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Reflections and takeaways from the 2018 MAC bowl games

A lackluster 1-5 result for the MAC, with the Bobcats saving the conference from a complete calamity.

NCAA Football: Frisco Bowl-Ohio vs San Diego State Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

College football season is officially over until August. Clemson won its second national championship in three years, solidifying its spot as the co-premier program in college football right beside Nick Saban’s machine at Alabama. Including the CFP Final, 39 bowl games were inserted into the record books from December 15 to January 7. For the third-straight bowl season, the same conference finished with the worst postseason record.

The MAC, 1-5 in 2018, is 2-15 in bowl games since 2016. For the second-straight year, the Ohio Bobcats saved the conference from complete agony. The conference’s 7-22 (.241) record is the worst in the playoff era, and the MAC isn’t faring well against its sister conferences. MAC teams are 2-6 against the C-USA and 2-7 against the Sun Belt during the 5-year time span.

Six MAC teams received opportunities to take home bowl trophies this season. Here are several takeaways from each contest, ranging from Boise, ID to Mobile, AL to Nassau, Bahamas.

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl

Georgia Southern 23, Eastern Michigan 21

Eastern Michigan’s late-game misery strikes again. Fourth quarters have been anything but kind to Eastern Michigan in the past few years. Thankfully, the program is now a far-cry from the 1-to-3-win cellar dweller it used to be, but the hardships in Ypsilanti are striking in a different manner. Dating back to 2016, 13 of the Eagles’ last 15 losses have been by one possession. Those tough losses include six overtime games (nine total overtime periods played). Given what Eagles’ fans have been through recently, the Camellia Bowl ending was like watching the Titanic — the result going into the final scene was too predictable. Georgia Southern faced a game-deciding 4th-and-10, and quarterback Shai Werts easily ran 29 yards to keep his team’s chances alive. Then, Tyler Bass sunk the game winner and shattered Eastern Michigan’s hearts as time expired. Another brutal heartbreak.

Mike Glass III showed his true potential as a passer. Glass absolutely balled out in the second half. Primarily a running quarterback, Glass looked extremely comfortable maneuvering around the pocket and finding open receivers. His 75-yard connection with Arthur Jackson III to start the third quarter was the start of a memorable night for him. On Eastern Michigan’s final possession, trailing by six, Glass completed 6-of-9 passes for 45 yards, adding an extra 17 with his legs. Glass is back in Ypsilanti next year for his senior campaign, and after his strong performance on college football’s biggest stage, Chris Creighton’s offense could take a grand step in 2019.

Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl

UAB 37, Northern Illinois 13

Rod Carey loses sixth-straight bowl game, and another one in embarrassing fashion. As of recently, Northern Illinois and bowl games go together like barbecue sauce and ice cream. Since Rod Carey took command of the Huskies from Dave Doeren for the 2012 Orange Bowl versus Florida State, Northern Illinois has compiled an 0-6 bowl record, losing postseason games by a combined score of 232-81 (average of 38.7-13.5 per game). However, Carey was recently hired by Temple, so the Huskies have likely played their last bowl game under the “Rodfather.” Carey mastered winning MAC West titles and earned a pair of conference titles in DeKalb, but bowl games were an entirely different monster.

The Huskies came out flat against rather equal competition thanks to poor play calling and the inability to cover UAB’s receivers in one-on-one coverage. UAB wide receiver Xavier Ubosi, Offensive MVP of the Game, destroyed the Huskies’ secondary on simple streak routes. The senior Blazer hauled in seven receptions for 227 yards and three touchdowns, easily getting that extra step on his closest defender in the most dominant receiver performance of bowl season. While the Huskies performed well below their usual defensive level, offensively, NIU’s drives seemed to go nowhere. Play-calling was ultra conservative and the Huskies averaged 2.5 yards per carry on 44 rushing attempts. Considering Childers was accurate on the bevy of screen passes he attempted, NIU should have elected on more downfield throws in the comeback effort. That’s how they erased a 19-point deficit in Detroit.

DXL Frisco Bowl

Ohio 27, San Diego State 0

For the second-straight year, you can argue Ohio was the best team in the MAC. Yes, Ohio finished 9-4, and once again, failed to participate in the MAC Championship Game. But once again, the Bobcats absolutely demolished their opponent in bowl season. Ohio hasn’t allowed a single touchdown in its last two bowl appearances, plastering UAB and San Diego State by a combined score of 68-6. The Bobcats were three points short of MAC champ NIU this year but defeated the MAC’s lone 10-win team in Buffalo, 52-17. Frank Solich’s team won six of its final seven contests, but Miami (OH) proved to be this year’s Akron for the Bobcats. Slipping up in trap games against middling teams is what’s preventing Ohio from claiming its first MAC title since 1968. Still, at the time the season concluded, Ohio looked like the most powerful team in the conference.

