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MERMAID CITY MADNESS
A blow-by-blow account of Buffalo's wild 35-34 road win over Old Dominion.
Image from pilotonline.com
I was going to write a regular game story. More on that later. Instead, let’s dig into the semi-controlled chaos that was Buffalo’s 35-34 road victory over Old Dominion last night.
There’s just...so much to discuss. Settle in, this is a long one.
Anatomy of Insanity: First Quarter
15:00—Buffalo return man Ron Cook is accidentally tackled on the opening kickoff by teammate Dylan McDuffie at the UB 14. A tone is set.
14:50—The Bulls’ first play from scrimmage is a Kyle Vantrease pass attempt to WR Jamari Gassett, and pass interference is called on ODU defensive back Joe Joe Headen. Every great script has foreshadowing, and to start the game on a Monarch penalty is a sly touch by Fate.
14:09—Buffalo RB Kevin Marks, Jr. runs for the second of two consecutive one-yard gains. Another pattern: Bulls’ head coach Maurice Linguist and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery’s absolute faith in the run, and Buffalo’s inability to reward that trust.
WR Quian Williams catches a pass to convert the first down, Marks runs for another four yards on two carries, Vantrease dumps a ball into the dirt on what looks like a broken screen play, and UB is forced to punt. Pretty standard stuff.
11:41—Oh, but it is not! A false start moves Buffalo back to its own 31 yard line, and the punt is blocked ODU LB Steven Williams. Williams jetes like a dance major to take the kick off of his right hand. Bulls LB Shaun Dolac falls on the ball at the UB 11 yard line, and Old Dominion is in serious business.
So that’s the first insane thing to happen—enough so for Linguist to call a timeout at the 11:10 mark after Buffalo immediately surrenders a seven-yard pass on first down. Bad start, right?
10:30—Great start! After the UB defense stiffens, the Monarchs attempt a 25-yard FG. Now it’s Bulls DE C.J. Bazile’s turn to make an athletic play, bursting through the middle of the line, perfectly timing his leap to nail a two-handed block, and then cleanly scooping the ball of its rebound before rumbling 90 yards for a touchdown. We have two blocked kicks in only 4:30 of game time. Buffalo turned a terrible situation into a 7-0 lead.
Not much happens in the next series; Old Dominion is forced to punt (Monarchs punter Ethan Duane is Australian, a mildly interesting fact).
The Bulls start a drive at their own 14, run eight plays and burn over five minutes of clock, due in large part to six runs that average less than three yards per carry. UB is forced to punt.
3:49—Or attempt to punt! The Bulls punter are blocked again, this time by DE Deeve Harris in more of the traditional, dive-on-the-grenade style of punt blocking. ODU’s Khian’dre Harris—yes, a totally different Harris—returns the ball to Buffalo’s 26. This time, the Monarchs punch in with a two-yard Blake Watson run. We have a 7-7 tie.
2:31—Following a holding call to start the Bulls’ next drive, Vantrease hits Williams on a nine-yard sideline hook to the Buffalo 25. Williams is not tackled so much as he is bludgeoned by ODU’s Steven Williams (the punt-blocker).
Quian is literally lifted off of his feet by defensive back Damion Charity while Steven flies in and blows both of them up. Steven is flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, Charity staggers off the field (he’ll be back), and UB has a first down on its own 31.
On Quian: Throughout the season, Linguist’s singled out Quian as a team leader. In two seasons at Eastern Michigan, Quian caught 76 passes for 983 yards and eight TDs. Since his transfer to Buffalo, he’d quietly collected 214 receiving yards in his first three games, including 90+ against Wagner and Nebraska. Saturday felt like his first signature performance—nine catches, 134 yards, and a touchdown.
Anatomy of Insanity: Second Quarter
15:00—After the assault and battery, the drive turns more conventional and is highlighted by violent, if not always productive, running by Marks. Key moment: Marks bursts up the gut and would-be tackler Ryan Henry gets the Bulls’ horns. Henry is literally lifted and spun to the turf like an unfortunate matador.
