By Jonah Bronstein
AMHERST — The Buffalo Bulls played stellar defense on the very first play of Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh. The Panthers tried to exploit a nine-inch height advantage over UB cornerback Domonic Cook, but the St. Joe’s product made a superb play on the pass, and had a potentially momentous interception in his grasp before the ground jostled the ball loose.
Next thing they knew, the Bulls were down 14-0, and by halftime, the Panthers had reached the end zone on five of their six drives.
“We didn’t play physical in the first half,” defensive captain Mike Newton said. “That’s on us as players.”
Coach Turner Gill said before the season that he expected this year’s defensive unit to be the best unit he’s had in four years at UB. After a solid effort in the season opener at UTEP and the setback against Pitt, Gill still has high hopes.
“I feel good about where we are at,” Gill said Tuesday. “We’re not making any wholesale changes in our schemes or personnel.”
Gill even praised the defense for allowing only 119 yards in the second half. Take away Dion Lewis’ 85-yard touchdown run when the game was already out of reach, and the Bulls allowed just 2.3 yards per play in the second half.
“I was pleased to see the defense have some resolve about themselves and play well in the second half and give us a chance to win the game,” Gill said. “I maybe would’ve had a little bit more concern if we weren’t able to adjust.”
Cook, who had eight tackles, including one for a loss, and two pass breakups, was selected as defensive player of the game by the coaching staff.
“He was consistent in this Pittsburgh game,” Gill said. “Yeah, he did have the one tackle missed (on the opening drive), but that’s going to happen.
“He’s a leader on this football team that people respect and look up to. He makes other players around him play better.”
UB’s defense has two things going for it heading into Saturday’s game against former Mid-American Conference rival Central Florida. UCF (1-1), now a member of Conference USA, rushed for just 15 yards in last week’s 26-19 loss at Southern Mississippi.
“They’re still trying to figure out their identity,” said Gill.
The Bulls will welcome defensive tackle Dane Robinson back into the lineup. The senior who started five games last season was suspended for the first two games of this season for violating team rules.
“I think he can help us with his leadership and experience,” Gill said. “He’s going to play. Whether he starts or (not), we’ll make that decision later in the week.”
Kevin Johnson, a senior who is much bigger but less mobile than Robinson, has started the first two games.
Thirty-six members of the 1958 UB team that rejected a bid to the Tangerine Bowl because its two African-American players, Willie Evans and Mike Wilson, weren’t allowed to play, will be honored at halftime of Saturday’s game.
“When I heard the story of the 1958 football team, I wanted those men to know that Orlando has come a long way in 50 years,” said Richard Crotty, mayor of Orange County. Crotty worked with local businesses to provide the former Bulls with transportation and lodging.
“After 50 years, they are bringing us back to Orlando, where the Tangerine Bowl was played,” UB alumnus Gerry Gergley said in a news release. “We were very disappointed not to be able to come. I remember the weather in Buffalo was not too good that time of year, and we missed being in the sunshine. I worked at UCF since 1970, and there were so many times when we were playing football there, I couldn’t help to think what could have been if we had the chance to play Florida State back in 1958. I know our whole team is so thankful to everyone who made this possible. It is unbelievable that this is happening.
Evans, who will be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame next month, said, “We appreciate the fact that there is interest in our story and that we are going to be honored at the game. More importantly, it gives us an opportunity to get together as a team one more time and we are grateful for that.”