Posted October 15, 2013

Mid-major Report: With fourth straight win, Buffalo marching toward bowl eligibility

Ball State Cardinals, Buffalo Bulls, MAC, Ron English, Wyoming Cowboys
Khalil Mack

After losing to Ohio State and Baylor, Khalil Mack (46) and Buffalo have rattled off four straight wins. (Mike Groll/AP)

For Buffalo fans, 2008 must seem like a distant memory. Former coach Turner Gill’s most successful season at the helm saw the Bulls win the MAC East, take down undefeated Ball State in the conference championship game and earn a trip to the International Bowl, the first bowl game in program history. (The team declined an invitation to the 1958 Tangerine Bowl to protest the stadium’s policy of not allowing black players to compete.)

Gill departed for a forgettable stint at Kansas, and Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn was hired in 2010. It was hard to see results in the win column in Quinn’s first three years, but there was progress, especially at the end of 2012, when the the Bulls won three of their last four games. With a gluttony of returning starters and anchors on both offense and defense, hopes were high entering this fall; the talent level was finally to the point Buffalo wanted it to be. The Bulls even received a first-place vote in the East division in the MAC preseason poll.

Yet the first two games of the 2013 campaign were trial by fire, as Buffalo traveled to Ohio State and Baylor in back-to-back weeks. The Bulls lost to the Buckeyes and Bears by a combined score of 110-33, struggling against both schools’ potent offenses. Late into Buffalo’s Week 3 matchup with Stony Brook, it seemed like the offseason hype was a mirage. But that’s precisely when things started turning around.

The Bulls rallied to beat Stony Brook 26-23 in five overtimes. They rattled off three wins after that, including a 41-12 rout of UConn and a 33-0 decimation of Western Michigan. Now, Buffalo stands at 4-2 (2-0), just two wins away from bowl eligibility.

“I’ve been real pleased in our leadership,” Quinn said during the MAC teleconference on Monday, “and I think that Stony Brook game did make a big difference.”

Over their last three games, the Bulls have won by a margin of 116-26. Last Saturday’s win at Western Michigan was Buffalo’s first shutout road win since 1965, and the defense held the Broncos to just 202 total yards. The offense has balance between quarterback Joe Licatta, workhorse running back Brandon Oliver and a pair of talented receivers in Alex Neutz and Fred Lee. The defense boasts an All-America talent in linebacker Khalil Mack, who UMass coach Charley Molnar said “no one controls very well,” on the MAC teleconference.

At MAC media day in July, Mack told me: “I guess nobody cares about Buffalo.”

If the Bulls keep winning, that will change in a hurry.

Three up

 Ball State wide receiver Willie Snead: It’s midseason All-America time, and writers across the nation are filling out their lists. As far as wide receivers go, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr., Baylor’s Antwan Goodley, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews and Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong are all strong candidates. But Snead belongs right there with them.

A year after making 89 catches for 1,148 yards and nine touchdowns, Snead (51 catches, 867 yards, seven touchdowns) is on pace to smash those numbers through the first half of this season. He’s turned in four straight 100-yard games, including a 10-catch, 152-yard performance against Kent State in last week’s 27-24 win.

 Central Michigan: There haven’t been many opportunities to put the Chips in the Three up column this season, but after they played spoiler at Ohio’s homecoming game, now is the time. This was a game Central Michigan needed desperately to keep its season from slipping away. Coach Dan Enos’ team is never going to win any style points, but one week after improving to 2-1 in the MAC following a 26-23 win over the Bobcats, the Chippewas have a chance to make a statement against unbeaten No. 23 Northern Illinois. Find a way to win this one — however unlikely — and Central Michigan could be primed for a second-half push.

• Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith: There was nothing groundbreaking about Wyoming’s 38-31 win over 2-4 New Mexico. And that’s kind of the point. Quarterback Brett Smith threw for 247 yards, rushed for 138 yards and scored three total touchdowns, which is what we’ve come to expect from Smith week in and week out. The Mountain West is loaded with good quarterbacks, from Derek Carr and David Fales to Cody Fajardo to the injured Chuckie Keeton. Smith sits right there with them. For the year, the junior has passed for 1,854 yards, rushed for 422 yards and accounted for 18 touchdowns.

Three down

Eastern Michigan coach Ron English: We had English firmly on the hot seat before the season started, and with Eastern Michigan’s 50-25 shellacking to Army on Saturday, things aren’t looking good. One MAC coach (former Miami (Ohio) headman Don Treadwell) has already been let go, and English might be set to follow suit if things don’t get better soon. The Eagles’ schedule isn’t doing him any favors; they play Ohio, at NIU and at Toledo in the next three weeks. It’s likely the Eagles will be 1-8 heading into a Nov. 9 game against Western Michigan. Eastern Michigan is allowing 40 points per game, 121st in the FBS, and allowed 513 rushing yards to the Black Knights.

Hawaii heartbreakers: Poor, poor Hawaii. The Warriors, née Rainbow Warriors, played USC close for a while in Week 1, fell just short of a dramatic comeback against Fresno State in Week 5 and were looking their first win right in the eye last Saturday, before they watched it slip away. UNLV kicker Nolan Kohorst drilled a 44-yard field goal to beat Hawaii 39-37 as time expired. Hawaii is now 0-6, and it’s hard not to feel for the Warriors.

UTEP: After a 34-20 loss to Tulsa, a team with plenty of problems of its own, the Miners sit dead last in the Conference USA West at 1-5 (0-3). They’re currently riding a four-game losing streak, which includes a three-point loss to Louisiana Tech and a 59-42 loss to Colorado State. UTEP has a week to lick its wounds, and a bounce-back performance against Rice on Oct. 26 would certainly help. Still, it has been a tough first year for coach Sean Kugler, who took over for the retired Mike Price.

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