Quian is targeted four times on this drive, the highlight coming on the first play of the second quarter: Vantrease drops a beautiful back-shoulder teardrop into Willams’ breadbasket at the Old Dominion 14-yard line.
13:49—Marks grinds out 10 more yards, and Vantrease scampers untouched from the four-yard line to score on a keeper. In a contest marked by ground games both brutal and beautiful, this may be the easiest run of them all. Buffalo leads, 14-7.
12:11—Sliding doors moment! The Monarchs gain momentum on their next drive, courtesy of a pair of connections between Old Dominion QB D.J. Mack, Jr. and TE Isaiah Spencer—and a 15-yard Buffalo face-mask penalty (recurring theme). ODU reaches the UB 41 before sputtering out.
But Old Dominion should have scored. ODU WR Isiah Paige flubbed a wide-open pass behind the secondary—I mean, wide open, and he likely dropped his eyes for a moment to see if charging safety Aapri Washington had the angle to flatten him (he didn’t).
Would this certain TD change everything that happened next? We’ll never know! Old Dominion is forced to punt.
8:25—Quian gets his first Buffalo touchdown on a 13-yard reception through the left slot. He bobbled the ball for a moment before recovering and bursting to the house.
This 3:38, 91-yard drive included three more targets and 75 receiving for Williams. Vantrease, on his rollout, froze an ODU linebacker with a pump fake so nasty it looked like the Bulls’ QB hit pause on the game. Vantrease will finish Saturday 17-of-26 for 191 yards and this TD, with no INTs or sacks taken. Buffalo’s up, 21-7.
Random Taylor Riggins update
Now would be a good time to mention that senior DE Taylor Riggins, the reigning MAC East Defensive Player of the Week after posting seven tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, and two forced fumbles against Coastal Carolina, sat out Saturday with an undisclosed injury. Postgame, Linguist said Riggins would be back for the MAC opener against Western Michigan on Oct. 2.
6:55—Duane punts after an ugly ODU three-and-out ends on a vicious Max Michel/Daymond Williams sack on Mack. Michel takes a bow. DE Kyler Laing, who gets extra playing time in the absence of Riggins and pays it off with five total tackles, including three for a loss, is fired up.
5:14—Vantrease is picked off in the end zone by CB Will Brocchini trying to hit WR Dominic Johnson from the Old Dominion 39 on a third-and-five pass, but no worries: it’s coming back on an offsides call. First down!
3:14—McDuffie shears off a 20-yard touchdown run, Buffalo’s longest of the game. It’s the seventh run of the drive. While the scoring play is pretty—McDuffie breaks loose on a sharp slant left followed by a hard cut into the narrow lane between tackle and guard, and an explosion to the end zone—the previous six attempts averaged just over two yards. Can’t really pin the blame on any one back because Marks, Cook, and McDuffie all got chances. The Monarchs, for all of the struggles, won more often than not in those trenches. This, too, will be important in the second half. Bulls are up, 28-7.
2:07—UB LB Kadofi Wright, normally a brilliant attacking defender, takes a mind-numbing 15-yard personal foul. Mack scrambles 40 yards before stumbling out of bounds at the Buffalo 40—at which point Wright decides to level the QB with a one-handed shove.
Wright’s transgression is soon atoned. Laing stops Mack for a five-yard loss on first down, and on second down, Wright strips the ball from RB Elijah Davis. Bulls LB Tim Terry snags the biscuit and completes a 67-yard scoop-and-score. UB now has a commanding 35-7 lead.
So let’s recap:
We’ve seen three blocked kicks, one of which resulted in a TD return.
We’ve seen a slew of personal fouls, a handful of devastating tackles and bone-crunching runs, an interception that wasn’t, and a save-the-ball TD from our transfer WR, who also has over 120 receiving yards this half.
