Their effort has been evident in every on-field encounter the Bulls have had this year. Unfortunately, victors are not determined by the amount of energy expended or the blood lost in battle.
Vince Lombardi once said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," and to this point, UB has a deficiency of W's and an excess of L's. The Bulls (1-6, 0-5 MAC) are looking to reverse the trend and pick up their first conference win of the season when they butt horns with the Eastern Michigan Broncos (1-5, 0-4 MAC) at Rynearson Stadium this Saturday at 3 p.m.
Of course, the Broncos are also viewing the game as a prime opportunity to get their first taste of MAC victory.
"We can say it's an opportunity for a win. I'm sure they're saying it's an opportunity for a win, too. ... Is UB going to start to gain some momentum with a game? Is Eastern going to gain some momentum with a game? That's what we're going to find out Saturday," stated Bulls Head Coach Jim Hofher.
The Broncos, the cellar dwellers of the MAC West, will enter the game with a 1-5 record.
The Broncos are unique because they use true freshmen in both the starting quarterback and starting tailback slots. Of course, that has meant a lot of growing pains for the Bronco offense, which ranks near the bottom of the conference in every major category.
Quarterback Kainoa Akina, at 5'11" 192 lbs., closely resembles Kent State quarterback Joshua Cribbs in size and stature. Cribbs used his athleticism to slice and dice through the Bulls' defense last weekend. Buffalo will have to adjust its defensive strategy to keep Akina in the pocket, where he should be least comfortable behind a sub-par offensive line.
Akina's primary target is wide receiver Kevin Walter. At 6'3" 220 lbs., Walter is a prototypical possesion-type receiver. Coming into the game, his 34 catches for 402 yards rank him as the fourth-leading receiver in the conference.
At running back, freshman Chris Roberson is tentatively pencilled in as the starter for Saturday. After posting two 100-yard performances in his first four starts, Roberson has been stuck in neutral. In his last two games, against UConn and Ball State, Roberson accumulated a combined 11 yards on 16 carries. He will look to get back in gear against the Bulls, who have yielded 179 yards per game on the ground this season.
After ranking as high as sixth in the nation in pass defense, the Bulls are now just sixth in the conference. Still, the Bulls' secondary should rebound nicely this week.
The key to success will be staying alert to Akina's whereabouts at all times. As long as they can force Akina into passing downs, he will not be able to complete the big-time throws that Leftwich did two weeks ago, or that Cribbs did last week. Look for either linebacker Bobby Johnson or safety Craig Rohlfs, two of the Bulls' surest tacklers, to serve as a "spy," keeping Akina from getting out of the pocket and making plays.
Pressure will be put on Mark Graham to lock down Walters, who is fresh off a 126-yard outing against Ball State. While the defensive line will be once again be outsized (what else is new?), they have been improving steadily on run defense all season. True freshman defensive end Anthony Andriano has been coming on strong and is seeing increased playing time in the latter half of the season.
"We need to keep a positive attitude and our hard work on the field," said Andriano. "We're studying our opponents. We feel competition with them will be all right. We need to keep executing."
The Bulls will have their hands full on offense, going up against the fourth-ranked defense in the MAC. Their success will be contingent upon controlling the clock and not falling behind early.
While Buffalo ranks last in the conference in rushing, the results are skewed because they have often had to play from behind, limiting running backs Marquis Dwarte and Derrick Gordon's number of carries. The duo proved to pack a good 1-2 punch last week against Kent State last Saturday, combining for 117 yards on 29 carries. The Broncos have proven to be soft against the run, yielding 172.7 yards per game on the ground.
On the flip side, the Broncos have been stellar in pass defense, only giving up 166.5 yards per game through the air. The Bulls' aerial attack will be further hamstrung without the services of Andre Forde, who will miss the remainder of the season with a collarbone injury. This will not be a high-scoring affair, and turnovers may prove to be the difference. If the offense can hang onto the ball and establish a ground game, they should be able to put up just enough points for a win.
Far and away, this is the team's most successful unit.
Senior co-captains Kenny Philpot and Scott Russell, both linebackers, anchor a defensive corps that is second in the MAC in pass defense and fourth overall. They have grown into a dynamic duo over the past three years; both have over 300 career tackles.
Some of Philpot's and Russell's successes, however, have stemmed from their defensive line's vulnerability at the point of attack. UB's offensive line should be able to manhandle the Broncos' front four, who weigh an average of 250 lbs. The Broncos' secondary starts two freshmen, but is a talented group that has only yielded six touchdown passes on the season. For the Bulls, the big play may be hard to come by.
The Bulls will be without both starting wide receivers, Andre Forde and Zeke Mckine. Freshman Matt Kneuven, one of only two true freshmen to get significant playing time this season, will get the nod. Kneuven has already established himself as one of the top young receivers in the conference with 21 catches on the year, one more than former Bulls standout Drew Haddad had in his first campaign.
The Bulls have forced many teams to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns inside the red zone this season. They may do that again Saturday, but don't expect the Broncos to miss. Their kicker, Toller Starnes, is a candidate for the prestigious Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's best college kicker. Starnes has made 31 of the 41 field goals he has attempted during his career.
A battle of the Titans this is not. Both teams are desperate for a win to validate their status as legitimate D-I programs. UB quarterback Joe Freedy's experience and poise should make the difference. If Freedy can provide leadership and not make mistakes, it should be enough to earn the Bulls a hard-fought victory.
Bulls buck Broncos 19-14.