The Buffalo Bulls (6-6, 5-3 MAC East) found themselves between a rock and a hard place with just under two minutes remaining at the Zips 16-yard line.
The Akron Zips (2-10, 1-7 MAC East) had shut down the Bulls’ normally efficient rushing attack and forced them to throw. After getting to the 16-yard line on a number of rhythm passes, the Bulls had missed three-in-a-row and faced fourth-and-10 after a botched route combination doomed the prior play.
Second-year coach Mo Linguist saw something he liked, and opted to run the same exact play with Buffalo’s bowl aspirations on the line.
The play worked, with Quian Williams making up for the prior misstep with aplomb, catching the ball, tilting upfield, and pirouetting the ball across the goal line as he was being tackled out-of-bounds by two Akron defenders to give the Bulls the lead.
It was the call which wound up deciding the game, as the Buffalo Bulls will go bowling after a rousing, come-from-behind 23-22 win over the Akron Zips on Friday afternoon.
It was a spooky start for both teams at the game’s genesis, with Jeff Undercuffler Jr. tossing an underthrown ball into the hands of Buffalo defensive back Marcus Fuqua on the third play of the game after Akron committed a false start and lost five yards on a screen pass on back-to-back plays.
Buffalo would find themselves in much the same situation, with limited success inside the Akron 15-yard line forcing them to go for it on fourth-and-two from the Akron four-yard line. Cole Snyder took the ball on the designed QB run, but was stopped short of the conversion line, forcing a turnover-on-downs to keep the score at 0-0.
The Zips were the first team to settle in to any sort of rhythm, with Undercuffler and the Zips finding success in the short pass game, with four passing plays of 16 yards or more to set up a drive which would end in a 16-yard touchdown reception for Daniel George, his second scoring catch in as many weeks.
The 11-play, 97-yard drive put the score at 7-0 Akron early with 7:40 to go in the first quarter.
Buffalo struggled once again on the ensuing drive, with the Zips defense forcing a three-and-out on several dropped passes. The punt unit trotted onto the field, operating just in front of their own endzone at the Buffalo 11-yard line.
Punter Anthony Venerri fumbled the snap, and a fracas in the endzone resulted in Akron reserve tight end Grant Gainer coming up with the ball for what looked like a special teams touchdown. The play was called down at the one-yard line and reviewed, with officials ultimately giving Venerri possession downed in the endzone, giving the Zips a safety to extend the lead to 9-0 Zips with 7:26 to go first quarter.
The defenses tightened up and turned around the tempo of the game from there, with both teams exchanging punts on five-straight possessions to run out the first quarter and some of the second quarter.
Buffalo blinked once again with 13:39 to go in the second quarter, as Mike Washington Jr. fumbled the ball on a three-yard gain and Darrian Lewis recovered the ball to gift Akron the ball once again.
The Zips made the Bulls pay four plays later, with Alex Adams hauling in a one-yard touchdown reception set up by a 25-yard third-down reception by Shocky Jacques-Louis the prior play to put the Zips up 16-0 with 12:14 to go in the first half.
The Bulls kicked themselves into gear on the ensuing drive, earning their first first-down conversion of the day on a 33-yard pass to Cole Garrity on the first play of the series— and extending the drive on a eight-yard pass on fourth-and-three to Jovany Ruiz-Navarro— to eventually score a field goal from 43 yards out and put UB on the board at 16-3 with 9:21 to go in the first half.
The Zips tried once again to add to their lead with 1:16 remaining, but Cory Smigel missed from 42 yards out, giving Buffalo the ball back.
UB would add to their scoring count on their final possession of the first half in style, with a 38-yard dart from Cole Snyder to Justin Marshall on third-down, cutting the gap to 16-10 at the halftime whistle.
Buffalo once again stepped up to the moment after a short 31-yard punt gifted the Bulls the ball at the Akron 42-yard line, with Cole Snyder converting a key fourth-and-one QB sneak inside the Zips redzone to extend the drive before tossing a touchdown to Justin Marshall in the back right corner of the endzone to go up 17-16 with 8:25 remaining in the third quarter.
It was a drive where disaster was averted, as Mike Washington Jr. muffed a hand-off on first down before falling on it the play prior to the TD pass.
Akron stopped the bleeding with 11:38 remaining, with Clyde Price III capping off an 11-play, 93-yard drive with a 17-yard scamper into the endzone to put the Zips back up top the Bulls by a 22-17 margin. The two-point conversion pass from Undercuffler fell short of Jacques-Louis in the back of the endzone, keeping it a five-point game.
