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EAST HARTFORD, Conn. - From the outside looking in, the University at Buffalo's 24-17 loss at Connecticut Saturday afternoon represented a step in the right direction. The Bulls found their resolve after going down by 17. They played without workhorse running back Bo Oliver and still out-rushed one of the nation's top defensive teams. In many ways, it was a solid bounce-back against a step-up opponent following the humbling conference loss to Kent State 10 days earlier.
None of it mattered within the visiting locker room at Rentschler Stadium. None of it brought any satisfaction.
"We came here to win, period, end of story," quarterback Alex Zordich said. "We just have to keep working. We're going to keep working because we know what we're capable of doing."
Said UB coach Jeff Quinn: "There's a lot of things in the game that we're going to look back at saying 'If we could have done this a little bit better, maybe we're a little more accurate here, or protected better, or got more pass rush or created more turnovers,' I think those are things we're going to look back at that cost us the game."
UB (1-3) appeared down and out when the Huskies (3-2) opened a 24-7 lead late in the third quarter. Zordich was again struggling with his accuracy. The rushing yards were coming in trickles. Yet just when a blowout seemed in the making, the Bulls reached deep into themselves and the playbook to make a game of it and take possession one last time with a chance to tie. (That final drive started with 1:27 left and advanced from their 20 to their 41 before ending on downs.)
Their rejuvenation commenced late in the third quarter, when Zordich, wideout Alex Neutz and running back Brandon Murie combined for perfect execution on a hook-and-ladder play that went 50 yards for a touchdown. Zordich fired to Neutz cutting inside on a wide receiver screen, Neutz pitched to Murie and the speedy junior from Elma sprinted down the right sideline for his second touchdown of the game. He scored UB's first TD on a 4-yard run.
"We practiced that play, we practice all the special plays just to really get ready for situations like that," Murie said. "(Offensive coordinator Alex) Wood called it at a perfect time and we executed. Neutz took a big hit for me. He pitched it perfect and got drilled. But perfect pitch, perfect play."
A 44-yard Patrick Clarke field goal drew UB within seven with 2:32 to play. The defense forced a punt on a fifth consecutive UConn possession, none of which lasted more than five plays. The Bulls took over on their 20 with 1:27 left. It was a slim chance but a chance nonetheless, although the distance proved too great, the time too short.
Big plays undermined UB's defensive effort. UConn quarterback Chandler Whitmer connected with tight end Ryan Griffin for a 36-yard TD. Backup running back Mark Hyppolite took a pitch and went 50 yards on his fifth carry of the season. Still, UB outgained the Huskies, 361-360, a stat linebacker Lee Skinner (13 tackles) found of little consolation.
"We did show we don't have a whole lot of quit but I think that's something that we knew," Skinner said. "We didn't get it done. You can look at stats or something but that's not the game. We didn't play. It's not, 'they did this' or 'on the stat sheet this looks good.' We didn't win. We didn't play."
UB went at this one hard, Oliver or no Oliver. The Bulls recovered an onside kick after their first touchdown. They got creative on offense, with a fourth-down screen to Campbell off a fake reverse to Murie setting up their first touchdown.
On the downside, Zordich's accuracy remains a stumbling point. He rushed for 76 yards and the offense would have been at a loss without his legs. But he was 13 of 30 through the air, making him 17 for 52 the last two games.
"There's plays I want back," Zordich said. "There's a lot of plays I want back. There's a lot of plays everybody wants back. When you lose a game it's tough. You just look at those plays over and over again in your head and you wish you could get them back but you can't. And that's where we got to separate ourselves from other teams. We could choose to feel sorry for ourselves or we could choose to keep working and that's what we're going to do. We're not going down the same old road. That's it. Everybody in that locker room knows that and we're determined."
For UB's standpoint, the game started out well enough. A gamble on an early fourth-and-5 from the UConn 34 went jackpot with one of the more creative play calls of the young season. Zordich faked to Murie running outside right and flipped a screen to Campbell on the left. Campbell had green space and blockers and made it to the 4 before he was hauled down from behind by Byron Jones. Murie scored on the next play, walking through a gaping hole between the tackles, and UB led, 7-3 - a first for them at Rentschler.
The Bulls successfully executed on onside kick but were forced to punt, a decent outcome considering it pinned the Huskies at their 8. But only temporarily.
Whitmer completed a pair of third-and-long passes in a drive that culminated with a 36-yard slant for a touchdown to Griffin. Griffin went uncovered off the line and untouched to the 5 on the first play of the second quarter.
UConn's 10-7 advantage expanded to 17-7 in a rush. A pitch right sprung Hyppolite on a third-and-1 and he sped 50 yards down the right sideline and into the end zone. No UB defender laid on hand on him until the final 5 yards.
A 2-yard Lyle McCombs run made it 24-7 before UB made its run, a comeback that left them 59 yards and seven points shy of anything close to satisfied.

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com