UB Bulls need to start winning against good MAC teams

It was exactly one year ago. Well, 364 days.

The Buffalo football team had a chance to begin conference play with a victory over one of top and most consistent programs in the Mid-American Conference over the past few years: Bowling Green. A chance to let everyone know Buffalo can compete with the top teams in the MAC.

But former kicker Patrick Clarke’s field goal at Doty Stadium sailed wide right that Saturday. The Falcons marched down the field and took the lead for good four plays later. The players were dejected after the game.

One week and loss later, UB Athletics fired head coach Jeff Quinn.

It’s a new era under new head coach Lance Leipold and different circumstances but the Bulls (2-3, 0-1 MAC) came up short against Bowling Green again on Saturday, this time with a 28-22 loss at UB Stadium for homecoming. And again Buffalo showed it’s not quite ready to beat the best of the MAC.

First let’s focus on Saturday’s loss.

You could look at the Buffalo ‘D’ limiting a talented Bowling Green offense in the second half as a positive, but the Bulls still allowed both Falcon running backs to run for more than 7 yards a carry and wide receiver Roger Lewis to rack up more than 200 receiving yards (he had 196 in one half.)

Buffalo’s offense, thought to be the team’s strong unit, again made costly mistakes and errors.

After being down 21-6 at halftime, the Bulls had a chance for a strong touchdown drive to begin the second half, but senior quarterback Joe Licata was intercepted with Buffalo nearly in the red zone. It seemed like every time Buffalo got down near Bowling Green’s end zone, the offense couldn’t complete a pass.

Speaking of passing, offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki had Licata throw 59 passes in not the best of conditions. Why? Running backs Anthone Taylor and Jordan Johnson both averaged 4 or more yards a carry, so why not give it to them more?

The box score may read as just a six-point loss, but Buffalo was down 28-9 in the fourth quarter. You could give the Bulls credit for fighting back to put a scare into the Falcons, but they shouldn’t have fallen behind by 19 to a conference opponent at home, regardless if that opponent is a step above Buffalo.

Bowling Green is everything Buffalo should be aiming to be.

The Falcons have won at least eight games the past three years. They’ve been to three straight bowl games and two straight MAC Championship games – winning one of them.

They’re a consistent program outside the Power 5 conferences gaining respect.

When Bowling Green hosted the Bulls in a cold October game last year, the parking lots were filled with swarms of fans and students clad in Orange. It felt like a big-time college atmosphere. The fans stayed until past halftime too, which has been a problem for UB. UB Athletics announced Saturday’s paid attendance as slightly more than 20,000, but there was nowhere close to 20,000 after halftime.

Keep in mind this was Buffalo’s “homecoming” game too.

That is Buffalo’s next step. They have to get to the level of MAC teams like Bowling Green and Northern Illinois if the football program here is ever going to take off. Which means they have to start beating teams like Bowling Green and Northern Illinois every once in a while.

The last time the Bulls defeated Bowling Green? Jeff Quinn’s first MAC win as Bulls head coach. Buffalo hasn’t defeated a MAC team that finished the season with a winning conference record since 2011. The best MAC team that great 2013 Bulls team – led by current NFL players like Khalil Mack and Branden Oliver – defeated was Ohio who finished 4-4 in conference play. All the other MAC teams Buffalo defeated that year finished with three total wins or less.

The Bulls have to start being more competitive in the MAC – Saturday’s 28-22 loss to Bowling Green was another missed opportunity for Buffalo. Maybe Leipold is the guy to do it eventually, but it’s becoming more clear this won’t be the year.

That’s because it’s not going to get any easier for Buffalo. Next up is Central Michigan – which just defeated Northern Illinois – and 4-1 Ohio. Buffalo, despite having a pretty competitive roster, could very well start conference play 0-3.

It’s sad that Buffalo may not be contending for the East or a bowl game in Licata’s senior year – his final two years to be exact. It’s sad he probably won’t be the guy to win Buffalo a championship in this new era. I’ve said it before, the best team Licata will ever play on is the team he played on as a sophomore. Which there’s nothing wrong with – not everyone can go out on top.

Licata will still leave UB with a winning record (which is a major accomplishment for Buffalo if you look at its history) and most of the Bulls’ other passing records. He should be proud of his run.

But long term, Buffalo will have to start playing tough with the great MAC teams – it can’t move forward if it’s not moving forward within its own conference. It has to start winning games like Saturday’s.

Tom Dinki is the editor in chief and can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tomdinki.