Disappointment in Detroit

Bulls blow 19-point lead in the Mid-American Conference title game

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DETROIT –– The Bulls were up 19 points in the second half and there was little doubt they would be the Mid-American Conference champions.

But Northern Illinois shocked Buffalo by scoring 20 unanswered points and the Huskies became MAC football champs instead.

Buffalo, which was a favorite in the team’s first MAC title game in a decade, lost a heartbreaker Friday night at Ford Field, falling to the Huskies 30-29. Northern Illinois took its only lead of the game with just over a minute remaining, providing a disappointing ending to the Bulls’ best MAC season since they won the conference in 2008.

“[I’m] really proud of my team, [they] competed really hard, played extremely well. We came up short,” said Bulls head coach Lance Leipold in an opening statement.

Buffalo was unstoppable in the first-half. The Bulls moved the ball with ease on the ground and through the air. Northern Illinois only gave up 107 yards per game from the rush this season; the Bulls had 129 in the first half alone.

Buffalo (10-3, 7-1 MAC) jumped out to a 22-10 lead at halftime, but the team’s missed extra points came back to haunt them.

Freshman kicker Alex McNulty missed the second extra point of the game for the Bulls. After scoring its third touchdown of the half, Buffalo attempted to make up the missed PAT by going for two.

The Bulls failed that as well, setting the stage for the Huskies’ late surge.

Northern Illinois outscored Buffalo 20-7 in the second half. The Huskies had more yards and more sacks and held the Bulls to just 41 yards on offense after their opening drive.

Senior defensive end Sutton Smith, the MAC defensive player of the year and overall player of the year, finally found senior quarterback Tyree Jackson in the second half.

“They got both defensive ends on the field and created some pressures,” Leipold said. “We got stops, but field position changed quite a bit, the play calls changed a little bit. The first half we stayed out of third and longs, second half not as much and you saw where their pass rush started to take effect.”

The Bulls' offensive line has been the anchor for the offense all year and has led to them averaging over 30 points per game. But they couldn’t hold off the MAC player of the year for the entire game.

Northern Illinois, which had the most sacks in the MAC this year, was held to only one tackle for loss in the first half. The second half was a different story, as the Huskies sacked Jackson four times. Two of the four sacks belonged to Smith.

“It wasn't anything that they did; it was us hurting ourselves,” Jackson said. “Being in third and 10, both defensive ends can kind of just put their ears back and come off the edge at full speed and expect the pass. Our offensive line played great all year and they played great today.”

The Bulls were hindered by injuries during the second half. Senior wide receiver Anthony Johnson had 5 receptions for 74 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half but was limited with leg issues later in the game. A leg injury forced him out of games earlier this season.

Fans will get one more chance to see seniors like linebacker Khalil Hodge and Johnson play one more game and Buffalo will have budding stars like freshmen running backs Kevin Marks and Jaret Patterson back for next year.

“It's a blessing man, for this team with Leipold taking a chance on me. Just to be a part of this group means a lot,” Hodge said.

The Bulls will play in the Dollar General Bowl on Dec. 22 in Mobile, Alabama for their final game of the season.

“This one stings and it’s going to for this group because they've worked so hard. You have to move on,” Leipold said.

Nathaniel Mendelson is the sports editor and can be reached at nathaniel.mendelson@ubspectrun.com and on Twitter @NateMendelson