Remember the last four games of 2012. Remember the joy of winning. Remember the taste.
For the University at Buffalo it’s about recalling the good times and not allowing the memory to diminish. That was the verbal memo tossed out by the Bulls at their media day Tuesday at UB Stadium.
Five years after their first and only Mid-American Conference championship, the hope is that winning three of the last four games of ’12 will be a springboard to greater success this season.
“It’s easy to sit here and say, ‘Hey, we won three out of four but that doesn’t mean we’ll start out winning three out of four,” senior wide receiver Alex Neutz said. “We don’t have three wins; we’re not 3-1 right now. We’re 0-0, and we have to start over and get going.”
But let’s not, however, dwell, on the 1-7 start that placed Jeff Quinn’s job status in serious jeopardy. It’s all about the 3-1 finish that landed him a contract extension. The trick is sustaining last November’s level of play the entire season.
“That team last year saw a way to win some key games but this year’s team needs to learn how to win a championship and that’s the mindset of those players,” said Quinn, now in his fourth season. “They’ve come closer and closer together, the chemistry, the competitiveness, the contributions that each of whom are committed to making to each other shows a tremendously mature football team. That’s why I feel, without a doubt, this football team has the ingredients to be very, very special.”
The good feeling has carried over into training camp sessions which Quinn refers to as “spirited.”
“It would be wrong if you didn’t remember some part of that three or four game span,” senior linebacker Khalil Mack said. “By the same token I think we’ve learned from that. It’s time to move on and it’s time to keep winning. There’s a hunger in everyone’s eyes around here, we’re very hungry and we want to win. Learning how to win, it was an important thing for us to see, especially playing against some of the better competition in our conference.”
For the first week of training camp, Quinn brings a group of speakers to talk to the team including one who discussed the differences between being good and being great.
“Don’t take anything for granted,” senior tailback Branden Oliver said. “You want to live every day by getting something out of it. Don’t come out here and go through the motions. Take something and get it done because you can’t get tomorrow back.”
Said Quinn: “Our kids have learned a lot: Don’t waste time being average. To be great, excellence has to show up every day and you have to strive for that.”
In a sense, UB’s fortunes began to turn in Week 8 against Toledo when they trailed by 11 heading into the fourth quarter and lost, 25-20. The Rockets were 7-1 at the time, the potential of a MAC championship run dangling before their eyes, so UB proved it could play with one of the league’s best. Perhaps not coincidently, Toledo went on a 1-3 slide to end the season.
The following week Quinn inserted Joe Licata in at quarterback and the Bulls defeated Miami, Ohio (27-24), then Western Michigan at home (29-24) and Massachusetts on the road (29-19).
They dropped the season finale against Bowling Green (21-7) but the three-game winning streak was UB’s longest since the championship season in ’08.
“We went through a four- or five-game stretch where we just couldn’t get there but once we got it, it was like, ‘OK this is how it feels? OK, this feels real good,’ ” Mack said. “We got that taste in our mouth, now let’s see if we can get some more. We went down to UMass and got a little taste. OK, it felt good, it felt great, especially learning how to win because we were down in that game and we fought back as a team and we came back and got the win.”
They spent the entire offseason with a different psyche, a winning mentality. They went into spring, essentially, knowing Licata would be the starter behind center, a huge burden after lacking consistency at the position since Drew Willy departed after the 2008 season. No one wins a MAC title without stability at quarterback and now the talk can turn to how to cultivate wins.
“Now we know that we can win. Before that we were just kind of going in there and really didn’t have the attitude that we knew we were going to win,” said senior left guard Jasen Carlson. “As a whole I think we feel as a team that we can win and we’re going to win.”
Anything less would be disappointing.
“We fell short, that’s unacceptable, no excuses,” Quinn said. “Now we have a new opportunity with this year’s team.”