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FINDING OUR BEARINGS IN TIME FOR SATURDAY'S KENT STATE GAME
A lot's on the line for UB football on Saturday; men's & women's basketball continue their struggles, both in action Sunday
Image from ubbulls.com
Considering this is one of the most exciting times in sports—the home stretch of the college football season and apex of early-season college basketball tournament madness, for our specific purposes—things feel a little dead, from the outside looking in, at the University at Buffalo.
The football team hasn’t played since Nov. 9, and the last time we saw the Bulls (5-5, 4-2 in the Mid-American Conference) on the field, they were blowing a 17-point halftime lead at Central Michigan for a second consecutive loss following a five-game winning streak.
Over these past 16 days, UB’s Nov. 19 home game versus Akron was rescheduled for Dec. 2 courtesy of a lake effect blizzard, Ohio wrapped up the MAC East title, and division rivals Bowling Green and Kent State faded hard.
A quick summary:
Image from ohiobobcats.com
The Bobcats (9-3, 7-1) will ride a seven-game winning streak into the MAC title game against Toledo on Dec. 3. Coach Tim Albin’s bunch squashed Ball State, 32-18, on Nov. 15 and dismissed Bowling Green’s hopes for a shot at the conference championship with a 38-14 thrashing on Nov. 22. The victory over the Falcons (6-6, 5-3) came despite the fact Ohio’s star quarterback Kurtis Rourke missed the game—and is out for the season—with a torn meniscus. The ‘Cats are 92nd in ESPN’s Football Power Index and 62nd in Pro Football Focus’ power rankings. PFF.com also has Rourke rated as the top quarterback in the country this season. 0.5 points ahead of North Carolina’s Drake Maye.
Bowling Green has proven to be one of the stranger teams in the MAC. Ranked 121st in the ESPN FPI, the Falcons suffered conference blowouts to Buffalo (38-7), Kent State (40-6), and Ohio (38-14). BGSU lost to an FCS team in a game in which its offense put up 57 points. On the other hand, Scot Loeffler’s team gave #17 UCLA a decent game, beat Marshall the week after the Thundering Herd took out #13 Notre Dame in South Bend, and earned a victory in a contentious I-75 rivalry game with MAC West champ Toledo (7-4, 5-2). All in all, will an anticipated bowl appearance be enough to save Loeffler’s job? With a four-year record of 13-27 at Bowling Green and a new athletic director,1 probably not.
Kent State is a contender for most disappointing teams in Division 1 football (count fellow MAC East member Miami and the MAC West’s Central Michigan and Northern Illinois among that group, as well). Counted among the preseason favorites to win both the MAC East and the conference title, The Golden Flashes (4-7, 3-4) opened the season against #12 Washington, Oklahoma (ranked seventh in the nation at the time), and #1 Georgia—all losses. Not unexpected! Although KSU’s gone 4-4 since that heinous opening gauntlet, each defeat has been costly: losing by three to Miami after falling behind, 17-0, in the first quarter, getting its doors blown off, 52-31, by Dequan Finn at Toledo, and racking up confounding late-season home losses to Ball State on Nov. 1 and Eastern Michigan on Nov. 16.
That’s where we are today.
The Wounded Animal Effect: Don’t Dismiss #FlashFAST
Image from kentstatesports.com
Buffalo enters its penultimate game of the season against Kent State on Saturday (1 p.m., ESPN+). The Golden Flashes have no hope of a bowl berth. Starting quarterback, Collin Schlee (13 TD five INT) left the Nov. 16 loss to EMU with a second-quarter injury and did not return.
KentWired.com, the student newspaper, noted Schlee bounced his head on the FieldTurf at Dix Stadium on his final play of the game, a 21-yard run. Schlee missed a game in October with a lower-body bruise.
The Bulls, however, need this one.
