January 2, 2009

Buffalo's resurgence leads Bulls to first bowl

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

Turner Gill didn't know what he was getting into when he became coach at downtrodden Buffalo.

Maybe it was better that way.

The Bulls were one of the worst major-college teams through the school's first seven seasons at college football's highest level. Buffalo was 10-69 from 1999-2005, never winning more than three games in a season and losing to the likes of Lehigh and Colgate.


Buffalo (8-5)
vs. Connecticut (7-5)

WHEN: noon Jan. 3.
WHERE: Rogers Centre, Toronto.
TV: ESPN2 (John Saunders will do play-by-play, with Doug Flutie and Jesse Palmer as the analysts. Palmer and Saunders are from Canada, and Flutie played for a long time in the CFL.)
THE LINE: Connecticut by 4.5
RECORD VS. BOWL TEAMS: Buffalo 1-4, Connecticut 1-5.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Buffalo 67th, Connecticut T-52nd.
COACHES: Buffalo − Turner Gill (first bowl); Connecticut − Randy Edsall (1-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: On the face of it, there's no reason. But Buffalo has gone through an improbable turnaround. A doormat for most of its existence, the Bulls upset undefeated Ball State for the MAC championship and a bowl win would cap a miraculous season.
KEY STATS: Buffalo ranked sixth in the nation in turnover margin at plus-15. Connecticut is ranked 61st with a zero margin. That's a tribute to UConn's defense, considering Huskies quarterbacks have thrown 17 interceptions (to just four TD passes).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Connecticut RB Donald Brown led the nation with 1,822 yards but was not a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back. Will he play with a chip on his shoulder?
"I didn't know they had a football team or a Division I football team," Gill said.

Three years later, Gill, 46, has made sure Buffalo can't be ignored. Buffalo will play in its first bowl game when it faces Connecticut in Saturday's International Bowl. Gill also delivered Buffalo's first conference championship, courtesy of a 42-24 upset of previously unbeaten Ball State in the MAC title game.

When Buffalo called to gauge his interest in coaching at the school in 2005, Gill then was an assistant with the NFL's Green Bay Packers. He didn't need much time to figure out the kind of challenge the job would present.

Former Buffalo assistant Clayton Carlin, a graduate assistant at Nebraska while Gill was there, told him about the behind-the-scenes struggles in academic support and the state of the facilities. Coaching colleagues warned him that taking a head coaching job at Buffalo could be career suicide.

"All you've got to do is look at the win-loss record," Gill said. "I understood what shape it was in."

Buffalo's infrastructure was undergoing changes because of athletic director Warde Manuel, who played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. Gill was charged with repairing the mind-set of a team that was too used to losing.

Gill was part of three national championships at Nebraska (1994, '95 and '97) as an assistant coach. He also quarterbacked the Huskers' great 1983 team that lost to eventually national champion Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl.

Gill's winning attitude has been contagious. That was particularly evident this season as the Bulls won four games by less than a touchdown. The Bulls beat Temple on a last-play "Hail Mary" in September. After falling behind Army by two touchdowns on Oct. 18, Buffalo rallied for the first of its three overtime wins. In the MAC Championship Game, the Bulls forced five Ball State turnovers.

"I told them that I knew that one day we would be successful and be champions," Gill said. "That was one of the first statements I made. I expected to win. I expected them to win."

Who has the edge?

Buffalo run offense vs. Connecticut run defense
Junior James Starks is Buffalo's career leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns after rushing for 1,308 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Connecticut has an experienced defense that was one of the Big East's better units. The Huskies held four Big East opponents and Virginia to fewer than 100 rushing yards.
Edge: Connecticut.

Buffalo pass offense vs. Connecticut pass defense
Four-year starter Drew Willy is Buffalo's most accomplished quarterback in school history. Willy threw more passes this season than coach Turner Gill did in his career as an option quarterback at Nebraska. UConn could welcome its best defensive player CB Darius Butler back from a sprained knee. The Huskies will need Butler to slow WR Naaman Roosevelt (96 catches, 1,312 yards, 13 touchdowns).
Edge: Even.

Buffalo's record since moving to Division I-A after the 1998 season:
Coach: Craig Cirbus
1999: 0-11 overall, 0-8 MAC
2000: 2-9, 2-6
Coach: Jim Hofher
2001: 3-8, 1-7
2002: 1-11, 0-8
2003: 1-11, 1-7
2004: 2-9, 2-6
2005: 1-10, 1-7
Coach: Turner Gill
2006: 2-10, 1-7
2007: 5-7, 5-3
2008: 8-5, 5-3
Connecticut run offense vs. Buffalo run defense
Make no mistake: Donald Brown is Connecticut's offense. The passing attack is awful and no other Huskies running back topped 252 yards. Brown still rushed for 1,822 yards and 17 touchdowns. Buffalo allowed teams to rush for two or more touchdowns in nine games this season, including each of the past five.
Edge: Connecticut.

Connecticut pass offense vs. Buffalo pass defense
Coach Randy Edsall says lefty QB Tyler Lorenzen will play well in the bowl game. Anything will be better than the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh, when he was 6-of-27 for 80 yards with two interceptions. Lorenzen missed four games this season with a broken foot, so extra bowl practice will help. If UConn is going to snap out of its season-long passing funk, a game against Buffalo should help. The Bulls allowed opponents to pass for 249.5 yards per game and complete 65.8 percent of their passes.
Edge: Buffalo.

Buffalo special teams vs. Connecticut special teams
The Huskies' kicking game improved once David Teggart became the kicker at midseason. Jasper Howard is an excellent punt returner (11.8 yards per return, one touchdown). A healthy Butler could boost the kickoff return team. Ernest Jackson led the Bulls in both punt and kickoff returns all season, but Buffalo returned only nine punts as a team. The Bulls made 10-of-15 field-goal attempts and averaged only 37 yards per punt.
Edge: Connecticut.

Buffalo coaches vs. Connecticut coaches
Edsall has built Connecticut into a legitimate Big East contender, leading the Huskies to their third bowl in the past five seasons. There's something special about Gill's Bulls this season, though. Buffalo cashed in on breaks all season with three wins in overtime, a winning "Hail Mary" pass against Temple and five forced turnovers in the MAC title game against Ball State.
Edge: Connecticut.

X-factor: After Brown, Butler could be Connecticut's MVP. He contributes in all facets of the game. He's the team's top defensive back, pitches in at wide receiver on an offense starved for playmakers and returns kicks. If he's healthy, he could be a difference-maker.

Connecticut will win if: The Huskies must limit mistakes in the passing game. Brown proved he could win games on his own this season. The Huskies' last game was one of the worst passing performances of any team this season: 6-of-31, 80 yards, no touchdowns, five interceptions.

Buffalo will win if: The Bulls need to force turnovers. Buffalo turned into a bowl team by finishing sixth in the nation in turnover margin. The Bulls also need production from Starks, as they can't afford to become one-dimensional against a tough UConn defense. Finally, they can't let Brown run wild.

The picks
David Fox: Connecticut 28, Buffalo 14
Mike Huguenin: Buffalo 23, Connecticut 21

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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