DIGGING THROUGH THE DEBRIS OF BUFFALO'S HOLY CROSS LOSS
It wasn't the result we wanted, but...well, just read the story.
Image from goholycross.com
This Will Destroy You
Let’s get the hard part out right up front.
There’s no way to put a smiley face on it: the University at Buffalo football team (0-2) should not lose to an FCS school, even a nationally ranked team like Holy Cross.
That’s the simple truth. There’s too much at stake.
Here’s a program, even in its best of times, struggling to be relevant in a Bills-crazy town. Struggling to be relevant to recruits outside of Western and Central New York. Struggling to be relevant on a campus where everything is work—getting fans in the stands, improving facilities, convincing state legislators and bureaucrats to invest taxpayer dollars. All of this at a university hustling to maintain a modest 10% alumni giving rate.
So, without getting too melodramatic, Saturday’s crushing 37-31 loss to the visiting Crusaders (2-0) can’t happen.
And yet, here we are. Worst case scenario.
Help Me Understand
Image from ubbulls.com
It’s not just the loss that has us pulling our hair. It’s the way it all went down.
The big plays. Obviously, Holy Cross quarterback Matthew Sluka’s 46-yard Hail Mary to Jalen Coker is the memory burnt into our brains after this loss, but it was far from the only confounding breakdown by a defense that we thought—thought—looked better this season. The secondary was up to its 2021 tricks, allowing a 17-yard touchdown pass from Sluka to Ayir Asante and another 62-yard bomb to Coker for six. Sluka raked this defense, breaking off runs of 26, 21, 18, and 14 yards en route to 384 yards of total offense himself and three touchdowns. He was responsible for seven of HCU’s nine explosive plays.
The inability to adjust. With the full understanding that defensive coordinator Brandon Bailey is young, in his first DC job, and working with a group of men who are largely new to not only his system but the team itself—come on, guy. Every down is not a nail that needs a hammer. Time and again, Sluka let the Bulls’ pressure slide past him and he’d simply scamper off. That pressure also left massive gaps in the secondary, where some of the shiny new defensive backs—Caleb Offord and Jayden Oliver, in particular—were picked on relentlessly.
The penalties. After a fairly disciplined game at Maryland, the rules went out the window on Saturday. A 15-yard face mask on 4th and 7 in the second quarter, negating a nice Marcus Fuqua pass breakup and keeping the Crusaders first touchdown drive alive. A 3rd and 11 pass interference call. On the same drive (which ended with a Jordan Fuller touchdown run to tie the score at 21), a 3rd and 6 defensive holding call and another 3rd and 6 personal foul—this one inside the 10-yard line. An offsides call on a kickoff (and illegal blocking and holding calls on other special teams plays). A defensive holding call that offset a third-down intentional grounding penalty on HCU’s go-ahead field goal drive. Absolutely maddening to watch.
Even more troubling was this quote from UB linebacker James Patterson to The Buffalo News’ Rachel Lenzi after the game:
One thing I like to tell the guys, you’ve got to take it seriously, it doesn’t matter if its special teams, if it’s the last play of the game, if it’s the cards Coach Mo presents us with, you’ve got to take every situation serious, and you really have to understand and study it. In that situation, we didn’t execute, and we really didn’t understand it.
We had multiple guys jump. When we practice it, only one guy is supposed to jump. When somebody is jumping on the offense, we’re supposed to get into their hip and budge them and try to push the ball out. We didn’t execute that, and that’s on us. That’s not on the coaches. They put the tools in our hands, and we didn’t use them correctly.
Those jumpers included Fuqua, safety Keyshawn Cobb, Oliver, and Muse. I’m not sure I agree with James’ assessment that those four didn’t take the situation seriously—Muse is a captain, Fuqua’s a veteran, and Cobb and Oliver, high school stars and impressive juco transfers, have certainly seen some things—but it was certainly a case of not rising, so to speak, to the moment.
