In the first UB game during the COVID pandemic, the Bulls (1-0) defeated the Northern Illinois Huskies (0-1) 49-30 at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Illinois. This is the first time Buffalo has beaten NIU since they joined the MAC in 1999.
The Bulls came out swinging, forcing a punt and converting a Jaret Patterson touchdown run within the first three minutes.
A sack from last year’s MAC sack leader Malcom Koonce forced a fourth down on the following NIU drive. The play would’ve ended the Huskies’ drive, but an offsides call extended the possession. The Huskies finished the seven-minute drive with a field goal to cut the lead to 7-3 with 4:18 left in the first quarter.
Following the field goal, an unsuccessful onside kick from NIU gave UB great field position to start the drive. This resulted in a highlight-reel catch from wide receiver Antonio Nunn in the back of the endzone to put the Bulls up 14-3.
Nunn went on to have 102 receiving yards and a touchdown, helping the Bulls’ passing offense get into a rhythm
“Having a receiver like [Nunn] gives us that big play threat in the passing game we need to compliment our running backs,” head coach Lance Liepold said. “Teams that saw him last year are going to start throwing rolling coverages his way and he’s picking up right where he left off from last year.”
The teams exchanged three-and-outs to begin the second quarter.
A short punt from punter Evan Finnegan set up NIU in great field position. The Huskies took advantage of the short field with a touchdown run from Erin Collins that cut the lead to 14-10.
NIU intercepted the ball from quarterback Kyle Vantrease setting up for another score, but the Bulls defense forced a quick punt to erase the mistake.
After forcing two more punts, the Bulls offense came to life. With 2:14 left in the second quarter, running back Jaret Patterson rushed for a 56-yard touchdown to extend the Bulls lead to 21-10. Patterson broke the school record for rushing yards in a career with 35 following his second touchdown. Although Patterson broke the record, he’s not satisfied.
“It’s a great accomplishment, but I have to keep working hard. This was one game, and we have more important goals to worry about. I’m more focused on winning a MAC championship” Patterson said.
“For him to do that and he’s only a junior says a lot. It says a lot about his teammates and what he’s done, but individually, what an outstanding young man. He’s a sincere young man and a good person. You can’t be anything but happy for him,” Liepold said.
A roughing-the-passer penalty set up NIU for a last-second touchdown with 35 seconds left in the second quarter, when quarterback Ross Bowers hit wide receiver Cole Tucker for a 16-yard score. The Huskies missed the two-point conversion, ending the first half with the Bulls up 21-16.
Ball security became a major theme in the second half.
NIU had an opportunity to take the lead, but on their next possession, Bowers fumbled and linebacker Tim Terry returned it for a scoop and score touchdown to put the Bulls up 28-16 with 8:35 remaining in the third quarter.
The Huskies fumbled again on their next drive.
This time, Collins coughed up the ball. Cornerback Isiah King scooped it and scored for another touchdown to put the Bulls up 35-16 with 7:50 left in the third quarter.
This was the clear turning point of the game as the Bulls went from on the verge of giving up the lead to scoring 14 points within 45 seconds. The defense came out sluggish and gave up multiple chunk yardage plays before the momentum-shifting scoop-and-scores.
“[Those were] huge. We had that miscommunication with 10 seconds left in the first half. Then we get the ball to start the second half. We wanted to make a statement on that drive, but we didn’t,” Liepold said. “For the defense to respond the way it did and then come back again was huge for us and says a lot about them.”
After the defense forced another punt, the Bulls drove down and Vantrease ran in a touchdown to put the Bulls up 42-16 with 6:09 left in the third.
After a challenging third quarter that included three turnovers, NIU looked to rebound offensively.
The Huskies did the complete opposite; Bowers threw a pick-six that linebacker Kadofi Wright took to the house to go ahead 49-16.
NIU punched in two garbage-time touchdowns to cut the lead to 49-30 with a minute left, a sequence that didn’t leave a good taste in Liepold’s mouth.
“You never want it to get sloppy. It’s frustrating when it doesn’t leave a good taste. One thing we tell our guys is that we’re going to coach the reserves, no matter the score, as if we’re coaching at the beginning of the game, the way they deserve to be coached. But again, those guys don’t get the same amount of late game reps,” Liepold said.
Throughout the game, UB relied on Patterson, who ran for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Patterson was an advocate for returning to play during the offseason, so returning to play was a big moment for him.
“It was a blessing. You know, to play again during this pandemic, we didn’t think we were going to play at all this year. Just getting back on the field, that’s a blessing,” Patterson said.
The Bulls forced five turnovers and scored three defensive touchdowns tonight in a dominating performance. The ability to create turnovers and score points off them was a major reason Buffalo gained such a big lead after only being up by five at the half.
UB ended the game when they forced a fumble with five seconds left to end the game.
Coach Liepold doesn’t normally give away the game ball because he believes football is a team game. But yesterday, Liepold gifted the ball to the medical staff in recognition of their hard work during the pandemic.
“We gave it to our medical staff and team doctors because there’s been so many things they’ve done to get us ready and make this work. From way back in June they’ve done a great job helping us get back on the field.”
The Bulls will take on the Miami (OH) RedHawks (1-0) next Tuesday at 8 p.m. at UB Stadium for the Bulls’ home opener.
The sports desk can be reached at email@example.com
Alex Lenneberg is an assistant sports editor for The Spectrum.