One wonders how today’s game at UB Stadium might be perceived had there been a swap of conference schedules. What if the University at Buffalo caught Akron and Massachusetts early on and faced Ohio University at home? What if Miami (Ohio’s) first four games had been against the top two teams in each division? Might the Bulls and the RedHawks be meeting on different terms than those which have relegated UB to the role of spoiler down the stretch of the Mid-American Conference season?
There can be no denying UB (1-7, 0-4) has played the most challenging MAC schedule to date. Those four defeats came against teams with four losses among them – 16 more than the teams Miami (4-4, 3-1) has faced in conference play.
UB could lament its plight, bemoan its scheduling, but there comes a time when a team must prove it’s been victimized more by bad luck than inferior play. And for the Bulls that time is noon today (Radio 1230 AM), at home, as a three-point favorite against a Miami team ripe for a letdown after knocking rival Ohio out of the Top 25.
An apparent injury to junior Alex Zordich forces the Bulls to change quarterbacks today, with redshirt freshman Joe Licata, the record-setting former Williamsville South star, making his first career start. The swap brings a different dynamic to the table: a stronger arm but less versatility when it comes to the running game. Nonetheless, Bulls coach Jeff Quinn feels his team’s on the verge of a long-awaited breakthrough.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is that they are mature. they’re more responsible for their self-determination of what they expect of themselves and each other and they’re holding themselves accountable,” he said this week. “That’s why this program is in a much better place than it’s ever been. It’s being built the right way. We have the right people, we have the right players, we have the right plan. The hardest thing is getting that ‘W,’ and getting more than just one, getting a collection of ‘Ws.’ ”
The program’s in a much better place than it’s ever been?
That’s a bold and curious assertion coming from a third-year coach who has gone 6-26 overall and 3-17 in the MAC after inheriting a 5-7, 3-5 team. Turner Gill won a share of the East Division title by his second year and the conference title outright in his third season as coach. Quinn’s third year still has wins over just three FBS opponents. The other three victories have come against FCS teams.
Today’s obstacle, Miami, is dangerous on the offensive end, led by senior quarterback Zac Dysert, a four-year starter who hasn’t lost to the Bulls since his freshman season. Talented wideout Nick Harwell is back healthy. The RedHawks are going to score some points.
At the same time, the statistics suggest this matchup lends itself to UB’s strength. The Bulls favor the run, have tailback Branden Oliver back at full strength and are up against one of the nation’s most porous run defenses, one that five times has yielded 250 yards or more.
If UB can move the ball on the ground and force the RedHawks to overplay Oliver and the running game, the Bulls can draw coverages that can be exploited by their wideouts.
“When you’re having a lot of success in the run game ... you have the ability to get defenses to bring more attention to the box and get a little closer to the line of scrimmage and that’s where you got to utilize guys like Alex [Neutz] and Fred [Lee] to be able to get behind them,” Quinn said.
Licata has appeared in five games this year and debuted against Morgan State by throwing for a touchdown on his first collegiate attempt. Overall, he’s 21 for 46 (45.7 percent) for 239 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. The style change has Quinn unconcerned.
“We have a tailor-made system that fits each and every one of those kids and what they do,” he said of his QBs.
It’s been 2½ weeks shy of a year since UB last beat a MAC opponent, or any FBS opponent for that matter. The Bulls have played a grind of a non-conference schedule, much like Miami, which has losses to Ohio State, Boise State and Cincinnati. The difference is the Bulls also have run the gauntlet within the MAC. This is their shot at inching forward.
“As you look at most of our MAC teams, most of us tend to play pretty well at home and [Quinn] will certainly I know have them ready to play at home,” Miami coach Don Treadwell said. “And they have done very well in playing at home, much like us. I think their record is very deceiving.”