After two consecutive MAC losses and a two-week stint in the twilight zone following a five-game win streak, UB desperately needs to regain momentum in a season that suddenly feels rudderless. KSU—a battered, bruised opponent, on the road, with nothing to play for, ready to run out the clock—seems ripe for the picking. Right?
Not so fast. Like a dead rattlesnake, Kent State can still strike despite the fact their goals for 2022 are, like our metaphorical reptile, deceased.
In just nine games, redshirt junior Dante Cephas leads the MAC with an 82.7 yards-per-game receiving average. Sophomore Devontez Walker (pictured above) tops the conference with 844 receiving yards, and is second with 10 receiving touchdowns. Senior Ja’Shaun Poke has 354 yards through the air, as well.
Junior running back Marquez Cooper has ran for near 1,200 yards this season, and has 11 touchdowns. Schlee—if healthy—also has 448 rushing yards and four scores.
That’s #FlashFAST, baby. Sean Lewis has an offense that’s as beautiful as those sweet power-blue uniforms his team wears.
“It’s the essence of who they are, and how they operate on offense,” Linguist said. “I was a graduate assistant at Baylor in 2007. Art Briles got to Baylor in 2008. He brought this system—not the same system, but a very similar system—when he came in there. I went on to Valdosta State, and you see this offense that RGIII played in, and Dino Babers (former BGSU head coach, now the head man at Syracuse) was the wide receivers coach in 2008 when I was on the way out, and (Lewis) came up in that system. Sean Lewis and Dino Babers got connected, and you see a lot of the extension of what they did 15 years ago and what it’s become now…
“It’s a very challenging scheme. They attack you down the field, they attack you horizontally. You can see the stats, they’re rushing the ball very well…I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Lewis. We know we need to get ourselves ready to go.”
Defensively, Kent State’s been hindered by big plays—the Flashes have surrendered 160 plays of 10+ yards this season and 53 plays of 20+ yards.
While edge rushers Saivon Taylor-Davis and Zayin West have combined for 10 sacks and 27 quarterback hurries, the Flashes don’t get a ton of heat on the passer and, unlike 2021, don’t turn the ball over much.
Cornerbacks Montre Miller and D.J. Miller, Jr. have been targeted more than any other KSU defensive backs and both allow reception percentages near 70%.
Overall, the Kent defense allows 29.2 points and 422.8 yards per game, both near the bottom of the conference.
“Prepare the Right Way, Practice the Right Way”
Image from ubbulls.com
So where are the Bulls in all of this? Head coach Maurice Linguist (pictured above) discussed his team’s mentality after 2+ weeks of downtime:
We’ve played three home games in three months. We’ve been through our own adversity. We’ve been through our own hard. Our guys are very mature, and they’ve handled it the right way. We’ve almost looked at it as though we had a bye week with the intensity of knowing we had to prepare for someone, because sometimes, when you have a bye week, there’s a little bit of a lull in how you practice and prepare throughout a week. But we were in the moment, getting ourselves ready for Akron, then the game got called off—but we got quality work, we had quality practices, we got better last week, we just didn’t have the game to actually play. I feel like our guys have handled it the right way.
He also chafed at the idea his team would have difficulty turning it back on after the extended break:
We were supposed to be done when we were 0-3. The season was over when we were 0-3. Wrap it all up, those guys aren’t playing football anymore. We’ve responded all year. You don’t really know anything about yourself and your team until you go through something hard and what’s really been evident about our guys is that we know how to respond and we know how to push through situation and put our right foot forward. I have all the confidence that we’ll be ready for the next thing we have to do.
Fair enough. With that in mind, UB is coming off two consecutive losses—both potentially huge games for the program, both cringeworthy in their own ways.
Against Ohio, Buffalo had a hard time getting pressure on Kurtis Rourke, dealt with major coverage struggles in the secondary, and couldn’t turn over its offensive engine in the first half.
In the CMU loss, the Bulls came out guns’ a-blazin’, and then fell apart—Chippewas QB Bert Emanuel, Jr. ran through UB like a senior taunting the JV squad, and the offensive line delivered perhaps its worst game of the season.
