December 5, 2008 - Buffalo 42, Ball State 24 - UB Wins the MAC Championship
In twelve games, Buffalo recovered 17 fumbles and intercepted 7 balls. They relied on the other team's mistakes to cover over their mistakes, winning the turnover margin by 2+ four times, going 3-1 in those games. Buffalo couldn't expect Ball State to oblige, the Cardinals only gave the ball up 10 times in twelve games. Even more discouraging is that even when Ball State lost the turnover battle by 2+, they were still 4-0 with a 17 point average margin of victory.
Ball State was better on paper in every facet of the game, except one: The Cardiac Bulls knew how to steal a game. Ball State only trailed in the 2nd half twice all season, and on average the winning points in their games was scored by halftime. On the other hand, UB trailed in the second half seven times and played in seven games that ended within one possession. The winning point was scored on average with 13 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, including four overtime games, and 3 games that were decided on the final play of regulation.
After two weeks of Buffalo (YES BUFFALO!?!) articles, praise for Turner Gill and speculation on where the coach would be coaching in 2009, it was finally game time. Despite the praise for Turner and the media friendly story of the 1958 Bulls, and the African American Coach and Athletic Director leading the Buffalo football renaissance, it was time to get real, the Bulls were going to lose, and they were going to lose bad.
Except they didn't, the Bulls were competitive and the Bulls won. Even the staunchest supporters had their turn the TV off moment, where they left this team for dead:
When Temple took the lead with 38 seconds left,
When WMU scored 22 points in 9 minutes,
When Army went up 14 on an 81-yard run
When Akron tied the game with 23 seconds remaining
or When UB failed to convert on 4th and 1 against Bowling Green giving the Falcons great field position up by 20 late in the fourth quarter.
Buffalo fans have been trained by years of disappointing losses to hope for the best while expecting the worse. When the Bulls refused to die and won the MAC Championship, it left us all speechless.
"Enjoy The College Football Experience"
Turner Gill's mantra: "BELIEVE" ended with E, Enjoy the college football experience. After years of being a local and national punchline, win, lose or draw, the MAC Championship was a celebration. The message was enjoy the experience even though a win seemed unlikely. However when Ball State fumbled the ball away early, UB seemed to snap into a familiar groove; whether you are Akron, Ohio or undefeated #12 Ball State, if you turned the ball over to the Bulls, Drew Willy, James Starks and Naaman Roosevelt were going to make you pay. UB struck first blood and the defense shut Ball State down, it was a very enjoyable first quarter.
For the second time in the season, (the first was against Pitt), Mike Newton delivered a monster hit to break up a pass, and was called for a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty. Ball State used the penalty to plunge into the end zone and tie the game. UB's offense looked to respond, but they were stalled by a James Starks fumble. Starks putting the ball on the ground was uncharacteristic. In 22 games since 2007, he only fumbled in 4 games; losing the ball only 5 times in 497 carries. His 498th carry, resulted in a fumble which gave Ball State the ball at midfield with one minute left in the half. Ball State converted on a field goal to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room.
UB had a chance for a patented 2 minute drill to take the lead, instead they coughed the ball up and allowed Ball State to take the lead. For any other team, in any other game, that swing in momentum might have killed the teams motivation for the second half. Not these Bulls. They stared the big bad Cardinals in the face, and held their own, down only 3. The game was there for the taking, it was just a matter of who wanted it more.
"It's Up To Us To Want To Take It, They Don't Even Want It. Let's Take It"
I don't think he meant it literally, but the Bulls Defense took Gill's message literally. The defense scored twice and recovered three fumbles to break the game open. UB started the fireworks on offense however, when they motioned Namaan Roosevelt and Brett Hamlin into the backfield into a full house formation with James Starks. Starks went right, Naaman and Hamlin went left, Drew Willy pumped to Starks and threw back to Naaman. Jessie Rack sealed the corner and with only one man left to beat, a great downfield cut block by Brett Hamlin sprung the speedy Roosevelt who hit second gear to leave the rest of Ball State's defense in his dust and put Buffalo back up 14-10.
Ball State quickly responded with Miquale Lewis' second touchdown of the night. UB looked to move right back down the field until the unthinkable happened, a second James Starks fumble. Ball State up 17-14 drove the ball down to the Bulls 9-yard line, when Miquale Lewis ran off the left tackle and raced to the pylon. Lewis stuck the ball over the plane, but the referees ruled he stepped out-of-bounds at the one-yard line before scoring. Josh Thomas gave all-out effort to give Lewis a shove to the sideline which prevented Lewis from easily walking into the end zone. On the next play, Lewis was stopped for a two-yard loss by Mike Newton. Following a false start, Ball State faced a 3rd and Goal from the eight.
Andrae Smith crashed hard upfield, and Nate Davis bailed on the pocket. Rolling left, he considered dumping the ball to Lewis on the three-yard line, but he was surrounded by three Bulls, unlikely to score. Davis decided to run it himself, at the four-yard line, he faced a wall of Mike Newton and Justin Winters, Davis couldn't get through it, he decided to try to go over it. Newton grabbed Davis' legs, and Winters hit him in the shoulders causing Davis to spin with his back to the endzone. If Davis had one more second he may have been able to stick the ball over the plane, however, Josh Thomas again was the last line of defense. He drilled the ball loose at the one-yard line, and before anyone knew what happened, Mike Newton and a caravan of Bulls were sprinting down the field.
