UB football (4-7, 2-5 MAC) lost an overtime heartbreaker to the Northern Illinois Huskies (8-3, 6-1 MAC), 33-27, in the last home game of the season Wednesday night at UB Stadium.
After rallying from a 14-point second-half deficit and willing the game to overtime, the Bulls found themselves at the NIU one-yard line with a chance to go up by a score. But a fumbled snap by junior quarterback Matt Myers gave the ball back to NIU — and dashed UB’s postseason hopes.
The very next play, NIU redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich ran in a 25-yard touchdown to give the Huskies the win.
UB pushed arguably the best team in the Mid-Atlantic Conference to the brink of defeat, but the Bulls’ effort was all for naught in an emotionally draining back-and-forth contest.
“[I] just made a mistake,” a dejected Myers said of his late-game fumble. “[I] didn’t really look it [the ball] in all the way. I take ownership of it, I’ve got to be better.”
Myers started in the place of senior Kyle Vantrease, who attended the game in street clothes with his arm in a sling following an injury he sustained in last week’s 45-18 loss to Miami (OH).
The local West Seneca product completed 16-of-23 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 43 yards on 11 carries. Despite his late-game blunder, Myers created and extended multiple plays with his legs, especially in overtime, to find open receivers and move the ball.
Head coach Maurice Linguist says that despite the loss, the Bulls can grow from Wednesday’s game. Even though the Bulls’ record isn’t the best in the conference nor was Wednesday’s result the one they strived for, Linguist emphasized that UB punched above its weight against the top team in the conference.
“We’re definitely going to learn a lot from this game,” Linguist said in the post-game press conference. “I think we’ll reference this game a lot to be able to look back and say, ‘What did you learn?’ When you go through a tough game or you have a tough situation, the question you’ve got to ask yourself is, ‘What did you learn?’”
Linguist says the Bulls are striving to learn more about themselves, but one thing they know for a fact is that they are unable to prevent big plays on defense.
NIU broke things open with a 75-yard end-around toss which freshman wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph took to the house to tie the game at 10 in the second quarter. Then, freshman running back Antario Brown gashed the UB defense for a 47-yard touchdown in the third quarter to give the Huskies a 17-10 lead.
A mental lapse by the Bulls resulted in a third big play when Rudolph was found wide open for a 36-yard completion. A better pass would have put Rudolph in the end zone, but the blown coverage set Ratkovich up for a seven-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter.
Then came the dagger. After fumbling at the one-yard line, the Bulls then gave up a 25-yard touchdown to Ratkovich on NIU’s first play of overtime to officially squander the inspired comeback.
“It was definitely tough. The last play, it stung, it definitely stung. We all acknowledge that,” senior defensive end Eric Black said. “But like coach said in the locker room, we have to be proud of the way we played.”
While ultimately unsuccessful, UB’s comeback was one to remember.
Down 14 points after four straight punts, Black’s strip-sack and recovery in the third quarter reignited the Bulls’ comeback.
Linguist called the sack the “play of the game.” He said, “We’re not in overtime, battling our butt off to win the game if Eric doesn’t make that play.”
In the very next play, junior running back Ron Cook Jr. scampered into the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown to bring the Bulls within seven points. UB then forced a punt on its next defensive drive.
Cook Jr. once again took advantage of the momentum swing, as the Washington, D.C. native caught a swing pass out of the backfield for a 13-yard score — this time to tie the game at 24 with 12 minutes remaining.
NIU responded when redshirt sophomore kicker John Richardson hit a 27-yard field goal to put the Huskies up by three with 4:58 to go. But the lead didn’t last for long. Junior kicker Alex McNulty responded with a 55-yard field goal — the longest in program history — to tie the game at 27 a piece with a minute left in regulation.
A facemask penalty on junior safety Cory Gross Jr. brought NIU to the UB 28-yard line with less than a minute to go. Richardson had the opportunity to win the game in regulation, but his 37-yard field goal attempt went wide left in the blistering Buffalo wind, to force overtime.
Overtime didn’t produce the results the Bulls needed to maintain their bowl eligibility, and for that reason, the loss stings even more. UB won’t be heading to a bowl game for the first time since 2017, rendering the final game of the season inconsequential for the team’s postseason hopes.
“It’s really disappointing because we’ve kind of gotten used to going to a bowl over these past several years, but I’m really proud of the way we played,” Black said. “Now we’re just really focused on finishing the season. Obviously, we have one more game [on] a little bit of short rest. So ending the season on a win, you can’t ask for any more than that.”
Despite not fighting for bowl eligibility or a spot in the MAC Championship Game, Linguist insists his team will come out with the competitive edge of a team that has something to play for.
“At the end of the day, I’m really proud of the guys and we are going to pick ourselves up off the mat,” Linguist said. “I promise you this: we’re not gonna have our head down for anything. And we are going to get ourselves prepared to go beat Ball State on the road and continue to lay the foundation for this program moving forward.”
UB will play its final game of the season against the Ball State Cardinals (5-6, 3-4 MAC) Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Scheumann Stadium in Munchie, Indiana. The game will be aired on ESPN+.
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum. His words have appeared in outlets such as SLAM Magazine andSyracuse.com. In 2020, he was awarded First Prize for Sports Column Writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. In his free time, he can be found watching ‘90s Knicks games and reading NFL Mock Drafts at 3 a.m.