WEST POINT---The Buffalo Bulls have it tough and they know it. They are the huge public university in what still is a big metropolitan area. Unlike the other colleges in the area, they have Buffalo (as well as New York) splashed on its uniforms, buildings and billboards across the region. They also realize, that athletically, they fight an uphill battle to garner the attention that they believe is deserving. They have to compete with the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres, who despite repeated years of futility will always get the attention, good or bad. In many ways, they're like the Buffalo Bisons. No matter how good they are, they will get a tepid reaction at best.
How does the University at Buffalo get that attention? How do they move the needle? What do they have to do to get that slot of attention on local talk shows? In essence, how do they move the needle?
Yesterday, before a crowd of 28,643 on a sun-splashed but humid 87 degree day, the Bulls were drubbed by the Army Black Knights 47-39 in a game that didn't feel close until the final three minutes. In the fourth quarter, the Bulls trailed 47-17 before making a run of 22 unanswered points. As lopsided as the affair was, there certainly was no quit in the Bulls. After cutting the lead to eight after an 8 play, 68 yard touchdown drive and two point conversion, Buffalo held Army and got the ball back on their own 25 yard line. So, here it was. Despite giving up seven touchdowns on Army's first 10 possessions, despite allowing Army to complete 7 of 7 passes for 125 yards, despite allowing Army to rush for 341 yards, which included touchdown runs of 23, 45, and 41 yards, the Bulls had a chance to tie this game in the dying minutes.
On first and ten, an incomplete pass, then a seven yard completion. On 3rd and 3, quarterback Joe Licata got what he wanted: one on one coverage on the left side. He threw a pretty good ball intended for Ron Willoughby (5 catches, 55 yards) that would have given the Bulls a first down at the Knight 30. The pass was defended well by defensive back Chris Carnegie and after some good old fashioned hand fighting, fell incomplete. On fourth down, the Bulls ran and were stopped three inches short of a first down. The Knights took over and one kneel down later, it was over.
Licata (34 of 49, 5 TDs, 3 INT for 396 yards) threw a pretty good pass and was surprised to get single coverage on what has been his main target in the young season.
"I was surprised they went one on one there," said Licata, "it wasn't my first read, but when I saw it, we took a chance, I needed to make a better throw there."
Football is a game of mistakes and the Bulls certainly made their share yesterday. Five interceptions, a missed field goal, bad penalties at the wrong time, big drops. That said, Army was far from perfect. In addition to losing two fumbles, the Knights let Buffalo recover an onside kick and were flagged 12 times for 105 yards. But, we know mistakes will be made, it's often when they're made that determines the outcome.
Trailing 21-3 at half, the Bulls got the ball to start the second half and started moving. On 4th and 3 at the Army 35, the Bulls came up with a dandy of a play. They handed off to Jordan Johnson who took two steps forward and then threw a perfect pass to tight end Matt Weiser who dropped it. After stopping Army on its next possession, the Bulls got the ball on their 15 moved it 35 yards only to see Licata get picked. On the next Army play, Larry Dixon went 45 yards and like that it was 28-3. The Knights took advantage of Licata's picks twice. Right before half, the Bulls had the ball on their one and decided that they were going to try to score. Licata was picked, Army quickly scored to make it 21-3 at the half. Jeff Quinn didn't have a doubt that trying to score was the right call.
"Not at all," Quinn said. "We're trying to get ourselves back in the game. We needed to get something going. I've got an aggressive mindset. I think about all the great things that could happen in those moments, not the negative ones."
The second guessers can have a field day with Quinn's decision, but I won't do that. As Herman Edwards says, "you play to win the game," and that's what Quinn was doing. His quarterback made a bad read, threw a bad pick and it cost the Bulls seven points. He is aggressive, doing things like going for it on fourth down, trying the running back pass on a fourth down and going for the home run ball on their final possession.
We knew that Army would be difficult to defend. The triple option is always hard to defend and they're going to get their yards win or lose. The Bulls knew that going in.
"We expected them to get 300 yards," said Adam Redden. In many ways, it's the way they got their 300, but Army got 466 total yards; 341 on the ground. Long runs, daylight runs and an average of 7.6 yards per play did the Bulls in. Army had the ball 12 times and scored seven touchdowns. The Bulls thought they were ready to combat the triple option, but, in reality, the results said they weren't.
"I thought we were prepared," said linebacker Lee Skinner. "Our scout team did a good job prepping us this week."
I'm sure they did, but Army relies on more athletic teams over pursuing and that's what Buffalo did. That results in those 57 yard runs to daylight and plenty of yards on the ground. The Knights showed many facets of the triple option. They ran it from under center, they ran it out of the shotgun. Simply, that's tough to practice for.
"We played a good first half last week (Duquesne) and a good second half this week, we just need to put it all together for a whole game," said Redden.
The Bulls haven't done that yet. They've played two games, they're 1-1 and they face Baylor, a top ten team at UB Stadium Friday night. You know what I think about making predictions, but we all know that beating Baylor will be a monumental task. It looks like the Bulls will be 1-2 at the quarter pole and with the Bills season starting, and training camp for the Sabres soon to follow, getting the UB buzz will not be easy.
This was a tough game. They were on the road, they were facing a team that's been down, but was playing its first game under new coach Jeff Monken. That said, the needle wasn't moved. They will face Baylor this Friday on ESPN and will be in the national spotlight. It won't look good if there are 10,000 empty seats at UB Stadium. Buffalo and Western New York is a picky sports region. Will MAC football excite them? Would a dominant MAC program excite them? Would playing in the Big Ten excite them? The question remains to be seen as college athletics continues its reformation, but in a potential needle mover yesterday, the needle didn't move.