The last time UB and Toledo met on the football field the Mid-American Conference standings looked nothing like they do today. Kent State was the worst team in the East while Northern Illinois resided at the bottom of the West. UB was on the upswing, Toledo and Ohio in a state of stagnation.
A lot has changed since 2007. Kent State, NIU, Toledo and Ohio are all unbeaten in conference play. Ohio’s ranked 23rd in the country while Toledo’s knocking hard on the poll doors. And UB, which would capture the MAC title in 2008, hasn’t had a winning season since.
Fortunes can change in a relative hurry in college football and the Bulls continue to search for a launching pad. They were suffocated at home by Kent State in a game that figured to set the conference season’s tone -- and did just that. They let Ohio off the hook in Athens and were decimated at Northern Illinois. This afternoon’s crossover game against the Rockets at UB Stadium ends a grueling scheduling stretch and affords the Bulls another chance to make progress in a concentrated form -- by knocking off one of the MAC’s elite.
Two factors loomed large in UB’s 1-6, 0-3 start: special teams play and turnover production. UB ranks 118th in the nation in kick return defense and that’s of particular concern today. Rockets wideout Bernard Reedy is 13th in the country at 28.44 yards per return and already has taken two to the house. His 91-yard romp last week put Toledo (7-1, 4-0) ahead to stay in its 29-23 upset of No. 18 Cincinnati.
As for turnovers, the Bulls are now alone in last place, No. 120 in the nation, with a mere three takeaways. Their last interception came three weeks ago at Ohio. Their lone fumble recovery was inconsequential, coming on the last drive of the 45-3 loss at NIU.
When a team’s not creating turnovers and also loses yards in the punting game (as are the Bulls), every drive start for the offense looms like a mountain peak. Against Pitt, UB’s best drive start was its own 42 and six began at its own 26 or worse. Against NIU, the Bulls had nine drive starts at or inside its own 25 and one at its own 46. They didn’t score a touchdown in either game.
From a Buffalo perspective, the numbers don’t bode well for today. Toledo’s 31st in the nation in scoring at 35.5 points a game and 33rd in third-down conversions at 45.31 percent. The Rockets have 16 scoring plays of 35 yards or longer (including returns) and at least one in every game. UB has four on the season. Bulls coach Jeff Quinn guessed that the Bulls haven’t seen this fast a team since the season-opener at Georgia.
“It’s their whole team,” he said. “They got a lot of good speed. Reedy is an outstanding football player. We have to be very conscientious as to how we address him in terms of the ball in his position especially in special teams. When it comes to offense that’s a phase that we got to do a great job in terms of keeping him under control, which is not easy and nobody’s had a great answer for him.”
Toledo’s explosiveness suggests UB will have to score more points than its 20.43 average to think about an upset.
Good thing, then, that its offense is finally nearing full strength. Workhorse running back Branden Oliver and starting receivers Alex Neutz and Fred Lee all are probable for today. Oliver and Lee have been out since suffering injuries against Kent State on Sept. 19. Neutz missed the Pitt game with an injury suffered at NIU.
The Rockets won over poll voters in droves by beating Cincinnati and have a solid chance of cracking next week’s Top 25 with a victory today. That carrot would seem to reduce the likelihood of a letdown.
“This is again a huge challenge for us as we go on the road and play a really well-coached football team,” said Toledo coach Matt Campbell. “You watch them play and, man, they fly around on defense and have one of the best defensive players in our conference no question with Khalil Mack. Their entire defense I couldn’t be more impressed with.”
No, he probably could. If it forced a few more turnovers.