We’ve also discovered that our star DE is out of the game.
Oh, and there was Mack’s 40-yard run, a fumble return for a touchdown, and a 28-point lead for the visiting Bulls.
What else could happen?
00:30—A 28-second, three-and-out UB drive ends in a punt. The ball is caught by Paige at ODU’s 12. Chased out of bounds at the 18, Buffalo’s Fabien Weitz then snags Paige’s jersey and literally tosses him into the Bulls’ kicking net. Paige is not pleased.
If you watch the replay, the play looked worse than it was—Weitz was clearly off-balance and Paige was not intentionally treated like a slippery cod.
Paige wanted to discuss the matter, and the entire UB bench flooded in the direction of the debate.
Again, the herd mentality looked worse than it was, but as the Monarchs' punt return team came to pull Paige away and ODU players began curiously edging from the home sideline, it looked—for a moment—like we could have an all-out brawl.
Cooler heads prevailed. Linguist gathered his entire team in a circle on the field and gave them a fiery speech on poise. This speech foreshadowed the second half, and proved to be painfully ironic.
Oh, and in the final 30 seconds of the half, Mack used the ensuing 15-yard personal foul on Weitz and two passes to WR Ali Jennings III to move the Monarchs to midfield. His Hail Mary attempt as the half expired was intercepted by Buffalo LB James Patterson, who—in a classy move—chose to step out of bounds rather than attempt a return.
Anatomy of Insanity: Third Quarter
I’m going to be honest with you.
I can tell you that the second half opened with an ODU drive that died on a fourth-and-10 sack by Patterson and DE Eric Black at UB’s 45.
I can tell you Kevin Marks then fumbled the ball, giving the ball right back to Old Dominion at the Bulls’ 47, on the next play from scrimmage.
I can tell you Mack converted a third-and-17 from Buffalo’s 42 with an amazing, twisting TD run to cut UB’s lead to 35-14 at 8:08 of the third quarter.
I can tell you Buffalo’s next drive ground to halt, and after a punt to ODU’s 15, Mack led the Monarchs on a 5:21, 85-yard journey that included two more UB personal fouls. Mack passed for 54 yards on the series, including a 29-yard strike to Isaiah Spencer on second-and-22, before the tough QB punched in a TD run. The score was now 35-21, Buffalo, with 34 seconds left in the third quarter.
I can tell you these things, but I was half-paying attention.
I did see the 42-yard touchdown run, and the 29-yard pass to Spencer, but for most of the third quarter, I was busy writing my game story.
The Folly of Youth
You see, when I was a younger man, sportswriting provided me the opportunity to cover every level of sport from Major League Baseball in the nation’s capital to high school volleyball in obscure corners of the Allegheny foothills. While it’s been a while since I typed a game write-up—a gamer—at times in my life I wrote several a week.
If you follow any sports writers on social media, you’ve seen them complain about late-ending games and the impact it has on their deadlines. This never fails to infuriate me.
I get it—writing is hard. Believe me, I know. Covering sports for a living, however, is an absolute blessing, especially when you are a tenured, well-paid writer on a good beat. I understand there are fewer of those jobs than ever, but if you have one, don’t moan about it online.
But I digress! I am admitting I fell into a bad habit learned from these old pros: write your gamer during the game. If everything breaks right, you plug in your quotes after the post-game presser and you’re golden.
Looking at a 35-7 halftime lead, I envisioned a completed newsletter before I even left Norfolk on Saturday night. So while I was present during the third quarter, perhaps I was not as engaged as I could have been.
You can see my notes below:
Notice on the right hand side are my questions for the post-game press conference, and on the left are the notes I kept at the start of the second half—I circled 34-21 when I started to wonder things like, hey, can Buffalo stop these guys any more?
You can see where I wrote, in my sloppy handwriting (devices have ruined penmanship, gang) after Old Dominion scored again at 8:36 of the fourth quarter, “—another 3+out - any doubt ODU will score?”
