After a half-century of waiting, Buffalo is finally gearing up for its first bowl appearance.
Coming off an improbable Mid-American Conference title, the Bulls look to wrap up a memorable season with a win in the International Bowl against Connecticut, which boasts the nation’s top rusher, at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on Jan. 3.
Although this will be Buffalo’s first bowl appearance in its 94-year history, this is its second bowl invitation.
The 1958 team went 8-1 and was invited to the Tangerine Bowl, but Buffalo (8-5) declined the invitation because its black players wouldn’t have been able to participate.
A few years ago, it didn’t look like another bowl invitation was going to come anytime soon for the Bulls.
Buffalo went 10-69 in its first seven seasons in the Football Bowl Subdivision prior to Turner Gill taking over as a first-time coach in 2006.
The Bulls didn’t see an immediate improvement under Gill—the former Nebraska star quarterback and 1983 Heisman Trophy finalist—as the team went 2-10 in his first season, but they improved to 5-7 to finish third in the East Division in 2007.
Buffalo got off to a slow start this season, losing four of its first six games, but a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback in a 27-24 overtime win over Army on Oct. 18 marked a turning point. That victory sparked a five-game win streak that included a 43-40 quadruple-overtime win at Akron on Nov. 13 and a 40-34 double-overtime win at Bowling Green a week later that clinched Buffalo its first East title.
In the conference title game on Dec. 5, the Bulls upset previously undefeated and then-No. 12 Ball State 42-24 to capture their first MAC championship.
“I’m just proud,” Gill said. “We came to a program where there wasn’t a lot of hope or expectations. We came together as a unit and that’s why this football team is successful.”
Gill has emerged as a hot commodity after turning around what had been a laughingstock of a program, with his name linked to various schools with coaching vacancies.
“Maybe my work is done here, I don’t know that,” Gill said. “There’s some things that are probably going to happen, but I don’t know when.”
First things first, the Bulls are trying to defeat a Connecticut (7-5) team making its second straight bowl appearance.
The Huskies, who are in their seventh season in the FBS, lost to Wake Forest 24-10 in last season’s Meineke Bowl after defeating Toledo 39-10 in the 2004 Motor City Bowl.
“For the overall good of the program, it’s a significant step to be in back-to-back bowls,” UConn coach Randy Edsall said. “When you take a look at where we were and where we are right now…I just want to give the kids a lot of credit for doing what they’ve done.”
The Huskies got off to a fast start to the season by winning their first five games, but went just 2-5 the rest of the way to finish in fifth place in the Big East.
UConn’s offense was extremely inconsistent over its final seven games, scoring 79 points in its two wins, but just 58 in the losses. In their regular-season finale, a 34-10 loss to then-No. 23 Pittsburgh on Dec. 6, the Huskies turned the ball over five times—the third time this season they committed five in a game.
While quarterbacks Tyler Lorenzen (two touchdowns, eight interceptions) and Zach Frazer (two touchdowns, six interceptions) have struggled, running back Donald Brown has carried the offense.
Brown led the FBS with 1,822 rushing yards, scored 17 touchdowns and was named the Big East offensive player of the year. He went over 100 yards in 10 games and over 200 yards twice.
The junior announced he will return to the Huskies for his senior year and already has a goal in mind.
“Yeah, we can explore the options, see what they have to say, but I’m coming back,” Brown said. “My goal is to go to the Orange Bowl. That’s what I want to do, and next year will be my last shot.”
Brown should be able to find room to run in Toronto, as Buffalo is 83rd in the nation in rush defense (158.8 yards per game), and has allowed an average of 195.9 rushing yards in its last seven contests.
While its defense has been susceptible, Buffalo was led by an offense that was second in the MAC in scoring (31.1 points per game).
Senior quarterback Drew Willy threw for 3,091 yards, 25 touchdowns and five interceptions, and has been at his best lately, throwing 13 TD passes and one interception in his last seven games.
Running back James Starks, who was named to the first team all-MAC, led the ground attack. The junior rushed for 1,308 yards and scored 15 TDs, and has helped put the Bulls in position to finish with nine wins for the first time since the 1986 team went 9-2.
“It was, ‘UB doesn’t win, blah, blah blah.’ It was real bad,” Starks said. “Now I can talk to those people and say, ‘Hey, look at what we did.”’
Buffalo has lost the last four meetings with the Huskies, and is 4-12 in the all-time series. In the last meeting in 2005, UConn won 38-0.