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Reading Mo's Mind
It’s Maurice Linguist’s first rough patch. How does he see the situation?
Image from UBBulls.com
No one wanted it to start this way for Buffalo. Here we are, 2-3 overall, 0-1 in the Mid-American Conference after a 24-17 home loss to Western Michigan this past weekend, one game behind Miami (Ohio), Kent State, and Ohio in the MAC East.
It’s getting late early.
UB travels west to play Kent State this week, a 2-3 squad whose three losses came against Texas A&M (ranked #6 in the AP Top 25 at the time), Iowa (currently #3 in the AP Top 25), and Maryland (a 4-1 Big 10 squad whose only loss came to Iowa).
A win keeps hopes of a division title, a MAC championship, and sweet, sweet bowl game money alive. A loss, and the vise tightens significantly.
It’s the First Moment of Truth In Maurice Linguist’s Head Coaching Career.
It’s an interesting moment in Buffalo’s first-time, first-year head coach Maurice Linguist’s life.
He’s spent the past 15 years training up defensive backs, moving from Baylor to Valdosta State to James Madison to Buffalo to Iowa State to Mississippi State to Minnesota to Texas A&M and then, in just the past year, to the Dallas Cowboys, the University of Michigan, and back to Buffalo.
Now, for the first time, Linguist sits at the head of the table. And, for the first time as the Bulls’ leader, Linguist faces legitimate adversity.
Linguist himself may argue otherwise. Thursday is his five-month anniversary on the job—barely enough time to get his name on the door. Everything he’s done since May has been with a game clock ticking in his ear. He started from behind.
It doesn’t matter. He took the job, took over a winner, accepting the responsibility of keeping the machine in working condition.
Right now, the gears are starting to grind a bit.
Where is Coach Mo’s head right now?
We aren’t in the bowels of Alumni Arena with Linguist and his staff, or on the practice field with Linguist and his team. We can only make judgements based on his public statements.
So let’s do that! Here are choice quotes from his tidy 12-minute, 30-second press conference on Tuesday.
Football Forensics: Maurice Linguist’s Weekly Press Conference, Oct. 5, 2021
Image from UBBulls.com
These press conferences (which you can watch yourself online) always start with Linguist’s opening statement. It’s a tone-setter. What he chooses to say tells not only what he thinks, but what he wants us, by extension, to think, as well.
The Old Ball Coach
Just getting off the practice field. Really, really encouraged by how the guys are practicing and working and continue to connect with one another. Older guys are stepping up. A lot of communication going on, a lot of positive energy, and a lot of great things are happening on the practice field.
So we know we got a big one coming up this week, very quality opponent in Kent State and I have a lot of respect for everything that they're doing and everything that goes along with traveling on the road and what we have to do to prepare ourselves mentally and physically in a big, big contest force in the Mac East race.
Linguist nails the traditional football tropes here: solid practice habits. Teammates teaching teammates. Veteran leadership. Positivity. Hope. He’s painting a picture that eliminates the second-guessing and doubt others may want to place on his program.
Honoring the Veterans
Linguist was asked about keeping his players’ on an even keel despite “a couple heartbreakers recently.” Side note: they did win the ODU game two weeks ago, despite allowing 27 unanswered second half points in a 35-34 win.
There's a ton of older veteran players that are leading us, doing an outstanding job of leading us very strong and well. Jack Klenk and Jake Fuzak and Kevin Marks and Dom Johnson, James Patterson, a lot of guys that have played a lot of football that have just been battle tested and they're doing a great job in the locker room. I think that's really where it begins, is in the locker room—the energy and the communication in the locker room, and that's carrying over to what we're doing in the meeting rooms, and then ultimately what's happening on the practice field.
Linguist is building up his leaders, and right now, they probably need it. Consider:
Klenk and Fuzak, probably the top offensive linemen on the team, are part of a group that is struggling to establish the Bulls’ signature run game. UB managed 131 yards on the ground against Western Michigan and, outside of a 55-yard Ron Cook touchdown run on Saturday, was essentially toothless.