Let’s jump to that moment.
Anatomy of Insanity: Fourth Quarter
8:36—After a pair of UB three-and-outs—Buffalo gained one first down in the third quarter, it’s only first down of the second half—the Monarchs scored again.
Freshman RB Jon-Luke Peaker, who did not make an appearance in the first half after posting 160 total yards in Old Dominion’s win over Hampton two weeks’ earlier and getting nine touches against Liberty the week before, brings fresh legs off the bench and scores on a seven-yard run—his only rushing attempt of the game.
This particular drive was sparked by a 15-yard personal foul call on Buffalo’s Isaiah King (Norfolk native!) after a 31-yard run by ODU’s Blake Watson. The field flipped from the Old Dominion 40 to the UB 14.
It’s now 35-28, Bulls, and spoiler alert, UB is going three-and-out on its next two drives. We’re mostly going to skip those series except to note that Buffalo OL Bence Polgar left the game with what appeared to be a serious leg injury late in the game, a potentially critical loss on the verge of MAC season.
5:49—This ODU drive starts with a Kadofi Wright/George Wolo combo tackle on Watson’s two-yard run that I thought, upon initial impact, killed the 5’9, 193-lb. Old Dominion back. Perhaps Watson was feeling the pain because three plays later, following another 28-yard Mack strike to Jennings to move ODU to the Bulls’ 31, Patterson forced him to fumble.
Finally, some luck! No, wait—Jennings recovers for the Monarchs and is dragged down at Buffalo’s 17. Old Dominion gained 14 yards on a fumble.
Quick note: as you can imagine, and may have seen on the ESPN+ broadcast, the crowd was going nuts. The announced attendance was 18,000—that may have been, uh, an exaggeration—but they were loud, loud enough for Mack to wave his arms for silence at the line of scrimmage as the Monarchs’ snowball rolled ominously downhill towards the Bulls’ ski lodge.
4:07—Isiah Paige re-enters the chat. Paige—who previously muffed a sure TD catch, was thrown into a net, and (did I forget to mention?) killed ODU’s first drive of the fourth quarter when he was tripped up for a five-yard loss, leading to Old Dominion’s lone punt of the second half—catches a Mack pass at the Buffalo 11.
He spins, dives, and is in the process of crossing the goal line with the tying score when Patterson comes from a side angle and punches the ball loose (note - Patterson was previously misidentified as Bulls CB Ja’Marcus Ingram. I just saw a much cleaner version of the video-live, it was a swarm, and on the ESPN replay it was a blur. My apologies, James! That’s the second time in a week I’ve made a Patterson-related mistake and I swear it is not personal). This time, Daymond Williams recovers on the three-yard line, and UB has narrowly avoided catastrophe again.
Paige! Poor Paige! My God, how Paige alone could have changed this game!
So the Bulls have the ball. As previously noted, we’ll skip this three-and-out except to note that McDuffie avoided a safety by the same hair’s breadth that kept Paige out of the end zone, and Polgar suffered his injury.
So we fast forward to Jackson Baltar’s 50-yard punt from the depths of Buffalo territory, and a 13-yard Paige return that starts the ultimate Old Dominion drive at the Bulls’ 46 with 3:03 remaining.
3:03—Patience from ODU, and the battering ram continues to pound away at Buffalo’s willing, but thoroughly exhausted, defense. Old Dominion held the ball for 21:33 of the second half, versus 8:27 for the Bulls. It wasn’t outrageously hot Saturday night, but Norfolk is in the legitimate South, and it was humid. I can confirm I did not smell great when I got back to my car.
The drive starts with four runs for 22 yards, moving to the Bulls’ 28, before Mack throws an incomplete pass to monster-sized TE Zack Kuntz in the end zone—Kuntz drops the ball. He’ll get another chance.
