MOBILE, Ala. – This wasn’t how the University at Buffalo football team wanted or expected the season to end. The Bulls lost three of their final four games, including two significant ones: the Mid-American Conference championship game on Nov. 30 and the Dollar General Bowl on Saturday.
The Bulls surrendered a 19-point lead in a 30-29 loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC title game, which kept the Bulls from winning their first MAC title in 10 years. Then, they then lost a three-point lead twice to Troy in a 42-32 loss in the bowl game, and that kept the Bulls from winning their first bowl game.
Those two losses put a dent in what is otherwise the program’s most successful season at the FBS level. UB coach Lance Leipold is realistic about how it ended.
“I feel really good about where our program is heading,” Leipold said Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. “But, of course, we have a lot of work to do.”
The Bulls (10-4) have to build on what they established in their first 10-win season. They have to prove they are more than a one-hit wonder in the MAC. They need to create consistency as a conference championship contender.
The Bulls won the MAC East Division championship and set several program milestones in the fourth year of Leipold’s tenure.
Running back Jaret Patterson became the first freshman to run for 1,000 yards, finishing with 1,013. Wide receiver Anthony Johnson crossed the 1,000-yard receiving threshold for the second year in a row, and finished the season with 1,031 yards.
“The foundation for the future here is strong, and it starts with coach Leipold and the coaching staff,” linebacker Khalil Hodge said. “But in terms of these young players, we have so much talent on this team, and I’m excited to see what happens from here, because these guys who played so early in the season as freshmen and sophomores, they’re coming through this program and they’ll be great.”
Hodge led the defense with 144 tackles and is one of 20 seniors or fifth-year players who will leave UB after this season.
“It’s a pretty special thing when you watch these guys come together, the way they battled,” Leipold said. “We’ve had about five seniors who hung through a coaching change. We had guys like Tatum (Slack) and Khalil Hodge who came in for three years. Anthony Johnson redshirted and then played. We’ve had other guys that have joined us along the way. We have guys like James O’Hagan, from the day I got the job, was there, ‘Coach, I’ll do anything it takes for us to become a winning program, tell me what I’ve got to do.’
“We’re going to miss guys like that.”
The older players, UB linebacker James Patterson said, set a standard for the future of the program.
“They turned it around, from a 2-10 season to a 6-6 season,” said the true freshman, who was UB’s second-leading tackler (77). “It’s a lot of hard work that went into it, a lot of hard work behind the scenes that a lot of people don’t know and don’t see, each and every day. We have to keep that up and keep preaching that to everyone who comes in, right after us.”
The Bulls also await a decision on quarterback Tyree Jackson’s future. The redshirt junior finished with 3,131 yards and 28 touchdowns passes, joining Drew Willy (3,304 yards) as UB’s only quarterback with more than 3,000 yards passing in a season.
Jackson could return to UB for his final year of eligibility, transfer to another program or declare for the NFL Draft. If he leaves, the Bulls will turn to returnees Kyle Vantrease, West Seneca West graduate Matt Myers, Dominic Johnson or Kolton Brewster to fill that hole.
Trevor Bycznski, a 6-foot-5 pro-style quarterback from Ohio, will also join the Bulls this summer as a true freshman.
But the Bulls can’t hinge the uncertainty of the future of one player on what they want to accomplish. Hodge set a standard for UB’s returning players: work hard in the offseason, be hungry individually and collectively, and stay together to continue the success of this season.
“I want these guys to understand to keep going,” Hodge said. “It’s not about where you start, but where you finish. And just lead. These guys, they need leaders. You can’t just lead by your words. You have to lead by your actions. If you really want to take this team and this program to new heights, those are the actions you have to take.
“Focus on the goal and the program. It’s all for one.”
Looking ahead to 2019, UB's nonconference schedule is highlighted by a Sept. 7 visit to Penn State.
Home opponents: Robert Morris, Temple, Bowling Green, Ohio, Central Michigan and Toledo.
Road opponents: Penn State, Liberty, Akron, Kent State, Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Michigan.