIU coach Rod Carey said of Johnson, who finished with 124 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches. “They were going to throw the football to him. If you’re going to throw deep balls, then we’re going to get our hands on a few of those, and we did."
NIU’s offensive onslaught in the second half was a surprise to everyone but the Huskies. An offense that entered the game averaging only 19.9 points per game torched the Bulls' defense for 137 passing yards after halftime by quarterback Marcus Childers (21-for-33 passing, 300 yards, four touchdowns).
The Bulls took a 7-0 lead with 6:38 left in the first quarter on Kevin Marks' 3-yard touchdown, then led 13-0 on Johnson’s 13-yard catch from Jackson five seconds into the second quarter.
Tears’ first touchdown, a 13-yard catch with 9:51 left in the second, cut UB’s lead to 13-7, but Johnson gave the Bulls a 19-7 lead with 5:41 remaining on a 26-yard touchdown catch. With 1:42 left, Northern Illinois' Andrew Gantz kicked a 39-yard field goal, and Adam Mitcheson answered with a 24-yard field to give the Bulls a 22-10 lead three seconds before halftime.
Jaret Patterson’s 9-yard touchdown run about four minutes into the third pushed the Bulls to a seemingly cushy 29-10 edge. Maybe the Bulls fell into a certain ease, and they weren’t helped by the partial absence of Johnson, who was limited in the second half due to what Leipold said was a leg issue.
NIU pinned the Bulls at their own 5-yard line and forced them to punt with about two minutes left in the third. The comeback began on the next drive. The Bulls simply couldn’t match the sudden surge by the Huskies.
“They got their defensive ends on the field, and they got pressures,” Leipold said. “We got stops, but field position changed quite a bit. Play calls changed a little bit. The first half, we stayed out of third-and-longs and did a really good job. The second half, not as much, and you saw their pass rush really starting to take effect.”
Now, the Bulls await the opponent of their 14th game; UB learns its bowl-game destination Sunday, a consolation prize of sorts that comes two days after the Huskies ended the Bulls’ aspirations of becoming MAC champions for the first time since 2008.
The Bulls became bowl eligible Oct. 13 with a win against Akron, and the MAC has guaranteed spots in five bowl games. ESPN owns the Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho; the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Ala.; the Bahamas Bowl; and the Frisco Bowl in Frisco, Texas. ESPN by contract has the first choice of MAC teams for the bowl season, but there is no stipulation that ESPN has to take the champion.
The Dollar General Bowl gets the second choice, then ESPN fills in the next spots. Toledo was announced earlier this week for the Bahamas Bowl.
Resiliency – the ability to bounce back from a bad situation -- has been a hallmark of this team all season. Even in the wake of a collapse, Hodge didn’t ask for anything less than a turnaround from his team, as it now prepares for its final game.
“But if you’re wondering if this team is going to bounce back and be ready for that 14th game," Hodge said, "I’m 100 percent guaranteeing that we will be."