The Bowling Green Falcons and Buffalo Bulls battled for a half in the knock-down, drag-out defensive brawl that most people expected. It appeared that the game was going to live up to its billing as one of the best games of the Mid-American Conference season.
Instead, the Falcons did what they've done in all of their wins this season -- they dominated the second half on both sides of the ball and pounded the Bulls into submission. The resulting 24-7 victory on Friday afternoon at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium gave BGSU the Mid-American Conference Eastern Division championship and a spot in the 2013 MAC Championship Game.
The division championship is only the second for Bowling Green and occurs ten years after their first. They are now the only team in the MAC to have won both the East and the West divisions, and their trip to Detroit for the title game will be their first. In their previous championship game appearance, the game was held at Bowling Green's Doyt Perry Stadium. It was the final time that the game was played at a campus site.
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The game started inauspiciously for Bowling Green. The Falcons tackled Branden Oliver for a six-yard loss on the game's first play, but a face mask penalty negated the play and gave Buffalo a first down. Due in large part to the penalty, the Bulls were able to cross briefly into BGSU territory. Buffalo's second drive went nowhere, and both possessions ended in punts.
Bowling Green's day on offense started with dominance by Travis Greene. He carried five times during BGSU's first 11 plays and gained 70 yards, including individual runs of 20 and 33 yards. BGSU moved into Buffalo territory on both drives but could manage points only on the second, when Tyler Tate kicked a successful 40-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
After the score, the Bulls earned a first down and threatened to get another in Bowling Green territory when Oliver was tackled by Ted Ouellet for a five-yard loss on 3rd-and-1. Buffalo's punt pinned BGSU at their own 1, and a conservative set of plays resulted in a punt by the Falcons.
It was at this point that BGSU first threatened to take firm control of the game. The Brian Schmiedebusch punt was short, just 32 yards, and UB's Devin Campbell settled at the BGSU 41 to catch it. Campbell muffed the catch, and Greg Hohenstein recovered for Bowling Green. A quick 18-yard run by Greene took the ball onto Buffalo's side of the field, but the Falcons could only gain eight yards on the next three plays. Head coach Dave Clawson then chose to go for the first down on the fourth down play.
Now, it was Buffalo's turn to steal momentum. Blake Bean forced a hurried pass by Matt Johnson, and Shaun Joplin was unable to catch it. The Bulls took over on downs at their own 34. From there, Bulls' quarterback Joe Licata was finally able to get the Buffalo offense revved up. He completed four passes in five plays for 58 yards to move the ball to the Bowling Green 5, with the final of the four completions going to Campbell on a third down play. On 3rd-and-goal from the 2, Oliver ran untouched around the right end for a touchdown, which gave Buffalo a 7-3 lead.
Defense dominated the remainder of the first half, as the two teams punted on five consecutive possessions before Buffalo ran out the final ten seconds of the half with a kneel-down.
Missed opportunities continued to define the Falcons at the opening of the second half. A 31-yard pass on the fourth play of the half from Matt Johnson to Shaun Joplin put the Falcons at the Buffalo 19, their deepest point in Buffalo territory to that point in the game. However, on the next play, Johnson threw a poor pass that was intercepted by Lee Skinner. It was BGSU's fifth time inside Buffalo's 45 yard line, and they had only three points to show for the effort.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, they could not take advantage of their only significant takeaway of the game, and it cost them dearly. After one first down, Buffalo had to punt, and Bowling Green took over at their own 29 with 10:07 left in the third quarter. During the six-play drive, the Falcons gained zero net yards on the drive's first- and second-down plays. The third-down plays were something different. First, on 3rd-and-8, Johnson threw a rainbow down the left sideline that Alex Bayer caught for a 48-yard gain to the Buffalo 21. Then, on 3rd-and-12 from the 23, Johnson hit another long pass, this time on the right sideline of the end zone. Joplin made an acrobatic catch, got one foot down, and secured BGSU's first touchdown and a 10-7 lead.
After forcing a three-and-out, Bowling Green was pinned back at their own 7 yard line for their next drive. A false start penalty pushed them even further back, to their own 4. After the penalty, Johnson executed one of his great play-fakes (even fooling the TV camera person) and rumbled 56 yards down the right sideline. Derek Brum finally caught him, but not until he had reached the Buffalo 40. Buffalo forced a fourth-down play after three Greene runs gained only five yards, but Clawson gambled for the first down. Johnson had time in the pocket, rolled left and found Tyler Beck for a 13 yards and a first down. Two plays later, Greene rushed around the left end for a 14-yard touchdown to give the Falcons a ten-point lead at 17-7.
