Branden Oliver remembers feelings like this once before. He didn’t like it then and he doesn’t like it now.
Oliver and UB’s running game have been held in check two games into the schedule. A unit that strives for a 2,000-yard season has produced just 196, which projects to fewer than 1,200 yards over the 12-game slate. At 78 yards a game, the Bulls rank dead last in rush offense in the 13-team Mid-American Conference. It’s not what anybody had envisioned.
Oliver set the school single-season rushing record as a sophomore. He’s one 100-yard game from 13, which would tie Anthony Swan for the UB career mark. He’s 522 rushing yards from supplanting James Starks as UB’s career leader. He’s ascended into elite company in methodical fashion.
Not since Oliver’s freshman season has progress been so hard to come by. He averaged 2.9 per attempt that season with a long of 19. This season he’s at 2.7 with a long of 10.
“It is a reminder of my freshman year but at the same time you got to lean on God and keep the faith,” said Oliver, a senior named to the preseason Doak Walker and Maxwell Award watch list. “You can’t give up.”
The circumstances have been less than ideal. The Bulls opened at No. 2 Ohio State and followed up with a trip to No. 23 Baylor. In general, games against teams from BCS automatic-qualifier conferences are more of a challenge. The task magnifies when the opponents are among the best of the elite, although Oliver and center Trevor Sales are reluctant to lean on that explanation.
“There are people who feel they’re a Top 25 team so they should beat us,” Oliver said. “But I believe everyone is equal and man is man, period. They put on their uniform the same way.”
“Like Bo said, that’s not an excuse at all,” Sales said. “We need to be able to run the ball. That’s part of the game. You run to pass and pass to run. That’s how it works. We need to get that going this week. I think it would be a great week to put some yards out on the run.”
It’s a good bet that UB will encounter something less than an air-tight defense when it plays its home opener against Stony Brook at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The Seawolves hail from the Colonial Athletic Association, a Football Championship Subdivision conference, and that theoretically puts their teams a level below UB.
Stony Brook linebackers likely won’t close holes as fast as linebackers from Ohio State and Baylor. Even when the UB line managed decent push, the gaps Oliver and other runners identified vanished in a flash.
“I’d basically say the speed is the biggest difference,” Oliver said. “Working against our scout team and then going up against them, that would probably be the biggest difference. The speed of the game is a little bit different when you’re playing those type of teams.”
“It’s partially them and partially us,” Sales said in regard to quality of opposition. “I’m going to put more of it on us, though, than who we played. No matter who you play each week you prepare for them, you watch the film and we’re big guys, we’re strong guys, we’re fast guys, too. It’s not like in high school and we’re playing a pro team. It’s not like that.”
Oliver figures that Stony Brook probably has the same mentality.
“You never know,” he said. “That’s why you have a game plan every week. Just because they’re Stony Brook doesn’t mean nothing. They’re a good team so you got to game plan just like you game plan for the No. 1 team in the nation.”
UB can’t take anybody for granted, not after being outscored 110-33 over the opening two games. Still, recent step-down games against FCS opponents have enabled the Bulls to unleash the running game. Oliver carried 15 times for 126 yards and three TDs two years ago against the Seawolves. Last year he singed Morgan State for a school-record 238 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
“We’re doing the right things in practice, we’re watching film, we’re lifting hard, we’re conditioning still, we’re doing all those things as a full unit,” Sales said. “It’s just you have to keep pushing, keep pushing, because if you keep pushing one day it’ll finally break. And it’s going to happen.”
“We got to get it going somewhere,” Oliver said. “We just got to keep on working, keep the faith. The season’s not over yet. It’s just starting.”