MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Buffalo built a lead with Cole Snyder‘s passing and Alex McNulty’s kicking.
The Bulls put the Camellia Bowl away with an unrelenting barrage of fourth-quarter runs by Tajay Ahmed for a 23-21 victory over Georgia Southern on Tuesday.
Snyder passed for 265 yards and Ahmed took over the final quarter with 14 carries.
“This was kind of a small episode of kind of who we’ve been and what our season looked like,” Buffalo coach Maurice Linguist said. “Just tough yards, grind out play after play. And kind of throw a blanket over the scoreboard and just pound the rock, is what we say.”
The Bulls (7-6) chewed up the clock with runs from Ahmed on 11 consecutive plays and one pile-pushing final first down. The former walk-on, who was awarded a scholarship in the spring, finished with 27 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown.
That last first down meant quarterback Kyle Vantrease and Georgia Southern (6-7) couldn’t get the ball back for a final chance against Vantrease’s former team, with whom he spent five years and started 26 games before transferring.
“I’ve always believed great quarterbacks provide hope and every game we walked into he provides hope,” first-year Eagles coach Clay Helton said. “If we got that ball back one more time, you just knew that that hope was there.”
Snyder, a Rutgers transfer, completed 21 of 38 passes, including a 32-yard touchdown to game MVP Justin Marshall to outduel his predecessor.
Quian Williams gained 100 yards on five catches, and Marshall caught 11 passes for 127 yards in what the graduate transfer from Louisville called his best college game. The last catch was Marshall’s biggest, and a replay upheld the on-field call that Marshall’s right foot stayed in bounds.
“We all were talking amongst the offense,” he said. “We looked at it one time and I saw it and said that’s definitely a catch. They’re wasting time reviewing it.”
Vantrease completed 28 of 45 passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Beau Johnson had five catches for 118 yards.
It was Buffalo’s third straight bowl win after going 0-3 in bowls. And the victory came after an 0-3 start this season.
“They wrote us off. They questioned,” Linguist said. “They weren’t sure if we were going to finish, and then here we are at the end. We got a ring. We’re (bowl) champions.”
Buffalo had a cushion thanks to Dylan Powell‘s interception and return across midfield in the fourth quarter. Ahmed then carried nine straight times but was stopped on three runs starting from the 2.
The Bulls had to settle for a 23-14 lead with McNulty’s third field goal of the second half with 8:38 left. That FG was a school record, No. 49 of his career.
Vantrease and Georgia Southern stayed alive with a 13-play, 90-yard drive. On fourth-and-7 from his own territory, Vantrease hit Johnson for a 42-yard gain. Then Jjay McAfee made a grab in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown with 3:38 left.
Georgia Southern needed only 26 seconds in the second half to wipe out a 14-6 deficit, thanks to a fumble, Vantrease’s 79-yard touchdown pass to Joshua Thompson and a two-point conversion.
“It has been a wonderful ride this season, and I can’t thank our seniors enough for the foundation that they’ve led and laid for this team,” Helton said. “In my opinion, the best is yet to be. Sometimes you fight your guts out and it just doesn’t go your way at the end, and that’s what this team did.”
Georgia Southern: Once known for the triple option and loads of runs, Helton implemented a pass-oriented offense. Vantrease broke the Eagles’ bowl record with his 11th completion – on the opening drive of the second quarter.
Buffalo: Held onto the ball for more than 38 minutes in the game, and converted 12 of 19 third-down plays, largely on Snyder passes. The last was a 9-yarder to Marshall on the sideline to keep the final drive going.
Buffalo’s band, cheerleaders, and radio crew weren’t able to make the bowl game because flights were canceled out of their city, which saw a massive winter storm and at least 27 storm-related deaths.
Linguist said the team flew out 12 hours earlier than expected.
“If we did not do that, I’m not sure we would have even made it down here in time to play the game,” he said.
Georgia Southern: Must replace Vantrease and most of the offensive and defensive line starters before opening the 2023 season at home against The Citadel.
Buffalo: Opens the 2023 season at Wisconsin on Sept. 2 with Snyder, safety Marcus Fuqua and tailback Mike Washington expected back.