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Inside a college football cauldron, UB wilts in second half at Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Ultimately, it wasn't a close loss for the University at Buffalo football team. For one half, it was a lot closer than many would think, even considering that the Vegas oddsmakers projected this one to be a bloodbath.

Hours before the 7:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Beaver Stadium, Penn State was projected as a 31½-point favorite against the Bulls.

UB lost 45-13 to Penn State, its first ranked opponent since 2016. The Nittany Lions covered.

Yet for 30 minutes, inside one of college football's biggest cauldrons, the Bulls appeared to make anyone who bet against them put their money where their mouth is.

But it wasn't enough for the Bulls, as plucky as they played in the first half. Penn State broke open the game with a four-touchdown third quarter that showed why they’re an Associated Press Top 25 team.

The Bulls will ache – literally and figuratively – for a while after this one. They may not have a punter next week against Liberty, or their top tight end.

But somehow, they have to build on this loss. Did anyone expect UB to lead at halftime, 10-7, against one of the nation’s blue-blood football programs?

Did anyone expect UB to control time of possession in the first half? Or be so proficient on third down?

And did anyone expect Matt Myers, who threw a mere five completions in his debut nine days ago, to wing the ball in that first half like (dare we say it) Tyree Jackson?

Still, it was only one half, and UB couldn't sustain itself.

Penn State took a 7-0 lead six minutes into the game, capitalizing on a fumble at the Bulls’ 36-yard line by UB running back Kevin Marks, and needing only two plays for quarterback Sean Clifford to connect with Jahan Dotson for a 28-yard touchdown. Dotson schooled UB defensive backs Aapri Washington and Tyrone Hill in the end zone, and it appeared as if Penn State was poised to break the game open early.

But UB kept the ball out of Penn State’s hands for more than eight minutes in a 19-play, 69-yard drive – including 12 running plays that featured a reverse by the Bulls – that bridged the first and second quarters. The drive ended with Alex McNulty’s 32-yard field goal, but each time UB got back on defense, the Bulls forced Penn State into playing sloppy and taking unnecessary penalties.

When the Bulls got the ball back with 4:43 left in the first half, they did exactly what they did on their first scoring drive. They held the ball, they played patient, and Myers (16-for-31 passing, 45 yards, TD, interception) found Antonio Nunn (five catches for 113 yards) for easily his biggest and bravest pass of the night – a 42-yard pass that put the Bulls inside the Penn State 10.

Two plays later, Myers’ 6-yard pass to Julien Bourassa silenced the 104,136 in attendance at Beaver Stadium and gave UB a 10-7 lead. When the Lions left the field, it was to a chorus of boos from many of those fans.

For 30 minutes, the Bulls (1-1) put a scare into the Nittany Lions. UB held onto the ball for more than 21 minutes and converted seven of 12 third downs in the first half. The Bulls didn’t let one mistake – Marks’ fumble – bring them down.

But this game turned on a dime, when Penn State cornerback John Reid came out of nowhere and intercepted Myers’ third-down pass from the 31, intended for Nunn. UB barely had time to blink as Reid rushed into the end zone and helped Penn State to a 14-10 lead three minutes into the second half.

Sixty-four seconds later, Clifford (16-for-22 passing, 279 yards, four touchdown passes) needed one pass to make it 21-10, and the Bulls had to settle for McNulty’s second field goal at the end of a 10-play, 67-yard drive that lasted nearly five minutes.

The Bulls really needed a touchdown on that drive, to at least stay with Penn State. The Nittany Lions scored their third touchdown in less than seven minutes, and UB found itself struggling to stay above water.

Then, the losses started to mount for the Bulls. Tight end Zac Lefebvre spent the second half on the sideline on crutches. Then, the sickening blow came when punter Evan Finegan was carted off the field when he was taken out after punting with less than five minutes left in the third.

They left without a punter – Fox refused to show the replay of Finegan’s injury, which should say something about the severity of the injury – and possibly without their starting tight end.

Even though UB walked away with a check for $1.2 million from Penn State – a drop in the bucket for a football program that had a revenue of $165,373,214 in 2018-19, according to USA Today – it turned into that kind of night for the Bulls.

That's about what Vegas expected.

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