Alex Neutz said it comes up about twice a week, but his facial expression suggested it was more like twice per practice. Something will trigger coach Jeff Quinn that invariably takes him back seven years to another team in another state that had a striking resemblance to the University at Buffalo.
Ah, yes, the glory days of 2006.
“From Central Michigan?” Neutz said with a smile before rolling his eyes toward Quinn, careful not to offend his coach. “Uhhh, do you honestly want to know? Every Sunday, at least. I know that.”
By now, they also know this: Central Michigan had suffered through seven straight losing seasons before head coach Brian Kelly and Quinn arrived. They had 14 starters returning and a young quarterback in 2006, the third season of their coaching tenure. They lost their first two games. Fans were bracing for another long season.
Finally, it came together.
Central Michigan won seven of its next eight games and 10 of its final 12, including a 55-28 blowout over Buffalo. The Chippewas won the Mid-American Conference championship with a convincing 31-10 victory over a respected team in Ohio. They finished with a 31-14 win over Middle Tennessee in the Motor City Bowl.
“They had a young quarterback. He was a sophomore that year,” sophomore quarterback Joe Licata said. “They had a great defense, great receivers and a great running game. That’s what we’re trying to do here. Coach Quinn got a ring that year. We’re trying to get him another one now.”
UB is coming off a convincing 30-3 win over Ohio, which for years has been hailed as the class of the conference. The Bulls brushed them to the side in the second half Tuesday as if they were an outdated toy. The victory was the biggest under Quinn and one of the biggest for UB since its ascent to Division I.
It was a signature win, the kind that makes a team believe that it’s headed for something special and pushes the program forward for several years. UB improved to 5-0 in the conference with its seventh straight win overall, the most in 116 years. They’re forging their way into the record books. Who even knew UB had football in 1897?
Everybody does now.
“As we keep building our program in the win column, more and more kids are going to look at our program very seriously and maybe not go somewhere else,” Quinn said. “In that past, they might have.”
UB was expected to be better this season, but who expected this? Certainly not me, not after seeing them struggle against Stony Brook. At the time, there were questions about whether Quinn would survive the season. Athletic Director Danny White had several people shaking their heads after he signed his coach to a contract extension.
Quinn isn’t going anywhere. He kept his staff intact from last year, which contributed to overall continuity and chemistry. Lou Tepper’s defense has allowed 14 or fewer points five times in the past six games. Quinn’s offense has scored 30 points or more in six straight. It starts with very good players, which UB has in abundance.
Scouts long have known about linebacker Khalil Mack, who is the most dominant player in the conference and a likely first-round NFL pick. Neutz is certain to draw attention from the NFL. Branden Oliver is certain to get his chance, much like James Starks did after breaking most of his records this season.
But there are more on the way.
The string of blowouts has given Quinn opportunities to groom his underclassmen with quality playing time. Licata gets better every week behind a strong offensive line. Receiver Boise Ross and tight end Mason Schreck, both freshmen, have emerged. Benchwarmer Devon Hughes, a junior, made a nice catch Tuesday. Quinn gushed over freshman linebacker Jarrett Franklin’s competitive fire and intelligence.
“There’s depth on both sides of the ball,” White said. “There’s talent in this program. As we continue to win, it only puts us in better position to recruit. But we also have to put these coaches in position as it relates to what we’re selling.”
The exposure that came with the Ohio game, which was aired on ESPN2, can only help the overall strength of the program. How many high school players across the country watched the game Tuesday night and were impressed? Hundreds who fall just short of playing for Top 25 programs may have found the right alternative.
That’s how you build a program.
Buffalo may be similar to the 2006 Central Michigan team, but it’s different than the 2008 UB team that also won the conference. The Bulls could be better than both, but they need to prove it. In order to make sure they don’t get too far ahead, Quinn looks back seven years to a team that did it right.
“We don’t want to make this just a one-year thing,” Quinn said. “We want to do this each and every single year. That’s what’s exciting. We knew we had to take down Ohio. Ohio has had five straight years in a bowl game. That’s what we want to become. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s been building.”