KALAMAZOO, Mich. — No one knows with certainty what they’re getting when non-conference football games are scheduled years in advance.
UB could have figured Ohio State would be good when they made the game date, but coming off an unbeaten season and bucking for a national championship? And basic deduction suggested Baylor meant a step up in class but who could have projected the Bears would morph into an offensive juggernaut on pace to shatter a slew of national records?
The Ohio State game ended up being encouraging, the Baylor game humbling. But in their own way those contests helped prepare the Bulls for the challenge at hand – taking to the road and further validating their hopes of gaining a Mid-American Conference title.
The records alone portray UB as a big favorite today against Western Michigan. The Bulls are 3-2 overall, 1-0 in the conference and have scored at least 40 points in consecutive games for the first time in the lifetimes of the current players. Their roster is laden with juniors and seniors and head coach Jeff Quinn is four seasons into his tenure.
All Western Michigan has is the belief that at some point things are bound to get better.
The Broncos are 0-6 under first-year coach P.J. Fleck. They’ve yielded at least 32 points in each of the last four games and haven’t come closer than 18 in any of them. Their senior quarterback, Tyler Van Tubbergen, is questionable after leaving last week’s loss to Toledo with a shoulder injury.
The math seems as simple as 1+1 – until one factors in the historical trends. UB never has won a MAC crossover road game since entering the conference in 1999 and is 0-3 all-time at Waldo Stadium. Even UB’s 2008 MAC championship team couldn’t break through, losing in overtime here five years ago yesterday. And the Bulls have won just one road game the last four seasons, that being last year’s come-from-behind conquest of MAC newbie UMass.
But this is where those early games against Ohio State and Baylor can come into play, particularly psychologically. It’s never easy to win anywhere on the road, but how could Western Michigan possibly be any more challenging than the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe on opening day? Or trying to chase down Baylor’s gazelles in the 100-degree Texas heat?
“You play the best, you find out where you’re at,” Quinn said this week. “And I think what we saw in the first game was a team that could play four quarters of football, a team that responded being down on the road 23-0 and to be able to outscore them three quarters gave us a tremendous sense of confidence. We certainly can’t start out a game that way but there was a lot of guys that were competing against some of the top competition in the country.
“I think when you look at the past week, what Baylor did against West Virginia is amazing. They had over 600 yards in the first half and they put 73 points. That’s a tremendous team. Why they’re not one of the top five, I don’t know why.
“I think those first couple weeks helped us to get where we are today.”
“Playing against top competition like that certainly gets you ready for the season,” senior cornerback Najja Johnson said. “It helped us as a defense to figure out where we stood and what we could work on to get better at as a defense.”
Experience tends to matter and UB has an abundance. Plus, certainly for the senior class, there’s an air of desperation, a realization that it’s now or never. Johnson admits the attitude he carries on the road is different than when he was a sophomore. He said the same goes for fellow defensive back Cortney Lester, a junior in his third year as a starter.
“Being more mature helps, being two years older,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned a lot off the field in those two years. I have more of a business mindset when we go on the road for these games. Cortney and I, we won’t get rattled as quickly as we might have two years ago. It definitely helps just being more mature. The older you get the smarter you get we feel like.”
A misstep here could cost the Bulls dearly. They have a difficult crossover game against Toledo in November. They still have to face Ohio and Bowling Green, the two preseason favorites in the East. But Quinn isn’t looking that far ahead and he hopes his players aren’t either. He’s constantly reminding them: “Stay locked in to the process and not the prize.”