Buffalo may be 7-5 overall and 6-2 in the MAC within the next eight days—but with those two losses fresh in mind, it feels like 2021 all over again.
The team was scorched for 21 combined explosive plays in those games.
Despite a one-score fourth-quarter deficit against the Bobcats and a double-digit second-half lead even after the Chips opened the third quarter with a long Emanuel touchdown run, one felt the momentum swinging wildly away from the Bulls in both games.
It would be, you would think, extremely dispiriting to have two extra weeks to dwell on what could have been.
Linguist, however, doesn’t see the situation that way.
“It’s how you communicate,” he said. “I really pride ourselves on open and honest communication with our guys...What’s in our control? What’s the next right thing that we can do? Prepare the right way. Practice the right way. Do the next thing in the moment and I think the way the guys have responded has been really healthy.”
Remembering Where the Bulls Stand
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UB is third in the MAC in scoring with a 29.8 points per game average, and fifth in defense, allowing 27.4 points per game. On an individual basis:
Junior quarterback Cole Snyder is 57th nationally with 2,336 passing yards. He’s thrown 14 touchdowns and has seven interceptions. PFF.com ranks Snyder 218th out of 311 Division 1 quarterbacks, although his numbers are inextricably tied to the fact that his offensive line has struggled over the past month. Snyder, in his first season as a full-time starter since his high school days, showed steady improvement throughout the season, and led UB to a last-minute win over Miami—but he took a bit of a U-turn in the losses to Ohio and CMU.
Running backs Ron Cook, Mike Washington, and Al-Jay Henderson have a combined 1,407 rushing yards and14 rushing touchdowns. Each has his niche: Cook is the Swiss army knife (207 receiving yards) built like a bowling ball; Washington is the punisher, a 6’2, 220-pound giant with speed in the open field; and Henderson is the wild card, the burner whose shortest touchdown run this season is 19 yards.
Receivers Justin Marshall (614 yards, six TDs), Quian Williams (550 yards, four TDs) and Jamari Gassett (348 yards, two TDs) are the real deal—the only roadblock in their game is whether Snyder has time to deliver the ball and, when he does, if he can put it on target. Tight ends Robbie Mangas, Trevor Borland, and Ray Gentry are solid blockers, but have combined for just 214 receiving yards and no touchdown catches.
The offensive line has stumbled into the doldrums since the big win over Toledo at the end of October. PFF.com grades guards Tyler Doty and Gabe Wallace—considered an NFL prospect before the season—among the bottom 10% of players at the position. Tackles Desmond Bessent and Isaiah Wright aren’t doing much better, with Wright, in particular, having a tough time in the run game. Jack Hasz grades out among the bottom quarter of D1 centers, particularly in run situations. If not for tight ends Robbie Mangas, Ray Gentry, and Trevor Borland—solid blockers all around—who knows where this offense would be?
Like their counterparts on the offensive side of the ball, the d-line was a major strength until it wasn’t. This group was invisible in the losses to Ohio and CMU, finishing with one sack over eight quarters and allowing a combined 460 rushing yards. Four-hundred and sixty! Sure, it’s not all on the linemen, but that’s certainly where the problems start. On the interior, Daymond Williams has been brilliant at times this season, and has 3.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for losses, and 24 tackles overall. George Wolo has the highest overall PFF.com grade in the group, and Daishon Folsom has proven to be a stickler against the run. Jaylon Bass has been outstanding in moments, and disappears in others. On the edge, the team was hurt by the early season loss of Kyler Laing, and Ibrahim Kante, C.J. Bazile, and Damian Jackson are unable to consistently hassle opponents’ QB.
