Most of the first month of the University at Buffalo’s football schedule was spent determining how the Bulls measure up. Could they compete with the likes of nationally ranked Ohio State and Baylor? Would they finally get over the hump against a UConn program trapped in decline? And would they display a superiority against Stony Brook, a solid FCS program but FCS nonetheless?
The answers resembled the chart of a stock fraught with uncertainty. Analysts saluted the strong second-half performance against Ohio State but grew skittish with the mauling at Baylor. Tensions increased when the Bulls needed five overtimes to put away Stony Brook but eased with the latest earnings report, a thorough domination of UConn.
What UB took out of those games besides a 2-2 record is a peek at its potential coupled with a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted.
The need to maintain a deep hunger hits home today as UB opens Mid-American Conference play with a noon Homecoming start against Eastern Michigan (1-3). The Eagles have lost 14 of their last 17 games. They’re fielding an abundance of true and redshirt freshmen. But they also have a veteran quarterback, an occasionally productive running game and a defense that has had situational successes. And what the Stony Brook nail-biter proved is that trouble can brew if the Bulls fail to produce on one side of the ball.
UB’s offense has alternated between stalls and bursts, in large part because the running game, although improving, has yet to produce on par with the last two seasons. But the pains of that struggle have been eased by a defense that seems to have hit full stride. The season’s early story line has been the defense’s emphatic rebound from that ignominious 70-point lathering at Baylor by allowing just one touchdown in regulation each of the last two games.
“Our first two games we played two tremendous offenses, two of the better offenses in the country,” said defensive back Najja Johnson. “But we never lost faith in our own defense. We still believed we’re the defense we finished off with last year and that we can be even better. So we never let those first two games get too much on us.”
UB’s defense conjured memories of the 2008 championship season over the last two games. The Bulls feasted on turnovers that year and have produced seven the last two times out. Within UConn’s first three offensive series UB came up with a strip-sack-recovery by Adam Redden and a Najja Johnson interception returned for a touchdown.
“That’s something we worked a lot on last year and something we’ve definitely put an emphasis on this year and it’s really paying off,” said junior linebacker Lee Skinner, who had a team-high 10 tackles against UConn. “Turnovers are huge in a game, a huge momentum change.”
“When we start off a series and Adam Redden gets a strip-sack and recovers a fumble and the offense goes up, 7-0, it’s tremendous, it’s contagious,” Johnson said. “Then we get an interception on defense and it turns into a touchdown, we’re up, 14-3, and I think the offense only ran seven plays at that point.”
Another strong defensive effort could launch UB over .500 in MAC play for the first time since the 2010 conference opener and set up what could be a 3-0 start in league. The Bulls play at young and injury-riddled Western Michigan next week and follow up with a home date against winless UMass.
“It’s hard not to bounce back when you have a great group of senior leaders telling you what to do, positive and high energy,” Skinner said.
“I think it was easy for us.”