The University at Buffalo had two winning seasons in its first 15 years after returning to Division I, so the Bulls were hardly in a position to overlook anyone Saturday. It was a lesson pounded home last year when Stony Brook rolled into UB Stadium and nearly rolled them over.
UB prevailed, regrouped and took off on a seven-game winning streak en route to an 8-5 finish and its second bowl game. But did the Bulls learn anything? It certainly didn’t appear that way Saturday. UB blew a 21-0 lead to Duquesne and was losing in the fourth quarter before pulling away for a 38-28 victory.
The score was misleading. The game was closer, much closer.
Obviously, Duquesne didn’t get the memo that they were to mope back to Pittsburgh after giving up the three scores. UB built the big lead and played like a team that became comfortable. It was as if the Bulls didn’t know how to handle their own superiority over a lesser program that was bracing for the worst.
Duquesne is a Football Championship Subdivision (see: Division I-AA) team and never had played a game at a higher level. Rather than lure the Dukes into the backyard for a sound beating, UB had them for dinner and drinks. The Bulls should feel fortunate today. It could have gone the other way.
“You’ve got to live and learn,” UB coach Jeff Quinn said. “It’s not easy to go into these games and expect to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to win these games.’ It’s not like that, and I don’t feel that way. We didn’t overlook these guys. The kids weren’t in that mindset. They understood the plan, but we’ve got to get better.”
It was a strange game, a 4½-hour marathon that made for a strange day.
Let’s start with the firsts. The temperature at kickoff was 87 degrees, the first time UB played a home game in such heat. The opener was delayed for 44 minutes in the first quarter, the first time lightning stopped a UB home game.
One more thing: Khalil Mack was in town to watch his first UB game as a member of the Oakland Raiders. He flew across the country and stood on the visitors’ sideline with a towel over his head, presumably an effort to remain incognito while the Bulls officially began life without their star linebacker.
The Bulls weren’t looking for any strange twists. Quinn hoped to carry over the same basic approach that made them effective last year and find out a few things about his players. He was seeking a consistent running game established behind a good offensive line and reliable play from his quarterback.
UB barely broke a sweat before scoring on its first two drives. The Bulls imposed their size advantage across the offensive line and gave Joe Licata all the time he needed to find Matt Weiser for a 41-yard touchdown on the first series. Anthone Taylor added a pair of touchdowns before halftime.
They were cruising. It should have been little more than a scrimmage against the junior varsity. The opener was about UB regaining its footing in the post-Mack era and establishing their attitude and identity. Quinn wanted a strong start that would push his team in the right direction.
Instead, it was an adventure.
“It’s a weird feeling,” Licata said. “You take the positives out of it, and you take the negatives out of it like in any game. What matters is that we came up with the big plays at the end of the game and got a win.”
The positives: Licata threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns, including two fourth-quarter scoring strikes to Ron Willoughby. Willoughby finished with 10 catches for 132 yards and the two scores. Taylor had a 115 yards rushing. Jordan Johnson emerged as another good back.
The negatives: Marcus McGill made an error in judgment when a punt bounced off his leg. He shouldn’t have been within the same zip code of the ball. It allowed Duquesne to score late in the first half and gain confidence. Taylor had problems holding the ball. The secondary was abused by Dukes wideout Chris King, who had eight catches for 188 yards including an 88-yard TD.
The Bulls should be thankful they had Licata, who never lost his composure even when it appeared his teammates were crumbling around him. He spread the ball around to eight receivers. He and Willoughby showed signs they could have the same chemistry Licata had with Alex Neutz.
Licata was right. Ultimately, they won the game. The result Saturday shows a good start, but really many questions remain. Duquesne isn’t going to be confused with Baylor, which visits in two weeks, with Army in between. Baylor has earned the right to believe it will cruise past UB.
Let’s face it, UB is closer to Division I-AA than the Top 25. They learned as much again Saturday along with a few other things.
“Obviously, we’re upset with the lead that we blew, but we’ll work on that,” Willoughby said. “It’s not going to happen again.”