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All is Not Lost
Image from ubbulls.com
There were positive things that happened in the shadow of the Hail Mary.
Buffalo quarterback Cole Snyder (pictured, above) put on a display that, had the defense done its job, would have us raving, He nearly matched Sluka’s outrageous performance, posting 360 total yards and three touchdowns while playing turnover-free.
He threw the long ball to Justin Marshall (five receptions, 116 yards, two touchdowns) and Quian Williams (five receptions, 105 yards, one touchdown) in a manner we haven’t seen at UB in a long time. He led the game-tying field goal drive (and job well done by kicker Alex McNulty on the 52-yard conversion that tied the score at 31) after his defense frittered away two 14-point leads.
Marshall (pictured below delivering what should have been a game highlight—the nasty stiff arm en route to his second TD) looks like the legit Power 5 receiver he was at Louisville. Tight end Robbie Mangas made a pair of clutch catches. Jamari Gassett was more involved in the offense. Running back Mike Washington ran for 56 yards on 12 carries and may be ready to go next level. All good things.
So where do we go from here?
Image from ubbulls.com
First of all—to anyone on UB Twitter calling for head coach Maurice Linguist’s head—stop. Not only was this one game, but firing a college coach mid-season in his first full year after bringing in a nationally acknowledged recruiting class would be absolute insanity. Who’s the miracle worker you think wants to come into that kind of situation? If Linguist left, he’d be the DC at a Power 5 school or back in the NFL in four months. Call me a Coach Mo apologist, but I believe in the man, and I believe things will get better.
Second—Coastal Carolina is next week. Guess what? The Chanticleers had a hell of a time with FCS Gardner-Webb on Saturday before pulling out a four-point win. Is Buffalo better than Gardner-Webb, the #42 team in the FCS? Probably, yes.
Third—does this loss suck right now? Yes, absolutely. However, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t have to matter. It can be a footnote in an otherwise successful season if Buffalo gets to a bowl game or, for that matter, finds a way to win the Mid-American Conference East Division.
Impossible, you say? Let’s just do a quick breakdown of the Bulls’ next four opponents.
AT COASTAL CAROLINA. Sept. 17, 1 p.m., ESPN+. The Chants (2-0) had to struggle to beat Army and FCS Gardner-Webb. CCU is ranked #107 on ESPN’s FPI. This is not the Coastal of old.
AT EASTERN MICHIGAN. Sept. 24, Time & TV TBA. The Eagles (1-1) gave up 49 second half points to Louisiana yesterday, and had to scrape and claw to beat FCS Eastern Kentucky in Week 1. A powerhouse, they are not.
MIAMI. Oct. 1, 3:30 p.m., TV TBD. The RedHawks (1-1) got drilled by #20 Kentucky (no shame!) and drilled, in return, FCS Robert Morris (ranked 100th of 130 FCS squads) yesterday. Miami has #23 Cincinnati next week, so UB may be the first same-level opponent it faces.
AT BOWLING GREEN. Oct. 8, Time & TV TBD. Hey, Bowling Green lost to an FCS team yesterday, too! They also got dogged by UCLA in Los Angeles after hanging around for a half. Fans and media are officially turning on head coach Scot Loeffler. UB could be that dagger, which would be sweet revenge for last season’s debacle.
Is it crazy to think that a month from now Buffalo is 3-3 and 2-1 in the MAC? Or, if you’re more pessimistic, 2-4 and 2-1 in the MAC?
Life usually isn’t as bad as you think it is, nor as great as you want it to be. That’s where we are right now, Bulls fans. If you want easy answers or fast solutions, I don’t know what to tell you.
UB football has always been a long game. We’re 23 years into the Division 1 era, playing a game where the blue bloods have a 60-, 70-, 80-year head start. This isn’t the South, where college football’s a statewide priority. We don’t have a donor base that can spend away our problems. It’s always going to be a grind. Embrace it, or go root for Kansas.
Today hurts, but there’s a lot of football left to play.
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