Watson rushes for 10 yards to the UB 18 for a fresh set of downs. Mack throws an incompletion on first down as he’s dragged down by Michel—a breakout game for Max Michel, who was in on 10 tackles and records one and a half sacks.
Linguist calls a timeout, and as he did at the end of the first half, he gathers his team around him and urges—pleads—demands—poise in the final moments of the contest.
A Mack pass to TE Isaiah Spencer is broken up by Marcus Fuqua. Third down.
Mack completes a pass to Jennings for a one-yard loss. Fourth down and 11 from the Buffalo 19, less than 30 seconds on the clock.
Mack throws a fade to the 6’8, 245-lb. Kuntz in the upper right corner of the end zone—touchdown.
Touchdown. It’s 35-34, Buffalo. And, as you know, that’s how it will end.
Initially, it looked like Kuntz pushed off safety Corey Gross, a big man himself at 6’2, 205—but significantly smaller than Kuntz. Maybe he did. Regardless, the ball hits Kuntz right in the chest. The crowd goes wild.
So does freshman quarterback Reese Poffenbarger. The young backup, overwhelmed by the moment, runs onto the field without a helmet, and is nailed with a 15-yard flag.
No chance for a two-point conversion and the clean win now. ODU must kick the extra point for the tie. Another fiery Linguist speech to the assembled Bulls. Rice’s kick...pulls to the right. That’s the ballgame.
A little behind the scenes note: the initial report in the press box had the penalty on senior safety Harrell Blackmon, the same fellow who questioned the pocket presence of Liberty’s Malik Willis last week before the Flames QB torched Old Dominion for six touchdowns. What a perfectly ludicrous ending to an absolutely insane game it would have been. For Blackmon’s sake, I’m glad it didn’t happen that way. Bulls win, 35-34.
Linguist talked to the media after the game, and I’m not going to go through the trouble of pulling his quotes (it’s still a free newsletter, friends) except to say that he didn’t say much beyond the importance of poise.
To be fair to him, Linguist was on a Zoom call on a mobile device, using a single earpiece in a loud locker room with distractions everywhere—including the fact that his team just won a game in equal parts beatdown and collapse. I imagine he had other priorities, and look forward to his remarks on Tuesday.
What a game! It was madness.
Some will call this game a complete meltdown and consider Buffalo lucky to walk away with the win. I disagree. It doesn’t matter when you score your points; it matters that you score more. As for the strange Poffenbarger flag at the end of the game—that’s why you teach your team to stay off the field without their helmets. And the miss—kickers have to hit clutch kicks.
Gross, Wright, Michel, and Fuqua all finished with 10 total tackles apiece. The team recorded 10 tackles for losses. Patterson had six total tackles, the interception, and a forced fumble.
Tough game for the backfield: McDuffie (59 yards), Marks (33 yards), and Cook (11 yards) combined to net 101 yards on 34 carries, an average of three yards per attempt. A bad game for the backs usually means a bad game for the offensive line, as well, and Polgar’s injury compounded that situation.
No sacks allowed for the line, though, and only one tackle for a loss (granted, it was at the worst possible time and nearly resulted in a McDuffie safety).
On the ODU side, here’s to D.J. Mack, who put on a heck of a show. Mack finished 24-of-41 on pass attempts for 224 yards, a TD, and the Hail Mary INT. He was sacked four times and rushed for a net total of 84 yards with two TDs. Watson added 81 rushing yards and a TD, and Ali Jennings caught seven passes for 68 yards.
MAC play starts Saturday.
Bulls and Bills, Living Together?
Game aside, the biggest UB football news of the weekend is The Athletic senior writer Tim Graham’s reporting Pegula Sports and Entertainment is offering to pull the university into its efforts to build a new home for the Buffalo Bills.
The school, Graham notes, is open to an arrangement—but only if the Amherst location, adjacent to North Campus and one of three potential sites for the new stadium, wins out. The other options include Orchard Park, the current home of the Bills, and downtown Buffalo.