The o-line also gave up its first sack of the season this past weekend, allowing QB Kyle Vantrease to get absolutely greased WMU LB Zaire Barnes. The 6’1, 225-lb senior forced a fumble and killed a drive (and nearly Vantrease) in the red zone.
Marks was supposed to be Superman this season after Jaret Patterson left. He’s been Clark Kent. Marks is the eighth-leading rusher in the MAC (288, 3.7 yards per carry), a full tier beneath the seventh-leading rusher, Western Michigan’s Sean Tyler (362 yards, 5.6 ypc). Tyler rushed for 80 yards on 14 carries at UB Stadium on Saturday; Marks went for 34 on 11.
Dominic Johnson is a big, strong senior wide receiver—and the 6’5, 214-lb Windsor, Ontario product posted one catch for seven yards against WMU. WR Jovanny Ruiz is out indefinitely, and the Bulls could desperately use another weapon.
Patterson, on the other hand, is a brick wall. He leads the MAC with 48 tackles.
You can see Linguist working here. He takes every opportunity to emphasize team and culture, and he’s publicly giving his guys support.
I'm just excited about the way we're going about our business, regardless of a couple hard fought losses that we've had over the last two—three weeks, and the way that we're continuing to commit ourselves to the process of how we do things.
Linguist nearly said they’ve lost two in a row. I may be reading too deeply into an innocent slip-up, but as Freud said, there are no mistakes. They beat ODU! I wrote a whole story about it.
Is the Offense Struggling? I Hadn’t Noticed.
Linguist—to the extent that he shows an emotion in these press conferences beyond general intensity—seemed to bristle a bit, to the extent that he bristles, when asked about the team’s struggles on offense.
When you look at the totality of us throughout every game that we've been in, there hasn't been an opponent that we've played that we haven't moved the ball on. We've effectively moved the ball on every single opponent that we've had this season, even going all the way back to Nebraska.
Fair point. The team did move the ball on the Cornhuskers, posting only two three-and-outs (there was one three-play drive that ended in an INT), and suffered three missed field goals.
Also a fair point: UB is fifth in total offense in the MAC, and ninth in passing yards. They’re third in points per game, an illusion based on the 69 points dropped on FCS tomato can Wagner.
The rushing attack is fourth in the MAC at 189.2 yards per game, but it’s also looked lost over the past two weeks—six quarters, really—in a way that can only be described as troubling. If the Bulls can’t run the ball, this season is going to get ugly.
The Need for Opportunistic Offense
The two areas that we have to improve on, number one is finishing drives in the red zone and coming away with points...You look at last week against Western Michigan, we took the sack and they created a forced fumble. That's a scoring opportunity. We're on the 20- or 21-yard line. I think red zone opportunities are going to be a big, big difference for us.
Maybe. At the same time, UB went three-and-out on four straight drives against Western Michigan when a single score could’ve changed the direction of the game—when even an extended drive could’ve given the defense some extra rest.
...And then really there's been two games, in the second half, where we've had some stalls…(we have to) get back to moving the ball (in) the second half the way we were able to in the first half. Teams adjust and make adjustments and just part of the chess match, when they're looking to come out of halftime and eliminate some of the things that we were successful with.
Linguist acknowledges that they’re not getting the job done in the second half. Vulnerability! I like it. He may have sensed he inadvertently criticized his own staff, because he immediately covered them with praise.
We have a veteran coaching staff. We have outstanding coaches in that room. (We have) a lot of players that have played at a high level that are very experienced. We have confidence in our ability to effectively move the ball, finish in the red zone, protect the ball and eliminate some of these stalls that we've been having.
“Complimentary Football,” But Don’t Tell Me You’re Tired
Linguist was asked if the woes on offense are responsible for some of the problems facing the defense. He acknowledges the connection...
Well, we talk a lot about playing complimentary football and how one side of the ball affects the other... Just by nature, the more an offense can snap the ball against you, just by nature of plays, the more plays, the more opportunities they have. That's (true) at any level of football...Three and outs on defense are big for us, and not having the three and outs on offense is something that we have to address.
