From the moment he arrived at UB head coach Jeff Quinn repeatedly referenced the concept of “The Next Bull In.” It didn’t go over real well with the fan base. Never mind The Next Bull In. How about getting some First Bulls In who could win some football games?
Yet throughout the dark years of 2-10 and 3-9, Quinn never strayed from his message. He maintained that building a successful program meant developing layers of players and having them ready to perform on a moment’s notice. And now, in the fourth year of Quinn’s tenure, UB followers can look back on the mantra that once rang hollow and appreciate its value.
UB suffered an array of significant injuries in Saturday’s 32-3 win against UMass. Defensive end Colby Way left early in the second quarter with an unspecified knee ailment that requires further testing. Shortly thereafter, senior starting left guard Jasen Carlson suffered a leg fracture that will require surgery. His UB career is over. On the next play elite wideout Alex Neutz was knocked cold (or close to it) and relegated to the sidelines with a concussion. Linebackers Blake Bean and Nick Gilbo didn’t dress because of injuries. Could it get much worse?
What transpired after that debilitating sequence defines how far UB has come.
Andre Davis (Maryvale) moved from left tackle to guard. John Kling (Depew) came on at left tackle. They were part of a front five that paved the way for Branden Oliver to eclipse school records for single-game carries (43) and career rushing yards (3,203). He had 216 on the day, the third-most productive game of his career. Oliver and James Starks, who held the career yardage mark, now hold exclusive title to the top 10 rushing games in school history.
In the passing game, senior Fred Lee became quarterback Joe Licata’s primary target and caught a career-high eight balls for 70 yards and a touchdown. But what impressed Lee were the two catches contributed by sophomore Ron Willoughby, especially the one-handed snare good for a 19-yard gain.
The other side of the ball continued to excel despite the absence of Way, who had three sacks the week before. Khalil Mack unleashed his customary chaos and came up with his second pick-six of the season to provide UB a 10-0 second-quarter lead. Safety Okoye Houston struck for a third-quarter safety after a Tyler Grassman punt pinned the Minutemen (1-6, 1-2) at their 1. True freshman Brandon Crawford saw time on the line and made an impact for a defense that has not allowed a touchdown in eight quarters, a streak that spans 10 quarters for the first-team ‘D’ alone.
For the day the defense recovered two fumbles and picked off a pass, moving the error-free Bulls to plus-13 in turnover ratio. They were tied for No. 2 in the nation coming in.
“As a defense our mentality is, make a play,” Houston said. “If you’re a person on defense and you’re in the game, make a play. So when we had them pinned of course we had the opportunity to make a safety. But we just go out making plays.”
So when Mack picks off a pass or records a sack, or Adam Redden and Lee Skinner combine for 23 tackles, Houston is eager to do something of significance as well.
“It’s not a selfish, ‘I got to get mine,’” he said. “It’s a contagious, ‘Oh, he made a play. OK, I want to make a play now.’ So I’m going to go make a play. I think that’s a big part of what’s been happening.’”
UB’s winning streak has hit five games, matching the longest run by the 2008 championship team. It’s gone from 2-0 in the MAC for the first time ever to 3-0 and tied with Bowling Green for first place in the East. Much of the credit goes to a relentless defense and a roster deep enough to have evaded the notion of diminishing returns.
“You have to look at what we did from the first time those kids stepped in, and give them a chance to play,” Quinn said. “We’ve been rotating guys in. We saw another young man today who’s a true freshman, Brandon Crawford. That’s how you get those kids to be able to perform when their time comes and when they’re being called up. ... That’s how you gain experience and how you become a solid football team.”
“Our team is deep, “ Lee said. “We have a lot of guys who are focusing and ready to go in.”
It was a 13-0 game at halftime, too close for comfort, but UB’s been there before.
It led Western Michigan, 6-0, at intermission before pulling away.
“We got to come out faster on offense, but the difference in this team is we don’t stop, we keep going,” Lee said.