FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The first step forward came with defeating a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. The second step came with winning two games in a row. Those missions accomplished, the University at Buffalo now looks to rid itself of one more burden it has been carrying: the absence of a road victory since Oct. 2, 2010.
This afternoon’s game against Mid-American Conference newcomer UMass at Gillette Stadium is ample opportunity for the Bulls to keep moving forward, snap a 13-game road losing streak and compile the program’s first three-game winning streak since the 2008 championship team ripped off five. The Minutemen (1-9, 1-5), although coming off their first MAC victory, have experienced the same challenges UB encountered when it joined the conference in 1999 – youth, inconsistency, talent gaps – and are a double-digit underdog.
“It was a big first step for our football team,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said of that first win. “Obviously we have a long way to go. I was hoping that we’d be further along than we are right now but nevertheless I think everybody feels pretty good and it was a big sigh of relief from a lot of people.”
As envisioned at the start of the season, UB (3-7, 2-4) has transitioned into the gentler portion of its schedule. The Bulls opened with a grueling slate that included an SEC team, two Big East teams and four MAC teams that had lost a combined three games through the first eight weeks. The Bulls have rebounded from that hellacious stretch with back-to-back wins. A win today could set up a compelling season finale Friday against Bowling Green in Columbus, Ohio. If the Falcons beat Kent State today, they’d need a win over the Bulls to lock up the division title.
UB can’t afford the luxury of thinking that far ahead.
“Now we’ve got to go on the road and be a mature, responsible football team and win a game,” coach Jeff Quinn said. “It’s November. College football in November is probably the most exciting time of the year. And I can certainly tell you these kids are certainly focused and understand the work that needs to go in this week to prepare for a road win. It’s been too long. Been way too long.”
This is the first time UB and UMass have met in 14 years but there’s an underlying familiarity.
Quinn and Molnar were both assistant coaches under Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. When Kelly took the Notre Dame job, Molnar followed as offensive coordinator while Quinn came to Buffalo. Molnar’s son Charley was a graduate assistant on Quinn’s staff the last two seasons but joined the Minutemen when his dad got the job before this season.
When discussing Buffalo’s defense opposing coaches tend to cite the Bulls linebackers, particularly standout junior Khalil Mack.
Molnar went a different route this week. He’s concerned by the bookends on the defensive line, Steven Means and Colby Way, who’ve combined for 101 tackles and 11 sacks.
“They have two defensive ends that are really as good as any we have played all year,” Molnar said. “Being able to control those two and neutralize those two is going to take a lot of work on our part. It’s going to take some outstanding work from our offensive tackles not only to protect the quarterback but also to establish our run game.”
When times were tough for UB, when the losses were mounting without respite, Quinn continuously preached the need for resolve. He used fellow MAC East rival Kent State to show the carryover effect that can take place from one season to the next.
Last year the Golden Flashes won four of their last five after a 1-6 start. Now they’re 9-1 and ranked 25th in the country.
“He always talks about keep working hard, it’s going to pay off,” said sophomore linebacker Lee Skinner. “I think we’re finally starting to see that, ‘All right, it’s finally starting to click. The wheels are moving.’ And it feels good.”