Things got testy on the next possession, with Akron committing three drive-extending penalties— including a taunting call after the play— to help Buffalo move the ball into Zips territory.
The Bulls were ultimately unable to make anything of it, however, as the Zips tagged Mike Washington twice behind the line for five lost yards and then sacked Cole Snyder for an additional six-yard loss to force fourth-and-21 from the Akron 35-yard line.
Alex McNulty would attempt a 53-yard kick to narrow the gap, but it sailed short and to the left with under seven minutes remaining.
Chaos would ensue with just over three minutes remaining, as Rayvante Embry hauled in a 28-yard pass down the middle of the field to get Buffalo to their side of midfield, then Tyson Durante intercepted Cole Snyder on an overthrow of Justin Marshall and returned it to the Buffalo 38-yard line on the very next play.
Clyde Price III fumbled the ball on Akron’s first play from scrimmage, and Buffalo’s Jaylon Bass recovered, gifting Buffalo the ball at their own 40-yard line as if nothing happened.
The Bulls led a methodical drive after that, hooking up on the first four passes to gain 44 yards and set up in the Akron redzone with under two minutes remaining.
Drops and missed connections would once again plague the Bulls, however, as Mike Washington Jr. couldn’t hold on to a swing pass and Cole Snyder overthrew Justin Marshall in the left back corner of the endzone on a pressured throw to force third-and-10.
The third-down pass was nothing doing either, as Quian Williams couldn’t run his proper route to get to the timing ball.
It mattered not, as Buffalo ran the same exact play on fourth-and-10 with Williams hauling it in the second time around for a 16-yard score to put the Bulls up 23-22 with 1:15 remaining. The two-point conversion, pushed back due to a false start on everyone but the center, failed on an incomplete pass.
Akron would get one last push to try and take the lead at the quick after an errant kick gifted the Zips the ball at their own 40-yard line.
The Bulls defense stepped up, with Shaun Dolac and CJ Bazille sacking Jeff Undercuffler Jr. for a five-yard loss on the first play of the series before Marcus Fuqua found himself in the right place at the right time to pull down the game-ending interception, bookending the box score.
Buffalo’s aerial attack was on full display, as Cole Snyder finished 23-of-43 for 264 yards, three touchdowns and an interception on the day. Running back Mike Washington Jr. led in receptions (eight) with 58 yards, while Justin Marshall paced the offense with 83 yards and two touchdowns on six catches. Quian Williams, who had been quiet most of the day, hauled in the game-winning touchdown and finished with 30 yards on two catches.
It was a less-than-stellar effort running the ball, with Washington Jr.’s two fumbles especially standing out on 11 carries for 19 yards. Mark Scott finished second in rushing with 19 yards on four carries.
Defensively, the two usual suspects topped the charts for the Bulls in linebackers Shaun Dolac (12 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks) and James Patterson (11 tackles, two tackles-for-loss.) CJ Bazille (1.5) and Daymond Williams (one) also collected sacks, while Caleb Offord led the defense with two pass break-ups and Marcus Fuqua pulled down both interceptions, his sixth and seventh of the season.
The usually sure-footed Alex McNulty was off his game today, with a miss from 33 yards and a make from 43. Outside of his fumble for a safety, Anthony Venerri generally had a good day punting, averaging 47.7 yards per boot on six attempts, including a long of 64 yards and three kicks over 50+ yards.
Akron flew high in the first half, but struggled to put the game away late.
Jeff Undercuffler Jr. started once again in place of DJ Irons, finishing 28-of-45 for 247 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Daniel George did most of the damage for the Zips, with 100 yards and a touchdown on seven catches, while Shocky Jacques-Louis kept several drives alive on a five-catch, 94-yard effort. Alex Adams continued a six-game scoring streak, with a touchdown on seven catches for 18 yards.
Clyde Price III was the lone rusher for Akron running effort, with 79 yards and a touchdown on a 19-carry effort— but also coughed up the ball twice, with the second fumble ultimately setting up Buffalo’s game-winner.
Bubba Arslanian led Akron with another double-digit tackle effort (11), with one tackle-for-loss. Zach Morton and Victor Jones both collected sacks on key plays to further the Akron agenda, while Tyson Durant picked off the interception which could have sealed the game in the Zips’ favor.
Cory Smigel missed on his lone field goal attempt from 43 yards out, while Noah Gettman had a day to forget about, with eight punts for an average of 35.5 net yards.
The win was massive for Buffalo, as they secure their fourth postseason appearance in five years with the result, and await their bowl placement tomorrow afternoon.
Akron, meanwhile, suffered another heartbreaking loss, their sixth contest of the 2022 campaign to end with a gap of nine points or less.