UB athletics director Mark Alnutt is listening to what PSE has to say. UB Stadium is universally unloved for its poor sightlines, rinky-dink scoreboard, open-to-the-elements seating and lack of amenities, but playing games on campus is integral to the football program’s vision.
“Being able to have student engagement on campus is critical for us,” Alnutt said. “When alumni come back to campus, when our students want to attend the games, we want our community to have that connection. That’s very important.”
Graham also reports that UB has a soon-to-be-revealed master plan for its athletic facilities, including new track and soccer facilities that would open a path to football-focused renovations to UB Stadium. The potential upgrades include a new scoreboard, removal of the track, sinking the field to add seating and improve sitelines, and more.
This Week in #MACtion: Let’s Tip Our Caps To Bowling Green
Western Michigan’s 44-41 road victory over Pittsburgh last weekend was the upset of the MAC season for, well, exactly one week.
Bowling Green—a team that lost to South Alabama, the 108th-ranked team in the country according to ESPN’s FPI, and an underdog for its own homecoming game last week against an FCS opponent, Murray State (BGSU won)—picked off a school from the Big Ten.
Senior QB Matt McDonald ran for both BGSU touchdowns on a net total of -7 rushing yards. As a team, Bowling Green somehow managed to lower its average rushing yards per game, finishing with 22 yards on the ground after entering the game averaging 53.
McDonald also threw for 170 yards on 35 attempts with one interception.
The real news here, of course, is that I picked it! If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see I accurately predicted the Gophers would not cover the 31-point spread. What can I say, I saw something in our feathered friends.
How did my other picks turn out? Let’s take a look:
Army 23, Miami (Ohio) 10. Nailed this one. Seriously, Army is a great week-to-week bet, and at 4-0, may sneak its way into the Top 25 soon.
Northwestern 35, Ohio 6. Got this game, as well. Four games into the season and the Bobcats are a cool 0-4. New head coach Tim Albin is already on his darkest timeline.
Central Michigan 31, FIU 27. Missed on this, and would have missed badly had the Chips not scored 21 points in the fourth quarter. An interception of Florida International QB Max Bortenschlager in the end zone as time expired sealed this one for CMU.
Western Michigan 23, San Jose State University 3. Got this one. The Broncos were 2.5-point favorites at home against the visiting Spartans. WMU has won three in a row since losing to Michigan at the Big House in the first week of the season.
Toledo 22, Ball State 12. I missed this one, and I knew better. After winning 10 games in a row, the Cardinals have lost their last three. Got greedy over Ball State +5 at home. BSU plays Army next week and I’m telling you to take the Black Knights right now. As for Toledo—are the Rockets closer to the team that almost beat Notre Dame, or the team that lost at home to Colorado State? Still figuring these guys out.
Eastern Michigan 59, Texas State 21. Got this one easily. The Eagles were 6.5-point favorites over the Bobcats, a team that lost its last game to unranked FCS opponent Incarnate Word.
Northern Illinois 41, Maine 14. Congrats to the Huskies, who deserved a win after their heartbreaking loss to Wyoming was followed with an absolute throttling by Michigan. FCS Maine was getting 24 points and NIU covered, so congratulations to my prognostication skills, as well.
Maryland 37, Kent State 16. A noble 4th quarter drive for the 14.5-point cover stalled as KSU fell to a tough Terrapin squad. No shame, Golden Flashes, it happens! Messed up my pick, though. Kent State played two teams ranked in the top seven (Texas A&M and Iowa) and a shockingly good Maryland team to start this season. Keep paying those athletic department bills, gentlemen.
Ohio State 59, Akron 7. Called it! Buckeyes cover a 48.5-point spread.
I thought Buffalo would cover. They did not.
My record: a cool 6-4 against the spread this week and 9-1 picking the winners straight-up. That puts my season-long record at 20-22-1 against the spread (we’re getting there!) and 29-5 picking the money line. Play those money line parlays, people!
All right, I’m going to bed.