What can you say about linebackers Shaun Dolac and James Patterson? Both are strong run defenders, ranking among the top third in the nation in those situations. Both are tackling machines—together, they have made roughly one out of every three Buffalo tackles, and it’s almost a surprise the number isn’t higher. Patterson is a veteran who deserves a statue in front of UB Stadium after he walks off the field for the last time; Dolac is a former Western New York high school star who walked on for the Bulls and willed himself into The Terminator. Together, these two are the heart and soul of this defense.
The secondary seemed much improved over 2021 until the Ohio and CMU games raised questions whether these guys can tackle in run protection—the critical missing piece of last season’s unit. On the whole, however, it’s been a solid group. Safety Marcus Fuqua has five interceptions, while fellow defensive backs Jahmin Muse (pictured above) and Keyshawn Cobb have forced three fumbles apiece. Muse, Fuqua, and Cobb have also combined for over 130 tackles. Cornerback Elijah Blades grades out among the top 12% of players at his position nationally, and Caleb Offord—often the d-back with a bulls-eye on his back—is a good run defender and, prior to the two-game losing streak, had held his own in coverage.
Alex McNulty ranks third among Group of Five kickers in PFF.com’s rankings, is a semifinalist for the Groza Award, and may be the first Bull drafted into the NFL next spring. It’s a mixed bag on the special teams side after McNulty, unfortunately—the kick and punt coverage teams are among the worst in the country, and after an inspiring start, Anthony Venneri seems to have caught whatever curse is afflicting UB punters over the past two seasons.
All of which is a long way of saying Buffalo is certainly capable of beating Kent State on Saturday, but—even as 4.5-point favorites—does not feel like a sure bet by any stretch. This would be a great get-right game, shutting down an opponent capable of lighting up the scoreboard and then rolling into the season finale against Akron—and, ideally, a bowl game—with a heady dose of momentum.
We’ll see. Horns up, everyone.
UB Men’s Basketball Gets Second Win of the Season at Paradise Jam; Canisius Up Next
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If “Blue Collar Basketball” is a real thing, there should be a giant “Pardon Our Dust” sign on the UB men’s basketball team locker room right now. As the lineup of newcomers and lightly-utilized returnees from 2021-22 figure each other out, there’s going to be a lot of eggs broken en route to what is hopefully, eventually, a delicious Jim Whitesell omelette.
The Bulls (2-4) lost two games and won their final matchup of the Paradise Jam tourney at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas last weekend, knocking off middling Atlantic 10 contender George Mason (2-4), 82-74, after losing to Drake by eight points and to Howard by four despite a career-high 22 points from guard Curtis Jones.
In the first ever meeting between the programs, it was a rather close game throughout. The Bulls led for a total of 37:36 as they only trailed when George Mason took a 4-3 lead. The Patriots led for a total of 38-seconds. The Bulls' largest lead was 14 with 3:20 left in regulation when they started to pull away from the Patriots. Buffalo shot at 51.8%, 29-of-56, in the game.
Once again, the Bulls were leading at the half. George Mason started the second half with a three-pointer to make it a three-point game. Buffalo's lead got down to one at 40-39, but that was the closest the game got. The Bulls continued to use the shot clock and make the most of their opportunities. Buffalo only turned the ball over nine times with two of those occurring less than two minutes into the game. The Bulls took high percentage shots, scoring a total of 36 points in the paint.
The dynamic duo of Isaiah Adams and Curtis Jones propelled the Bulls to victory. Adams had a career game for the Bulls as he scored a career-high 24 points in the contest and added four rebounds. He finished 8-of-14 from the floor, while also making three three-pointers. Jones continued where he left off on Saturday as he finished with 22 points. Adams and Jones combined to make all six three-pointers in the game. Zid Powell finished in double figures, scoring 11. This is the first time since Feb. 2, 2022 that two players scored 20 or more points in a game for the Bulls.
Slowly but surely things seem to be gelling for UB, getting regular scoring from wizened basketball nomad Powell and an assortment of talented guards and swingmen still finding their way in the Blue and White.
