Bulls hang tough in season opener

Buffalo kept it close but fall 17-7 to Minnesota

The last time the Buffalo Bulls (0-1) played a team coached by PJ Fleck, they got shut out 38-0 on national television.

Fleck left the Mid-American Conference and is now in charge of a power five school, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-0) and things were very different Thursday night. With five minutes left in the game, the Bulls were within seven and looked like they were going to derail the PJ Fleck hype train.

The Golden Gophers had the ball on their own 34 and a long third down to convert. Sophomore quarterback Demry Croft dropped back and Buffalo was able to get to him but couldn’t get the tackle. Croft was able to break off for a nine yard run to convert the first down.

The Golden Gophers turned that drive into a field goal that sealed the game 17-7.

“As I told our team afterward, we didn’t come here to play for a moral victory or hope to keep it close or any of those things,” said Bulls head coach Lance Leipold. “We let some opportunities get away from us, we had some opportunities to put some more points on the board but didn’t and that’s disappointing.”

The Bulls looked good in their season opener against a heavily favored opponent. Redshirt junior receiver Anthony Johnson impressed in his first career game in Buffalo and caught 11 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown. Junior linebacker Khalil Hodge led things on the defensive side of the ball with 20 tackles.

After three straight punts, Minnesota was able to break open the scoring with a play action pass to sophomore receiver Tyler Johnson who found open field and scored a 61 yard touchdown. Johnson finished with 6 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown.

Buffalo made their own big play three drives later when redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyree Jackson found Anthony Johnson down the sideline for a 50 yard catch. They connected again the next play on a fade route to tie the game up 7-7. Jackson finished the game 22-42 for 211 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Minnesota took the lead back with a 10 play, 64 yard drive on the following possession that was capped off by a one yard run from junior running back Shannon Brooks. But then the scoring stopped for the next 43 minutes.

Jackson felt the team could have done more in the first half.

“Offensively we left a lot of points on the field in the first half,” Jackson said. “We weren’t happy just having it 14-7, we felt like we missed a couple times in our red zone, maybe we could have went ahead or made some more plays.”

The defense had question marks coming into the year after allowing 253 rushing yards a game last year. But they held an all-Big Ten running back to only 76 yards on 23 carries.

Junior cornerback Cameron Lewis had a huge play in the closing minutes of the first half, Minnesota had the ball on the five yard line and had a chance to put themselves up by two scores. Lewis was able to come up with an interception on third down to keep Buffalo in striking distance.

“From a defensive standpoint I do feel like it’s a stepping stone,” Hodge said. “Way better than where we were at last year so that’s a positive, we’re just trying to continue to move in that direction.”

One thing that Buffalo struggled with throughout the night was the run game. The team combined for 56 yards on 22 carries. Junior running back Johnathan Hawkins finished with 10 carries for 21 yards and was the Bulls leading rusher.

“We gotta develop a run game period,” Leipold said.

The Bulls travel to West Point, NY next Saturday for a game with the Army Black Knights. The Bulls won last year’s game 23-20 in overtime after a 14 point fourth quarter comeback.

Daniel Petruccelli is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at daniel.petruccelli@ubspectrum.com