All hail A.J. Ouellette, who finished his storied Ohio career in the best way. Unless your name is Jonathan Taylor, there’s not a running back in college football who finished 2018 in a more dominant manner than Ouellette. The senior, who has been the Bobcats’ primary back since 2014, broke out for 168, 196, 169, and 164 yards in his final four appearances to slide into third on Ohio’s all-time rushing list. In his 164-yard, MVP-winning performance against San Diego State, Ouellette just broke out for 7-to-10-yard carries at will. He never carried a ball more than 15 yards, but he remained consistent and helped the Bobcats steadily drive down the field and kill clock. The defense also did a whale of a favor allowing zero points, but Ouellette’s power run game didn’t look like something Rocky Long’s team had an answer for, contributing to the 27-0 final result.

Bahamas Bowl

FIU 35, Toledo 32

How Toledo lost this game is baffling. Toledo played an excellent game... but the Rockets still trailed by 10 with under a minute remaining on the clock. Freshman feature back Bryant Koback unusually struggled in the run game, but Shakif Seymour and Eli Peters made up for it, and Toledo averaged 4.5 yards on the ground. Peters was a wizard through the air with 264 yards and three touchdowns, finding Diontae Johnson open on many routes. The Rockets built a 10-point lead heading into the second quarter, thanks to an FIU fumble on the opening kickoff. Toledo tied the Panthers 1-1 in the turnover battle, so FIU didn’t get an advantage there. Every Toledo drive seemed to progress, but so many halted at midfield. The Rockets, who were rarely gifted with favorable field position, finished 2-of-11 on third downs, often resorting to the punt. And FIU’s offense capitalized nearly every time. However, given the level of offensive execution, it’s amazing the Rockets weren’t really that close to winning the Bahamas Bowl.

Diontae Johnson is an NFL Draft pick. Six receptions, 98 yards, and one touchdown is what the junior posted on the FIU defense before declaring through the draft with an Instagram post. The former track star and now a back-to-back First Team All-MAC selection demonstrated a litany of abilities scouts are looking for in a wide receiver in Nassau. His 4.4-speed and considerable strength were on full display in one of his best performances of 2018. He finished eighth in the FBS in receiving yards in a career-defining 2017 with Logan Woodside at quarterback. After another stellar performance on ESPN, Johnson should at worst fall in the fifth-to-seven round range come April.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

BYU 49, Western Michigan 18

Yikes. This is team has become a shell of the 13-1 Cotton Bowl team of 2016. Jon Wassink’s season-concluding injury certainly didn’t help the Broncos, losers of five of their last six, but Western Michigan’s defense once again laid an egg. Excluding an FCS doormat and 2-10 Georgia State, Western Michigan allowed 55 (Syracuse), 49 (Michigan), and 49 (BYU) in its 2018 non-conference games. It wasn’t quite Auburn-Purduesque on the scoreboard, but Western Michigan proved to be extremely outmatched by a 6-6 team on the blue turf, after leading 10-7 at halftime.

Zach Wilson didn’t throw an incompletion. It’s hard to win a game when the opposing quarterback completes all 18 of his passes, throws for 317 yards, and tosses four touchdowns. BYU’s Zach Wilson was basically hosting a practice with his wide receivers at Albertsons Stadium. Wilson completed passes to eight different targets and checked out of the game with 11:38 left with an astronomical passer rating of 321.3. Then, we got to witness 25-year old senior Tanner Mangum in mop-up duty after Wilson’s early exit. Wilson was one completion short of Mike Bobo’s record of 19 in the 1997 Outback Bowl with Georgia.

Dollar General Bowl

Troy 42, Buffalo 32

Buffalo’s dream season came to a nightmare close. It was Monday, November 12, when the Bulls were knocking on the door of the AP Poll, on the fringe of an accomplishment that hadn’t been achieved in program history. With a 9-1 record, 29 votes, and wins over Temple, Eastern Michigan, and Toledo, Buffalo was a lock to finish ranked if it won its final four contests. Instead, a 52-17 debacle in Athens, Ohio, deprived the program of a ranking. Although the Bulls still advanced to the conference championship, they blew a 19-point lead to a considerable underdog in Northern Illinois. For the final act of the season, Buffalo’s defense allowed 21 fourth quarter points to Troy, losing by 10. Despite a 24-21 lead in the middle of the third, the program’s first bowl win slipped out of its hands and Lance Leipold’s team lost three out of its last four — favored in two of those losses. Regardless, Buffalo made an incredible leap in 2018 by winning double-digit games for the first time in program history and establishing a footprint in the MAC title game for the first time in a decade. Even with major players departing, the future is bright under Leipold.

There weren’t enough Tyree Jackson-to-Anthony Johnson connections. I’ll say this for two reasons. First off, Jackson and Johnson are both headed to the NFL Draft after long and storied careers at Buffalo. Both offensive superstars garnered First Team All-MAC selections in 2018 and earned bids to the upcoming Senior Bowl. Secondly, Buffalo needed more Johnson to dominate the Troy secondary. Johnson finished with just five catches and 67 yards in the Dollar General Bowl. Jackson and his favorite wideout are players with the ability to take over and win games, and the Jackson-Johnson combination previously produced 238 yards and three touchdowns to win a close shootout against Miami (OH). Buffalo needed to echo that performance in Mobile and attempt more deep passes to No. 83.