It’s a long way to the top for UB Bulls

Bowling Green will be first test to see if Bulls are legitimate contenders

As much as UB football fans are concerned with the Bulls’ inadequate play last week, they shouldn’t be.

The long Nevada runs, the Jordan Johnson fumble, the last-minute interception by Joe Licata – none of it mattered.

Last Saturday’s 24-21 loss won’t count against the Bulls (2-2) in the team’s quest for a Mid-American Conference championship. All that matters now is what Buffalo does from here on out – and its first real test will be a challenging one.

Saturday’s matchup against Bowling Green (2-2) will be the team’s biggest test to date and it may be its biggest all season. The Falcons have appeared in the MAC Championship game the past two years, including a victory in 2013. They defeated perhaps the most talented team in Buffalo program history in what was essentially a MAC East Championship game to get it by the way.

The Falcons are already a favorite in the East again this year despite their .500 record. They’ve pulled out impressive victories over Maryland and Purdue and challenged Tennessee and Memphis. Their skill sets could match up against the best in the conference – a conference that's only getting stronger.

The competition is increasing by the year. It may be the most aggressive Mid-Major in the nation. And Buffalo fits right in.

Buffalo has proved it can contend this year – not a few years down the line. This was supposed to be a team that had a lot of learning to do on the fly with a new coaching staff and brand-new starters. But the Bulls proved skeptics – fans and media alike – wrong before their inferior performance against Nevada. Emphasis on media, who picked Buffalo to finish fifth in the MAC East this year.

Entering the heart of the season, the Bull’s once questionable ‘D’ is playing with similar intensity as the 2013 Khalil Mack-led defense. The unit that features a former wide receiver, a walk-on and an almost entirely new defensive line is suddenly the talk of UB football.

The linebacking core may be the most impressive unit to date. The group of junior Brandon Berry and seniors Nick Gilbo and Okezie Alozie was thrown together during spring and summer practices amid injuries and position switches.

It only took two weeks into the season for the group to gel.

The three linebackers are the Bulls’ top-3 tacklers and have a combined for 4.5 sacks through four games.

The secondary has been impressive as well. Junior cornerback Boise Ross, who was a wide receiver a little more than a year ago, is playing like one of the best defensive backs in the country. Buffalo has benefited from the return of senior cornerback Marqus Baker. Young safeties Andrews Dadeboe and Ryan Williamson are playing better than expected.

The defensive line still has work to do. Nevada’s 91-yard and 55-yard runs last week were only a sample size of what could happen Saturday against Bowling Green’s 1-2 punch of Travis Greene and Fred Coppet.

But even if the Bulls allow a big running day, a big day from Buffalo is expected in return.

Johnson and senior Anthone Taylor have been on a tear this season and haven’t shown signs of slowing down, even behind a still questionable offensive line.

They’ve combined for 618 rushing yards and both average an impressive 5.0 yards per carry. Taylor picked up where he left off last season as Buffalo’s go-to-back. Johnson, injured his first few seasons, is playing the best football of his college career.

They’ve even bailed out Licata, who hasn’t quite played up to the level we expect of him. Don’t get me wrong – even on a down day, the senior quarterback will chuck up more than 300 yards.

But he still needs to find his groove. Licata doesn’t usually make mental errors – he has this season. He usually protects the ball in crunch time– he hasn’t this season.

He’ll eventually figure it out, but it has to come sooner than later if Buffalo wants success in the most important part of the season.

The components are there and present. Buffalo has thrived in many areas of the field. And led by new head coach Lance Leipold, who proved winning can be sustained across any level of college football, the Bulls have a shot at their first bowl game since 2013 and an outside chance of their first MAC title since 2008.

Buffalo still has a long road to walk if it wants to experience its second-ever MAC title. There are clear holes in the lineup, but all fixable nonetheless. A MAC title is in play, but the pieces must come together at the right time.

Saturday’s game against Bowling Green would be the perfect game to see it start to happen.

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.