...but he is not going to coddle his defenders, either. That’s a look into Linguist’s psyche right there: give me results, not excuses.
Fatigue is such a hot topic buzzword...I just think it's the nature of how many times the opposing team is snapping the ball against you. And if they can get a higher amount of snaps against you, there's just a more likelihood that they can move the ball and get more points than you...
Ultimately, we got the stops against Western Michigan, but they were able to effectively move the ball a little bit in some instances where drives went longer than we wanted to.
Western Michigan missed two field goals, turned over the ball on downs at the UB 2, and still scored three touchdowns, two in the critical fourth quarter. They moved the ball a lot, outgaining Buffalo 457 yards to 282. I’d push back a little on that point.
The way Linguist sees the game, those missed FGs, the fourth-and-goal stand, those are not instances of WMU letting UB off the hook—it’s a win by the Bulls’ defense. Both things can be true.
Strength in the Trenches Builds a Strong Culture, or I Need to Join That Party
The coach was asked about the play of his defensive tackles—I think the question came from play-by-play man Paul Peck, so it may have been a plant!—and Linguist gave a nice response, shedding some light on the way he sees his players.
When I took the job, you had George Wolo, who was really the mainstay coming back, who played significant snaps, and the rest of the guys really (came to Buffalo) through recruiting.
You look at Josh Rogers, who I was with at Texas A&M, who came over as a graduate transfer and who's playing at a very high level, making plays. He's winning at the line of scrimmage. He's a big body, aggressive guy from Houston, Texas, that does an outstanding job.
You look at Daymond Williams. Daymond was a huge recruiting win for us, to go down in the state of Texas and beat multiple Group of Five offers from the state of Texas. …(He) took a visit out with us this past June. We took him out to Niagara Falls. We got him around campus. He saw that we were in AAU Institution, high academics.
Over and over again, his mom and dad on the visit kept talking about, “I can't believe how short a time this coaching staff has been together. It seems like you guys have been together a lot longer.” They felt the family atmosphere, and the culture.
...And if you've watched our games at all, you see these guys peel out of the stacks at all times, and they're always chasing the ball. That culture and energy really bleeds to the rest of the defense...When you see a big guy chasing the ball, you can't help but to say, these big guys are chasing. I need to join the party and chase it, too.
When you own a small business, service is your differentiator—you want people to feel like they’re special, so they keep coming back, even if there’s a better deal somewhere else.
Linguist is in the same situation as a Group of Five coach. Even after a few winning seasons, Buffalo remains a relatively obscure college football school in a city most people know for snow, wings, and the Bills.
He needs the culture to thrive to survive. He’s speaking it into existence every chance he gets.
It’s beautiful, and it’s utterly pragmatic.
So Where Do We Stand on Mo?
There’s something genuinely endearing about Linguist. Maybe it’s because he’s new, or because he’s young, or because it’s his first job, or all of these things—there is an earnestness to him that shines through his coachspeak. He doesn’t just want us to believe he cares, although he definitely does want us to believe it. There’s a feeling to it, a tenor to it, that is hard, if not impossible, to fake.
This week’s press conference was the first in which he seemed to be challenged (very lightly, I should add) with the idea that, hey. maybe everything’s not going quite right. His explanations did get a bit defensive at times, but they felt as though they came from a place of defending his family, not himself.
This is a huge moment in Maurice Linguist’s life. He must feel that pressure. I wonder if he’s surprised to feel it so early, or if it’s just always there when you’re in his position.
We’re in this together. Mo’s going to be part of our football lives for a while, barring unforeseen circumstances or an absolute catastrophe. He signed a 4.5 year contract for $675,000 a year, not a lot of money for a Power Five school but probably more than UB would ever want to eat.
We’re going to see what Mo’s made of over the next few months. I have a good feeling about the guy. You should know I had a good feeling about Arkansas and the points against Georgia last weekend, too.
We’ll see what happens.