One of the more controversial plays of the game occurred after an exchange of punts. On first down from his own 27, Licata took the snap and was immediately sacked for a ten-yard loss by Jairus Campbell. Licata fumbled the ball on the play, and BGSU recovered it inside Buffalo's 10. However, officials ruled that Licata's forward progress had been stopped, and the ruling (which couldn't be reviewed) erased the fumble. Buffalo then moved the ball into BGSU territory before two incompletions and a sack by Ouellet forced another punt.
Finally, Bowling Green put Buffalo away for good. On 3rd-and-9 from the BGSU 31, Johnson connected on another long pass, this time to Joplin down the left sideline. Joplin brought the pass in at the Buffalo 37 and then raced another 30 yards for a 62-yard gain. Johnson rolled around the left side and dove into the end zone on the next play for a 7-yard touchdown and an insurmountable 24-7 lead. The fun rub about that drive was that, on the play immediately before Joplin's catch, Greene appeared to lose a fumble on a run that Buffalo recovered. However, officials again ruled that forward progress had stopped, allowing BGSU to keep the ball.
Nothing like evening the score with tit-for-tat bad calls.
After the game's final touchdown, Bowling Green held Buffalo on downs twice, and Cameron Truss intercepted Licata once. The game ended as Buffalo was trying to move the ball into position for another score.
Bowling Green outgained Buffalo 490-236 overall, and over one-third of Buffalo's yards (84) were gained on their final two drives of the game, when the contest had been decided. BGSU gained over 300 yards in the second half alone. The primary difference in the game was on the ground. Bowling Green gained 260 rushing yards on 48 carries, while the Bulls had half as many carries (24) for just 15 net yards.
An even more telling stat? Third-down conversions. In the first half, Buffalo was 4-for-9 on third downs, while BGSU was just 1-for-8. In the second half, that flipped completely. Bowling Green went 5-for-9 on third down, and UB was just 1-for-8. Each team finished 1-for-3 on fourth down attempts.
Neither quarterback was very efficient, but Matt Johnson made big plays when they really mattered. Johnson was just 11-for-26 but managed 230 yards to go with one touchdown and one interception. Johnson averaged 21 yards per completion. Joe Licata completed 21 of 45 pass attempts for 221 yards and one interception. His average per completion was nearly half of Johnson's.
On the ground, Travis Greene dominated for Bowling Green. He carried 30 times for 129 yards and a touchdown. Greene now needs just 23 yards to break BGSU's single-season record for rushing yards. Johnson added 72 yards and a touchdown on ten carries, while William Houston had 47 yards of his own. Buffalo's Branden Oliver ran for 46 yards on 18 carries and earned one touchdown. Licata lost a net 30 yards on five rushes, all recorded BGSU sacks.
Shaun Joplin was the only BGSU player with more than one catch and made each count. His six receptions went for 149 yards. One was a touchdown catch, while another reception set up the game's final touchdown. Buffalo receivers were led by Alex Neutz, who caught six balls for 66 yards.
On defense, Buffalo's Khalil Mack was the advertised star, but Bowling Green's Ted Ouellet stole the show. Ouellet had five tackles, and three of them were for losses. Two of those were sacks, and Ouellet also had a quarterback hurry. Seven different Falcon players had tackles for loss, and five players had at least half of a sack. Mack has 12 tackles, and his 2.5 tackles for loss allowed him to set a new NCAA career record in that category. However, Mack had no sacks.
Buffalo's loss drops their record to 8-4 overall and 6-2 in the MAC. The Bulls are still likely to receive a bowl bid but will now have to spend an anxious week waiting to see what happens elsewhere in the college football world. Their bowl fate will be decided next weekend.
Bowling Green improves to 9-3 overall and 7-1 in the MAC with their win. It's their first 9-win regular season since 2003. They will now face Northern Illinois next Friday night in Detroit, Mich. for the MAC Championship at Ford Field. The Falcons are now likely headed to one of the MAC's primary bowl tie-ins.