The Buffalo Bulls made an emphatic opening statement in their MACtion season premiere.
All-America candidate Jaret Patterson resumed his run through the UB football record book, quarterback Kyle Vantrease continued to steadily shepherd the Bulls’ ground-based attack, and UB’s shorthanded defense shook off a shaky start with a its own scoring surge to power a 49-30 victory Wednesday night at Northern Illinois.
UB kicked off the truncated and late-starting 2020 season much the same way it ended the previous one, posting the same 19-point margin the Bulls averaged while winning six of eight last year after Vantrease entered the starting lineup.
Furthering its bid to contend for a Mid-American Conference championship, UB avenged its loss to Northern Illinois in the 2018 title game and defeated the Huskies for the first time in 12 all-time meetings. It was the only opponent the Bulls had yet to beat since joining the MAC in 1999, another milestone in UB’s championship chase.
“That’s huge,” Patterson said. “You can say the program has taken big steps. I feel like this is the year that we need to make a run for Detroit.”
Patterson set the pace for that run with a strong start in the opener, gaining the bulk of his 137 yards and scoring twice before halftime. He broke UB’s all-time career record with his 35th rushing touchdown on a 56-yard sprint in the second quarter after matching Niagara Falls native James Starks’ career mark on a 5-yard run on the Bulls’ first possession.
“It’s a huge accomplishment, but I know I still have work to do,” Patterson said. “It’s only one game. We have a few other games and the ultimate goal for me is to help this team win a MAC championship and that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”
Patterson continued his torrid run that since the start of last season has produced 2,145 yards (1,936 rushing, 209 receiving) and 22 touchdowns in 14 games. Over his past seven outings, Patterson has gained 1,356 yards (1,250 rushing, 106 receiving) with 17 touchdowns.
Heading into Tuesday night’s game against Miami at UB Stadium, Patterson is 191 yards away from Starks’ career rushing total (3,140), which ranks second in UB history. His next touchdown will tie Starks’ school-record total (37). Patterson has played in 28 games for the Bulls, eight fewer than Starks.
“School record, for him to do that and he’s only a junior, says a lot,” UB coach Lance Leipold said. “It says a lot about his teammates, but individually what an outstanding young man he is, and the production that he has given us.”
Antonio Nunn caught six passes for 102 yards and a 17-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter from Vantrease, who completed 11 of 17 passes for 175 yards with one interception. Vantrease also rushed for a 4-yard score following a 46-yard connection with Nunn in the third quarter.
UB built on its 21-16 halftime lead when the defense turned takeaways into touchdowns twice in a span of three plays midway through the third quarter. Tim Terry scooped up a fumble and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown and Isaiah King recovered a fumble forced by James Patterson and scampered 42 yards for a score.
“The play of the defense in the third quarter really turned the tide for us,” Leipold said.
The Bulls added a third defensive touchdown when Kadofi Wright added a 65-yard interception return.
UB played without three defensive starters, defensive end Taylor Riggins and cornerbacks Aapri Washington and Ali Abbas. Leipold said they were not available “for a variety of reasons” and said hoped they will return for the next game, but did not disclose injury or illness details. UB suspended football workouts five weeks ago after 19 players tested positive for COVID-19.
Acknowledging the pandemic-related preparations required to return to action and start the season with a win, Leipold awarded a game ball to the Bulls’ medical staff during his postgame address.
UB will have a short week to prepare for its next game against Miami, the defending MAC champion and one of the other favorites to claim the East division title. Tuesday night’s game will air on ESPN and screened at the Transit Drive-In, while fans are not allowed at UB Stadium.