The Akron win, the next four weeks and the future of UB football
With four games remaining, questions remain about UB football head coach Lance Leipold and his staff
This Thursday at UB Stadium, we saw something out of UB’s football team that we hadn’t seen in weeks: fight.
Coming into Thursday as a 17.5-point home underdog against a good Akron team (5-4, 3-2 Mid-American Conference), Buffalo played their best game of the season, not only scoring an upset win, but doing it in dominating fashion. There was nothing fluky about Buffalo’s 41-20 win, which culminated with a near-perfect 21-point fourth-quarter from UB in which they stepped straight on Akron’s throat and put the game away, as well-coached teams often do.
It was a stark reminder that this UB football team, despite it’s 2-6 record and string of blowout losses, still has a lot of talent, and when that talent is coached up properly, this team is more dangerous than its record would indicate.
However, coaching has been a big question mark for UB this season. Head coach Lance Leipold and his staff, specifically offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki, have disappointed mightily in their second year, raising questions about the future of UB’s football program.
Over the next two months, UB Athletic Director Allen Greene will face the most difficult decision of his short tenure: Was this disappointing season just a blip in the radar for Leipold as he transitions the program into a new era, or is Leipold and his staff of Division-III legends simply overmatched at the Division-I level?
Before Thursday, UB had come out of the locker room seemingly lifeless week after week, falling behind early in games, something that reflects poorly on Leipold and his staff. They have played nearly the entirety of their season from behind, which has taken its toll on their defensive front seven and freshman quarterback.The slow starts are not all Leipold’s fault, but you can’t expect to win consistently when you’re constantly trying to come from behind. Leipold and his staff have not put their players in position to succeed early in games, even if execution has also often been poor.
Finally on Thursday, we got to see what it looks like when Buffalo gets to play with the lead for an extended period of time, and it looked good: a run-heavy offense led by senior running back Jordan Johnson with a few screen passes and downfield shots mixed in, and a bend-don’t-break defense that can keep points off the board.
It makes you wonder whether this season could have gone very differently if not for a few unlucky breaks here or there. But that’s football, and Leipold should not get a pass for his team’s record.
Johnson was sensational Thursday, setting a new program record with 282 rushing yards. It has been a somewhat disappointing senior year for Johnson, who has been a victim of circumstance in this disastrous UB season, but if nothing else, he finally got his trademark moment.
Freshman quarterback Tyree Jackson was just 7-21 for 140 yards with a touchdown and interception throwing the ball, but was at his best when Buffalo needed him most. He made a huge play early in the fourth quarter, tucking the ball in and running for a 38-yard touchdown to make the score 27-13 after an Akron field goal had cut Buffalo’s lead to just seven points.
He also led a five-play, 50 yard field goal drive in just 26 seconds right before halftime, making it a two possession game and halting Akron’s momentum after senior receiver JoJo Natson returned a punt 67 yards to the house with just 32 seconds remaining in the half.
These are the big-time moments Buffalo has been hoping for out of Jackson all season. His freshman year has not always been great, but he has been plagued by questionable play calling, poor offensive line play, not having a single reliable wide receiver and other issues outside of his control. As Leipold said after the game, he still continues to look unfazed by adversity or failure. He has looked comfortable in the pivotal moments of game. It will come together for Jackson soon enough, and he will be a special player.
Defensively, Buffalo was finally able to slow down an opponent's running game, allowing Akron just 3.0 yards per carry on 42 attempts. Running quarterbacks and read-option plays remain UB’s Achilles heel defensively and I’m not sure Thursday’s win changes that. Leipold’s comments after the game certainly didn’t inspire confidence by sayinghe felt the run defense was more successful Thursday because “[Akron] didn’t run the quarterback.”
With third-string sophomore cornerback Tatum Slack starting in place of injured senior Boise Ross and sophomore Brandon Williams, the secondary also aced arguably its biggest test of the season against Akron’s explosive passing game.
Still, with the team sitting at 2-6 with several extremely ugly losses, Leipold and his staff are still coaching with their backs against the wall. There has been no official indication that Greene – who has yet to fire a single coach or have a coach resign in his 11 months as athletic director – is considering cutting ties with Leipold, but there’s no question he’s taking a long look at the struggling coaching staff of his most important and expensive program.
No college football program ever wants to fire a head coach after just two seasons. After all, Leipold is still coaching a team filled with a lot of players he did not recruit. It can also be frustrating for older players to adjust to a new vision for a program, specifically when that vision may push the timetable for success back far enough that they won’t be around to see it.
Many players, including former All-MAC linebacker Brandon Berry, have quit the team or decided to transfer out of the program over the past several months, a trend that also might speak volumes about how players feel about Leipold.
There is a ton of young talent on the roster that Leipold has brought to Buffalo, and if Greene decides to cut ties with Leipold before we even have a chance to see what he could do with it, it would say a lot about his capabilities as a coach and leader at this level. Firing Leipold would be an admission of massive failure by the Athletics department, and mid-level football programs don’t have much room for error.
Jackson has superstar potential at quarterback in the MAC. Sophomore running back Jonathan Hawkins is one of the most highly-touted recruits to ever choose UB, and appears poised to take the keys from Johnson after this season. Freshman receiver KJ Osborn has shown flashes of big-time potential in practice and seems to be developing rapport with Jackson, something that could pay big dividends as soon as next season. Defensively, sophomore linebacker Khalil Hodge has already taken over play calling duties as the MIKE linebacker and looks like a future All-MAC linebacker.
All these players committed to play for Buffalo knowing Leipold would be their coach, even if former head coach Jeff Quinn played a part in the recruiting some of them, most notably Jackson, who originally had committed to Quinn. There is no telling that any of them would definitely stay if the program were to cut ties with Leipold after only two seasons. It certainly doesn’t send a great message about the direction of your program when you invest so much in a coach, as Buffalo did by bringing in not just Leipold, but his entire Division-III coaching staff, and then give up on them only two years later.
However, it’s fair to wonder whether Leipold will ever be a good D-I coach after what has happened this season. If Greene feels the same way, it would be worth any possible repercussions to get rid of him and start over again before further damage is done.
Coming into the home stretch of the season, Buffalo is a 2-6 football team without much to play for. They are just one more loss away from being officially eliminated from Bowl Game eligibility. You can tell a lot about a team’s players by watching how they approach practices and games when there’s nothing more than pride on the line.
And in these situations, that effort and fight, reflects tenfold on the coach.
Thursday’s game against Akron may turn out to be a fluke. It also may turn out to be the start of a four-week stretch of a team rallying around their coach when they know they might be playing for his job.
Greene will surely be watching closely over these next few weeks. If the resilience that was on display against Akron carries over into the next four weeks, Leipold may deserve another year to prove himself. If not, UB will be exactly where it was two years ago – looking for a savior for their program.
With all of their recent success in other sports, Buffalo will not be able to create a consistently decent football program until they find the right coach.
Is it Leipold? It doesn’t look like it, but he has four more weeks to prove us wrong.
Michael Akelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeakelson.