Jeff Quinn didn’t need the customary 24-hour period to find the proper perspective after the toughest loss in his four seasons at UB. He barely reached the tunnel at Ralph Wilson Stadium before he found himself engaged in an emotional Battle Royale that comes with losing a big game.
Let’s be honest, playing a significant game in the final days of November passes for progress at the University at Buffalo. The Bulls are usually dragging themselves to practice and playing out the schedule at this time of year, so their matchup against Bowling Green with a division title on the line was a refreshing change.
They’re learning that pain of failure cuts deeper when the stakes are raised. UB has had a terrific season by most measures and certainly by its standards. It was a win away from the Mid-American Conference championship game.
Instead, the Bulls were kicked to the ground by a bunch of bullies on the playground.
Bowling Green proved it was the best team in the East Division when it rattled off three second-half touchdowns in a 24-7 victory over Buffalo before 26,226 fans who showed up at The Ralph. UB finished the regular season with an 8-4 record but is left waiting for an invitation to a bowl game.
“Without a doubt, I do wrestle with it,” Quinn said. “You feel you build up all this momentum. This opportunity presented itself today, and we fell short. They made plays, and we didn’t. Then I look at the big picture.”
Let’s look at the big picture: UB has had a very good year. The Bulls’ eight wins were a school record since they made the leap to Division I. They had one of the nation’s top defensive players in linebacker Khalil Mack, a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award and a projected top 10 pick in the NFL draft.
Branden Oliver broke his own record for rushing yards in a season. He’ll get a chance to play in the NFL regardless of whether he gets drafted. The same goes for Alex Neutz, the senior wideout who could have a future as a possession receiver in the NFL. UB has a collection of underclassmen who should keep the program competitive.
UB rattled off six straight victories, including five in the conference. The Bulls were relevant for two months. They put themselves in position to contend for the conference championship. It wasn’t some miraculous season, as it was in 2008, when they shocked people en route to the MAC championship. It should help recruiting.
The Bulls kissed the conference championship game goodbye with the loss Friday, but their season likely didn’t end in The Ralph. They’re expected to get invited to one of the three-dozen-plus bowl games. That’s an accomplishment for a team that spent years going nowhere and appeared headed for reverse this season.
“I look at the eight wins,” Quinn said. “I look at what our kids did for seven straight weeks and bouncing back after the Toledo loss. I give credit to our senior class. Those guys have been the main reason why we’re where we’re at.”
Overall, it’s all good. Against Bowling Green, it wasn’t nearly good enough.
The game Friday made you wonder if UB was actually overrated for much of the season, as some suspected. It had a good team in a conference with a great divide between the top and bottom teams. Their six MAC wins came over teams with a combined 9-35 in conference play. None had a winning record.
Buffalo played only two teams with winning records in the conference – Bowling Green and Toledo – and lost both. The Bulls may have challenged in the division, but they were fifth in the conference behind Northern Illinois, Ball State, Bowling Green and Toledo. The Bulls were better, yes, when judged against poor teams from the past.
Whether it was Bowling Green’s tough defense or UB playing a home game in foreign surroundings or just a bad day for the offense – and it was likely D, all of the above – the Bulls looked out of sorts for most of the afternoon. They looked hesitant even when they had the lead, like a team playing not to lose and hoping to win.
UB boasted better seniors, but they weren’t enough Friday. The Bulls had one good drive, which produced their only touchdown. Bowling Green had more than twice as many total yards, including 260-15 on the ground. Nearly all the damage was inflicted when it mattered most, in the second half.
The Bulls failed to establish the running game.
On an afternoon in which Oliver broke his own record for rushing yards in a season, he gained only 46. Licata misfired early in the game and never found his rhythm. He spent much of the second half scrambling for survival and was sacked five times.
The same UB team that was masterful at making halftime adjustments suddenly had no answers. It quickly came apart. The regular season and their hopes of winning a conference title ended long before Quinn left the field.
“It’s tough having eight wins and then losing this game, being this close to going to Detroit,” Quinn said. “I didn’t expect us to feel the way we do now.”
In the big picture, the misery UB was feeling was a good sign. It wasn’t one loss among many but a big one among few. This one will hurt after the 24-hour period expires, and it should.
Growing pains often do.