Ask a University at Buffalo alum the meaning of Homecoming and the response might have something to do with memories revisited and acquaintances rekindled. Ask a UB football player about Homecoming and the response might be, “Does that mean we finally get a home game?”
The last time the Bulls played at UB Stadium the Chicago White Sox held a two-game lead in the AL Central. The NHL had yet to cancel any regular-season games. And Florida was ranked a mere 14th in the country, a distant journey from its current perch at No. 2.
It’s been a long time away for the Bulls, but not long enough for them to realize an upturn in fortunes. That 23-7 home loss to Kent State on Sept. 19 was followed by defeats at Connecticut, Ohio University and Northern Illinois. Nor was it enough time to fully rehab star running back Bo Oliver, who’s remained sidelined since being hurt late in the first half against Kent State. Oliver probably has another week on the sidelines and may be joined by star receiver Alex Neutz, who absorbed a ferocious hit in the Northern Illinois game and still was feeling the effects in practice this week.
Even a fully healthy UB team would be facing a tall task against this afternoon’s Homecoming opponent. Pittsburgh (2-4) has had its struggles under first-year coach Paul Chryst, including a stunning loss to FCS Youngstown State in the season opener. Equally stunning was a rout of then-No. 13 Virginia Tech two weeks later, so there’s really no telling what Pitt team the Bulls will see.
The same goes for UB. The Kent State loss brought a hearty dose of humility. Subsequent seven-point losses at UConn and Ohio brought encouraging signs. But the good vibes were trampled with last Saturday’s 45-3 loss at Northern Illinois, a game in which the Bulls were thoroughly outclassed.
A win today could provide the major bounce back the Bulls are seeking since they’re 0-3 against Pitt and haven’t beaten a BCS opponent since 2002 (Rutgers).
“After last week we came together as a team and that’s what I think is important with this group of guys that we have is we’re so close after a loss like that we don’t look at it as a negative we look at each other and say what can we do to get better and how can we approach these next couple of weeks to make this season what we want it to be,” said senior tight end/wildcat QB Alex Dennison.
“Instead of pointing fingers and things we all came together and said, ‘What did I do wrong? What can I do to make this team better?’ We didn’t fight with each other or bicker like people in the past may have. We came together and said, ‘What can I do to make this turnaround, make this thing happen so we can right the ship?’ ’’
After today the Bulls finish off the season with five consecutive Mid-American Conference games, the first three of those at home. The hope of building momentum with an upset victory grows more faint if Neutz is out or limited. More revealing may be whether UB shows the stiff resolve exhibited against UConn and Ohio before the roof came down on them in DeKalb.
“This football team has shown that it’s capable of playing much better football,” UB coach Jeff Quinn said. “And once you get a win under your belt it does bring your level of confidence to a much higher level. And we haven’t done that for ourselves and that’s our responsibility collectively as a team to do that.”
The Panthers hit town with the nation’s eighth-ranked quarterback in terms of pass efficiency. Tino Sunseri has completed 70 percent of his throws with 10 touchdowns against just two interceptions. The Panthers also have a solid backfield tandem in Ray Graham and Rushel Shell.
UB has lost four in a row, Pitt its last two. One of them is about to rediscover victory.
“It sure makes it easier the week after a win,” Chryst said. “More than that, that’s why you play the game, to compete, and when you say compete there’s a winner and loser and you sure want to be on the winning end of it. ...We need to put it all together so we can win a game.”