UB Bulls’ comeback not enough against Northern Illinois

Buffalo’s win streaks comes to an end, remains one win away from bowl eligibility

Intercept Northern Illinois and return it 68 yards for a touchdown.

The Huskies will just throw it right back at the cornerback who picked them off to score their own 68-yard touchdown.

Freshman cornerback Cameron Lewis had the Buffalo football team and UB Stadium reenergized with a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown to pull Buffalo, which had been down 28-3 at halftime, within eight in the fourth quarter.

But Huskies’ quarterback Ryan Graham threw right back at Lewis two plays later for a 68-yard touchdown pass that put Northern Illinois up by 15 and back in control.

Despite a Bulls’ (5-5, 3-3 Mid-American Conference) comeback, Northern Illinois showed why it is the superior team and claimed a 41-30 victory at UB Stadium Wednesday night. The loss puts an end to Buffalo’s three-game winning streak, as the Bulls will have to wait another week to try for its sixth victory to make them bowl eligible for just the third time since rejoining Division I in 1999.

Buffalo is now 0-8 against Northern Illinois (7-3, 5-1 MAC), the reigning MAC Champs, since it joined the conference.

“As a program, you’re kind of looking [at them] all the way across from warm ups,” said head coach Lance Leipold. “Size of players, speed and athleticism, you want to be in those conversations. You got to look at how you can try to match up with them all the time.”

Buffalo didn’t matchup well to start. After converting a 26-yard field goal on its first drive, the Bulls allowed 28 unanswered points to trail 28-3 at halftime and then 31-10 in the third quarter.

But Buffalo found a way back.

The Bulls got the game to an 8-point deficit in the second half twice, including when they had the ball with five minutes remaining and an opportunity to tie the game at 38. But the offense sputtered. Senior quarterback Joe Licata was sacked twice and Buffalo went three-and-out.

Northern Illinois would kick a field goal on the ensuing drive to go ahead 41-30 and essentially put the game out of reach.

Licata said Buffalo’s comeback was not surprising to him.

“We’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of will power, a lot of pride,” Licata said. “To get beaten down in the first half like we did, we weren’t going to take it all second half.”

One of the game’s more crucial sequences was Lewis’ pick-6 and subsequent Northern Illinois’ passing touchdown. Just two plays after Lewis’ first career interception made it an 8-point game, Northern Illinois junior wide receiver Kenny Golladay beat Lewis for a 68-yard touchdown to put the Huskies ahead 38-23.

Golladay finished with six catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns.

“That’s what freshmen sometimes do,” Leipold said. “He comes up with a big play on fourth down and really put some momentum on us. Give [Northern Illinois] credit for good coaching because they knew he was really aggressive and they got him on a double move.”

Huskies’ junior running back and MAC-leading rusher Joel Bouagnon had a big night, rushing for 156 yards and two first-half touchdowns. Bouagnon ran for a career-long 58-yard touchdown that put the Huskies up 14-3 in the first quarter.

Northern Illinois ran for 334 yards as a team, including 212 in the first half.

“We knew he was gonna be a downhill runner,” said senior linebacker Nick Gilbo, who had a career-high 19 tackles. “We had to push him back, we just didn’t do that in the first half.”

Outside ofa 47-yard touchdown run by junior running back Jordan Johnson that made it a 31-16 game, Buffalo’s running game struggled. Senior running back Anthone Taylor finished with just 33 yards on 12 carries. Taylor and Johnson had just 18 carries combined – a season low.

Licata meanwhile threw 47 passes. He threw for 354 yards and two crucial touchdowns during the rally, but also threw three interceptions. The quarterback did reach a major milestone Wednesday, however, passing former Bull Drew Willy as Buffalo’s all-time leader in passing yards.

“Looking back down the road I’m sure it will mean more to me than it does right now,” Licata said. “Right now I’m pretty upset about this loss. Anytime you’re mentioned with Drew Willy, it’s a great honor.”

Both senior wide receiver Marcus McGill and sophomore wide receiver Collin Lisa caught touchdowns to aid Buffalo’s comeback, including a great one-handed catch by McGill in the end zone. Senior wide receiver Ron Willoughby also had a solid game, finishing with six catches for 101 yards.

The Bulls lost two defensive starters Wednesday night due to ankle injuries. Both junior cornerback Boise Ross and junior defensive tackle Brandon Crawford left the game in the first half and did not return.

Leipold said Buffalo needs to take its nine days between games to get healthy. Wednesday’s game completed a stretch of four games in 18 days for the Bulls.

“We want to keep going,” Leipold said. “Four days in 18 days has been a lot on these guys. We get a little bit of extra break. We got to get healthy and we got to get better.”

The Bulls face Akron (4-5, 2-3 MAC) on Saturday, Nov. 21 in Akron, Ohio. With a win, Buffalo will be eligible for a bowl game. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.

Tom Dinki is the editor in chief and can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tomdinki.