Buffalo ushered in Christmas Day with a present it first opened last year.
After winning its first-ever bowl game last December, Buffalo (6-1, 5-0 MAC) added new postseason hardware to the collection by topping Marshall (7-3, 4-1 C-USA) 17-10 in the 2020 Camellia Bowl. The Bulls finish their season with their highest win percentage in program history, while becoming the first MAC Championship Game participant since 2014 to triumph in bowl season.
With All-American running back Jaret Patterson sidelined to due a right knee injury sustained from the conference title game, his running mate Kevin Marks shouldered the load in the season finale. Marks produced 138 rushing yards in a Camellia Bowl MVP performance, dishing in the go-ahead rushing touchdown with 1:09 remaining in the contest.
Points were at a premium in a matchup that featured the third best scoring offense in the FBS pitted against the top scoring defense in the country. Buffalo had zero issues traversing the field to start the game, making reservations inside the Marshall 25-yard line on each of its first four possessions. A missed field goal and a turnover on downs prevented Buffalo from scoring early but by creating defensive stops, the game remained scoreless through the Bulls’ miscues.
Buffalo ignited the scoring for the game on a 4th and goal in the second quarter. With Marshall’s defense selling out on a Marks halfback dive, quarterback Kyle Vantrease faked the handoff and trotted around the edge for an easy walk-in touchdown. The Bulls then increased their lead to 10-0 after sinking their first — and only — field goal of the 2020 season, dubbed “a Christmas miracle” by the ESPN broadcasting team.
Marshall’s offense, working without its star running back Brenden Knox, finally woke up immediately preceding halftime. The Thundering Herd used a heavy dosage of running back Sheldon Evans to maneuver down the field. To land on the scoreboard, backup halfback Knowledge McDaniel punched in a 2-yard run with 42 seconds remaining in the first half.
Marshall traveled back down near the goal line to begin the third quarter, but an integral stop by Buffalo’s defense on 2nd down from the 1-yard line ultimately forced the Thundering Herd to kick a tying field goal. Upon evening the score at 10-10, the Thundering Herd followed up with their first three-and-out forced of the afternoon. Marshall’s offense continued its groove, but kicker Shane Ciucci missed a 43-yard field goal which could have resulted in the first lead change of the 2020 bowl season.
While Buffalo’s first four drives invaded inside the Marshall 25, none of the next four did that. The Bulls even committed the lone turnover of the game on one of those drives, as Vantrease threw an interception to Nazeeh Johnson. The interception was all for naught, as Buffalo manufactured a three-and-out following the giveaway.
Keeping the score knotted at 10-10 allowed Buffalo to piece together a clock-eating, game-winning drive — and the team executed to perfection. The Bulls’ offense took the field with 7:17 remaining and exited to the sidelines with 1:09 on the clock. A series of quick passes from Vantrease to wide receivers Jovany Ruiz and Antonio Nunn allowed the Bulls to move the sticks. Marks was responsible for the finishing touches to put Buffalo up 17-10, scoring from two yards out for his seventh touchdown of 2020.
The job was not finished though. The defense required a stop to prevent Marshall from tying, or potentially winning, the Camellia Bowl. Things began to look dreary as the Thundering Herd registered a first down on the Buffalo 20-yard line with 30 ticks remaining. But Buffalo sent blitzers, and the Thundering Herd couldn’t handle the pressure. Outside linebacker Kadofi Wright brought Grant Wells to the turf on second down. On an all-critical fourth down, defensive end Eric Black dove and tripped up Wells from behind to close the door on Marshall’s comeback.
The bowl’s MVP, Marks, finishes the season with 741 yards in seven games. That ensures both All-MAC running backs on Buffalo’s roster — Patterson and Marks — finish with an average of over 100 rushing yards per game.
Vantrease dropped back to pass 27 times, completing 16 for 140 yards. His primary receivers, Ruiz and Nunn, finished with 61 and 49 yards, respectively. On defense, middle linebacker James Patterson played a pivotal role in limiting Marshall to 248 yards of total offense with a team-high nine tackles. Stepping up for All-MAC defensive end Malcolm Koonce (opted out to focus on NFL Draft preparation), Black — who recorded the game-winning sack — produced two out of the team’s four sacks in the victory.
The Camellia Bowl victory ensures the MAC will have a .500 or better record in bowl season for the first time in 2011. Buffalo has done its part in promoting the conference this postseason by winning its second bowl game in two years — the second-longest bowl win streak in the MAC.