It's taken two years but Dominic Johnson and the Buffalo Bulls have a chance to finally make it right.
Buffalo suffered a heartbreaking 30-29 loss to Northern Illinois in the 2018 Mid-American Conference (MAC) title game. The Bulls came in with a 10-2 record but were outscored 13-0 in the fourth quarter by the Huskies (7-5).
Buffalo ended that season with 42-32 loss to Troy in the Dollar General Bowl.
On Wednesday, the MAC crowned the No. 24-ranked Bulls (4-0) as East Division champions after last weekend's game against Ohio was ruled a "no-contest" due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Buffalo, in The Associated Press top-25 for the first time ever, ends its regular season Saturday hosting Akron (1-4).
Buffalo face either Western Michigan or Ball State in the MAC title game Dec 18 at Ford Field in Detroit.
"I always say the next game is the one that's most important so we're focused on that," Johnson told The Canadian Press in a videoconference this week. "But obviously a lot of seniors and guys who were on the team in 2018 . . . know that bitter feeling about what happened . . . and want that opportunity again."
Buffalo will make its third MAC title appearance, winning in 2008.
Buffalo was on the road when its game versus Ohio was cancelled. The buses stopped at a rest stop between Erie, Pa., and Cleveland and turned around in a typically 2020 development that's included Johnson and his teammates undergoing four COVID-19 tests weekly.
"I guess guys on the team have friends who go to Ohio . . . so word spread quickly on the bus," Johnson said. "We can talk all day about how crazy (2020) has been . . . but it's been crazy for everyone."
The six-foot-five, 220-pound Johnson, of Windsor, Ont., is completing his second season as a receiver after coming to Buffalo as a quarterback. The redshirt senior has also been a forward on the school's basketball team the past three years and remains on the roster while he plays football.
Johnson has five catches for 43 yards for Buffalo's potent, run-heavy offence. The Bulls lead the MAC in scoring (50.8 points per game) and rushing (323.8 yards per game with 21 TDs).
Junior Jaret Patterson has 920 yards on 107 carries (8.6-yard average) with 16 touchdowns. He ran for 409 yards and eight TDs in 70-41 win over Kent State on Nov. 28 and 301 yards and four TDs in 52-17 victory over Bowling Green the week before.
Buffalo's passing attack is ranked ninth in the MAC (188.3 yards per game) with five TDs and one interception. However, Johnson said Buffalo's offence can open it up, citing quarterback Kyle Vantrease passing for 353 yards and four TDs in a 42-10 win over Miami(Ohio) on Nov. 10.
"I know we're capable," Johnson said. "Each week we prepare and put a good gameplan together.
"We're always ready . . . for whenever our number is called."
Johnson is one of four Canadians on Buffalo's roster. The others include: sophomore tight Cole Burniston of Grimsby, Ont., and offensive linemen Deondre Doiron (freshman) and Gabe Wallace (sophomore) from London, Ont., and Salmon Arm, B.C., respectively.
Johnson had six catches for 46 yards and a TD in 2019 and admits it's been a tough transition going from throwing passes to catching them.
"I'd say my athleticism through playing basketball definitely helped, just being able to move my body in certain ways," he said. "But even with that, it was tough to learn how to get low, get in and out of breaks and catching a football.
"Most people are like, 'Oh he's just playing receiver now, he can just go run and catch,' but there's a lot of other small parts to it. It's been tough but fun."
Johnson isn't his family's only NCAA receiver as younger brother, Theo, is a freshman tight end at Penn State. The elder Johnson also began his youth football career at tight end.
While Johnson admits he was initially disappointed to not be playing quarterback, being a starter and contributor to a championship-calibre team has removed much of that sting. Surprisingly, Johnson said there's nothing in Buffalo's playbook that takes advantage of his passing ability.
"I got to a point where I wanted to help the team win and it wasn't about me anymore,": he said. "And this (receiver) would probably put me in a better position to continue my aspirations for the next level.
"I saw that and took advantage and I'm trying to take advantage of it right now. I'm really focusing on receiver trying to get better."
Johnson said the Bulls aren't overly surprised at their 2020 success. They won six of their final seven games last season for an 8-5 record, including a 31-9 victory over Charlotte in the Bahamas Bowl.
"Last year, I'd say we had a lot of guys who didn't know their role and had to play new roles," Johnson said. "After a whole year of guys knowing their roles and what we have to do to be good and win games, I feel like we knew this year what it took and that we were going to have a good year if we just stayed focused."
Johnson was able to get back home in May before returning to Western New York for summer workouts. The eldest of six boys, Johnson and his siblings keep in touch with weekly Zoom calls.
While a MAC title remains first and foremost on Johnson's radar, he'll have some decisions to make at season's end regarding whether to pursue his pro football dream in 2021 or remain in school.
If he opts for the pro ranks, Johnson's focus initially would be trying to secure an NFL roster spot. If that didn't pan out, Johnson would welcome playing in Canada.
"It's definitely good to have options," he said. "I just want to take things one day at a time."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press