A week after stepping up in class to open the season, the University at Buffalo today finds itself playing the other role. Expectations are high as the Bulls welcome Morgan State to UB Stadium for a home opener that seems like money in the bank so long as there's no shortage of focus.
This is the fourth consecutive year the Bulls have scheduled a FCS team and the first three resulted in emphatic victories. UB singed Stony Brook, 35-7, last year, stomped Rhode Island, 31-0, the year before and strolled by Gardner-Webb, 40-3, in '09. All that can be gleaned from Week One suggests a similar one-sided outcome against the Bears of Baltimore.
UB showed well in its opening 45-23 loss at sixth-ranked Georgia, piling up 199 yards on the ground, getting another 100-yard game from Branden Oliver and managing reasonably well against the Dawgs' high-powered offense. It figures that if the Bulls can run on Georgia they can run on most anybody, especially against a middle-of-the-pack FCS foe.
Morgan State arrives with something UB's yet to secure - a victory. The Bears went four overtimes and defied the statistics to beat Sacred Heart, 30-27, in their opener. Morgan State had nine fewer first downs, 113 fewer yards and better than a 25-minute deficit in time of possession yet persevered with the help of a few big plays, including a 72-yard interception return for a touchdown by Joe Rankin, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week,
While Oliver will receive ample carries, look for the Bulls to use this game to shift their passing attack into gear. Quarterback Alex Zordich ran 14 times against Georgia, some of them by design, others improv under pressure. He also had 14 completions in 24 attempts good for just 148 yards.
Six of those completions went to tight ends, a group that caught only 11 balls all of last season. But there's no doubt the aim is to stand behind protection and make the wideouts a more substantial part of the offense. Alex Neutz caught five balls for 52 yards and a TD but fellow receivers Fred Lee (2-13) and Cordero Dixon (nada) factored lightly if at all.
Georgia's pass-rushing abilities had Zordich ready to ramble at the first hint of danger.
Today he should have more of a comfort zone behind his veteran offensive line.
"We definitely want to look and see what we have downfield first, avoid any rush and really just make positive yards," he said.
Said UB coach Jeff Quinn: "There's times that we need to get the ball downfield and there's times that you can take the ball and run with it. We certainly know that against a great pass-rush defense like Georgia had, there was going to be a little bit more discussion [that] if the protection doesn't hold up for the length of time to get the ball out of your hands downfield that we wanted you to get out of there. But he's got a good sense for that and I think that's something that we're all very confident that Alex will make the right choices."
Quinn added that if the offensive line can hold up its protection, Zordich can sit back and have time to throw.
"We certainly don't want to drop back there and get in a habit of running every time because there's some things downfield developing that we want to take advantage of," he said.
Today's game marks a return to active duty for junior linebacker Khalil Mack, who ranks second in the nation among active FBS players in career tackles for losses. Mack was suspended for the opener after a tussle with Lee during training camp.
"He's so powerful, quick, elusive, hard to really block," Quinn said. "I know he's going to be energized and I think our players are going to be energized along with him."
UB was reminded not to take play-down games for granted when Youngstown State scored a decisive opening-week victory over Pittsburgh of the Big East.
"Any day a team can be beat and you can't go into a game with the mindset that it's going to be a pushover, because that's when you get beat," Zordich said.
"We measure our success to our standards, nobody else's," Quinn said. "That's a big part of this. Only these players know if they gave it everything they have every single play."