Down 17-21, Ball State marched down the field again quickly threatening on the fifteen. Perhaps inspired by another Indiana quarterback, Nate Davis stood in the shotgun to change the play. The center didn't get the message. The snap hit an unprepared Davis in the feet, and it kicked out perfectly to Sherrod Lott who sprinted for UB's second fumble recovery touchdown in four minutes. UB ended the third quarter up 28-17.
Ball State's lack of experience in close games began to show in the fourth quarter. Ball State attempted to convert a fourth and seven but failed when Dane Robinson sacked Nate Davis. On their next drive, a QB sneak on fourth down was converted, but Adekunle Akingba ripped the ball away from Davis and recovered the fumble. UB's third fumble recovery of the second half and fourth of the game gave Buffalo the ball in field goal position with the chance to put the game away.
"Go Crazy Bulls Fans"
Drew Willy tossed his third touchdown pass of the day to Naaman Roosevelt to give Buffalo a 35-17 lead with 6 minutes remaining in the game. A true Buffalo fan couldn't quite celebrate yet, but the feeling couldn't be ignored, UB should win this game.
The defense which had scored 14 points, only allowed 17 points, (with three points coming off a UB turnover) and set up two more UB touchdowns with fumble recoveries, had already earned their pay for the day. So they can be excused for allowing Ball State to march down the field and score in two minutes. Up 35-24, it was up to the hands team to prevent Ball State from threatening again. The big 3 receivers were regulated to the Big 1 that day. Ernest Jackson the team's second leading receiver was sidelined with an injury. Brett Hamlin, caught one pass in each of the first three quarters, but his biggest catch wasn't on the receiver stat sheet. Hamlin jumped up before Ball State could get to him, caught the onside kick and advanced it to the 30.
UB had the ball, twenty-five-yards away from a touchdown and four minutes away from a championship. Despite his earlier fumbles, there is no one you'd rather have in that situation than James Starks. Starks Ran four straight times for 25 yards and the touchdown to give Buffalo the 42-24 lead.
"This Is What Has Become At The University at Buffalo: Gatorade Showers, Large Crowds and Winning Football"
The quote from the late Allen Wilson of The Buffalo News hung in the lobby of UB Stadium. I walked by it everyday for three years. I had no idea when it was written at the time or why, but it always resonated with me. Never truer than December 5th, 2008, when Turner Gill received his gatorade bath, followed by receivers coach Juan Taylor and finally defensive coordinator Jimmy Williams (who got less of a shower and more of a hail storm). As Kendrick Hawkins and Domonic Cook collaborated on UB's fifth takeaway of the game, all that was left to do was victory formation.
This is what Buffalo football had become, conference championships, buses full of fans, Gatorade showers, national attention and bowl games. I teared up, as Turner Gill gave his speech and he and Warde shared the longest hug I have ever seen on a football field.
This is the greatest moment for a number of reasons: the culmination of a record breaking season by the offensive players, the fact that it is UB's greatest season at the highest level of college football, and that it is UB's greatest victory, beating the undefeated #12 team in the nation. But most importantly, it was great because the team came from so far to get there.
I thought back to 2006, when Gill came to Buffalo and preached belief, perseverance and effort. I saw his principles put to the test that year, after an OT win against Temple, UB lost a heart-breaker in overtime at Bowling Green, and after that the losses got bigger and bigger, until UB found themselves losing to Boston College 41-0...BC didn't even start Matt Ryan, but imagine the score had Matty Ice played that day and there was a torrential downpour during the game, imagine the score on a clear day!
The week before, we were in Athens, Ohio, my least favorite place in the MAC. UB just fell 42-7 to the Bobcats. Amidst the hustle to get home as soon as possible after a road loss, Turner sat alone, looking down, reflecting, perhaps praying. "Poor guy didn't know what he was getting into" I thought, "There are somethings belief just can't fix."
But I was wrong. Despite the 41-0 loss at Boston College, something happened. With 2:40 left in the game, UB's Alex Pierre broke through and blocked a Boston College punt. That is effort, that is belief, and even though UB would throw an interception seconds later to seal the shutout, that blocked punt, embodied everything that Gill brought to UB and is an example of why the never say die Bulls won in 2008.
The next week we were at home to face Kent State. As a Senior, I had just witnessed my 13th 30+ point defeat and saw UB shutout for the 5th time in my college career, at that point I had only seen 5 UB victories in 4 years. But I believed, and the team did as well. Against Kent, UB gave me one last victory as a graduation gift and an unexpected glimpse into the future.
Naaman Roosevelt broke a 53 yard reception and a 55 yard kick return, and ended the day with 90 receiving yards. James Starks ran for 162 yards and 3 touchdowns. The defense forced 5 turnovers, including 2 interceptions by Mike Newton and the Bulls overcame a halftime deficit with 24 3rd quarter points en route to a 41-14 win over a Kent State team that finished second in the MAC East that year. The game was eerily similar to the 2008 MAC Championship.
I left UB knowing that with our coaching staff and our young core, we would no longer be doormats and laughingstocks. I never expected a championship, but thankfully Turner Gill, his staff and those 105 athletes did. They visualized success and reached it, and in doing so, created the greatest moment in UB Football's first 100 seasons.