What An Opportunity

What has made this University at Buffalo football team so good?

In Sports on October 27, 2013 at 10:00 pm

licataquinn

It has not been that enjoyable covering the University at Buffalo football team since I’ve been in college. Losing just isn’t fun in any way, and writing about losing is no different.

But this year has been fun. There hasn’t been much losing.

I just returned from a weekend in Kent, Ohio, where UB defeated Kent State, 41-21, on Saturday to claim sole possession of first place in the Mid-American Conference East division. The Bulls are 6-2 (4-0 in the MAC) and are bowl eligible for the first time since the 2008 season, which people around Western New York reflect on as the greatest year in UB history.

It is an exciting time to cover the team, and I’m thankful it’s happening my senior year – likely the final year I’ll be able to cover the Bulls. Having spent a good deal of time around the squad the past three years, I can give two key reasons this year has been different.

1. Two words: Khalil Mack

This is an incredibly obvious point if you’ve watched any UB games this year, but if you haven’t, listen up: This guy is really good at football.

Mack is the Bulls’ best player and without a doubt the finest athlete in school history. UB has never had a player selected higher than the fourth round in the NFL Draft; Mack is projected to go in the top 10 of the first round.

To put it simply, the senior linebacker/defensive end is an animal. He gets in the backfield at will, can snag passes out of the air like a receiver, runs like a tailback and tosses quarterbacks around like rag dolls.

He’s on the verge of setting two all-time NCAA records – for tackles for loss and fumbles forced – and is genuinely fun to watch. There have been many NFL scouts at Bulls games this year (that never happens).

This is uncharted territory for a UB athlete, and it’s a big part of the reason this year has been so enjoyable to observe.

Khalil is also just a great guy. Want to know more about him? Check out this feature I wrote about him for our football preview in August.

2. The well-balanced offense

In the past, it’s seemed the Bulls could only get one facet of their offense – either passing or running – going at one time. It’s been that way since 2008, when the passing game (with Drew Willy at QB and Naaman Roosevelt at WR) and running game (with the Green Bay Packers’ James Starks at RB) were both proficient. To win the MAC, you’ve got to have a formidable and balanced offense.

Buffalo finally has that this year. Bo Oliver, a compact tank of a running back whom some have likened to Maurice Jones-Drew, is setting records left and right – he’s now UB’s all-time leader in rushing yards in a career. He had 185 yards and four touchdowns Saturday against Kent State and made two plays that had me laughing at how ridiculous they were: 1. He literally threw a defender off of him two yards into the air when they collided near the goal line (Bo made it in). 2. He pulled off the craziest stutter-step (also known as an “okie dok”) you’ll ever see; the defender looked completely frozen. Oliver has returned to the form Bulls fans saw in 2011, before an MCL tear derailed his 2012 season.

But it hasn’t just been Bo. The passing game is respectable, too. Sophomore quarterback Joe Licata is developing more confidence every week, and his favorite target – senior Alex Neutz – will play on Sundays next year. Neutz has remarkable ball skills in the air and an extraordinary vertical leap (which is why volleyball was his first love). Senior Fred Lee, an excellent blocker and possession receiver, has emerged as a legitimate No. 2 threat, too, which has helped keep double coverage away from Neutz.

With this balanced offense, defenses haven’t figured out who to key in on.

I’m not sure if the Bulls will win their conference championship or even get a bowl invitation, but it has sure been fun to cover a winning team this year.

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