Some consistency from Adams, a UCF transfer and former Florida Mr. Basketball, and big men Jonnivius Smith, Isaac Jack, and LaQuill Hardnett would go a long way towards tightening up this team in time for MAC play.
Up next is Big 4 rival Canisius (2-3) on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (ESPN+) in Alumni Arena. The Golden Griffins are coming off a turnover-plagued 79-70 loss to Cornell:
For Canisius, graduate student Jordan Henderson scored a game-high 24 points, one shy of his career-high, highlighted by six 3-point field goals, which matched a career-best. Redshirt-freshman Tahj Staveskie scored 15 points and dished out six assists and graduate student Jamir Moultrie added 11 points.
Both Staveskie and Moultrie made three 3-pointers in the losing effort for Canisius, as the Griffs made 13 triples on the night, the fourth time this season where the team has made 10-or more 3-pointers in a game.
The Griffs took an early 6-5 lead on a 3-pointer by Staveskie 1:53 seconds into the contest. That lead would end up being Canisius' final lead of the ball game, however, as Cornell used a 17-5 run over the next 6:40 to make the score 22-11 in favor of the home team. In that scoring spurt, Cornell took advantage of four Canisius turnovers, which resulted in nine Big Red points.
The Griffs trailed Cornell 45-34 at the halftime break despite shooting 50.0 percent (13-for-26) from the field in the game's opening 20 minutes, with six of those baskets coming from 3-point land.
Canisius shot 42.6 percent (26-for-61) from the field for the game while making 13-of-30 3-point shots. Cornell shot 49.2 percent (30-for-61) from the floor and made 11-of-30 3-point attempts, and the Big Red ended the night with a 38-33 advantage on the glass. Canisius senior Jacco Fritz had a season-high seven boards for the Blue and Gold in the losing effort.
UB Women Stumble Against Division II Mercyhurst
Image from ubbulls.com
We knew this was going to be a rough curve for the UB women’s basketball team, considering the near-total turnover of both the roster and coaching staff over the offseason. The reality of the rebuild kicks in when you see last season’s MAC champion and NCAA Tournament qualifier drop a decision to D2 Mercyhurst.
The Lakers opened the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run before (Buffalo guard Re’Shawna) Stone hit (forward Kayla) Salmons for an easy layup, but Mercyhurst would maintain a 55-52 lead at the 6:23 mark. (Bulls guard Zakiyah) Winfield (pictured above) continued to attack as she got a pull up jumper to drop and then found (UB guard Jazmine) Young for a bucket in traffic to keep UB within two. The teams then traded baskets and trips to the free throw line before (Buffalo’s) Hattie Ogden hit a big three from the top of the key to cut the lead to 69-68 with 19 seconds to go. After a questionable out of bounds call that didn't go UB's way, Grace Centrulla went 1-of-2 from the charity stripe to give Mercyhurst a 70-68 lead and the Bulls were unable to capitalize on their final possession of the game.
The Bulls recorded season-highs with 36 points in the paint and 14 fastbreak points but lost the battle on the glass, including nine second chance points for the visitors.
Winfield had an insane stat line—22 points, 14 boards, six assists, two steals—but it wasn’t enough for a win, unfortunately.
No rest for the Bulls (1-2): Drexel, the seventh-ranked mid-major team in the country, comes to town on Sunday as part of a men’s basketball and wrestling triple-header. Freshman Kylie Lavelle is scoring at a 20 points per game clip. Game time is noon (ESPN+).
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Derek van der Merwe, the new AD, was most recently associate AD at the University of Arizona. Interesting note on BGSU athletics: “In its flagship sport — football -— the Falcons ran the third-smallest budget in the Group of Five in 2019, the year Loeffler was hired. In hockey, the winner of Bowling Green’s most recent national championship, the Falcons are in the process of renovating Slater Family Ice Arena at a cost of $5.75 million. In men’s basketball, Bowling Green hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1968 — the longest drought in the MAC.”