Niagara Gazette

Sports

September 24, 2011

Bulls come up small in big moment

COMMENTARY

AMHERST — Will the Big East disband before the UB Bulls finally rise up and claim the signature win that has eluded them all these years?

The Connecticut football team that came into UB Stadium on Saturday night isn’t nearly as good as the basketball bully that won by one bucket at Alumni Arena three years ago. It’s not as good as the pack of Huskies that devoured UB in the International Bowl a few weeks later. It’s not even as good as the Pitt team that beat UB in this year’s opener (not to mention the Pitt hoops team the Bulls almost beat in 2006).

But UConn — for the time being, at least — still plays in the Big East, still boasts major college credentials, still possesses players that never would’ve considered going to UB once a scholarship offer from a big-budget school was on the table.

Lost in the obnoxious buildup to today’s Bills game was that the Bulls had a more substantial opportunity to establish themselves this weekend. A victory would’ve helped to validate coach Jeff Quinn’s efforts to build UB into a consistent winner, as well as the university’s efforts to promote a money-losing operation that barely resonates with local sports fans. The grandstands were packed for the homecoming celebration. The new university president stood at midfield for the coin toss. The game was televised throughout the Northeast.

UConn was awfully beatable Saturday night. Instead, the Bulls beat themselves. The punter-turned-placekicker hooked a short field goal. The defense fell asleep in the final minute of the first half, allowing seven points the Huskies never should’ve had time to score. The fifth-year senior quarterback brought in for his impeccable decision-making threw an interception in the end zone. A defender literally threw a UConn runner into the end zone for the back-breaking fourth quarter touchdown.

It’s silly to say UB was the better team, considering the final score, but the Bulls had the edge in total yards and first downs and held the edge in time of possession until the Huskies started killing the clock at the end. UB was at least UConn’s equal on this night. The Bulls had home field advantage and should’ve had greater motivation. But none of the UB players stepped up and made a game-changing play. UConn’s Nick Williams did it twice, which resulted in two touchdowns.

“Those two plays were the difference in the game,” Quinn said.

With each loss, these missed opportunities matter more and more to UB. It’s exceedingly difficult to get this caliber of opponent to play here. The basketball team might never host a Big East opponent again, an unfortunate result of nearly upsetting UConn and Pitt. The football team has Pitt coming in here next year, and UConn returning in 2013. But who knows how all this conference rejiggering will affect those agreements. And if the Bulls get good enough, high-profile teams will hesitate to come here in the future.

The Bulls head to Tennessee next week. They have trips planned to Georgia, Penn State and Baylor in successive seasons. But those games are almost impossible to win, considering the hostile environments and home-cooked officiating.

When the Bulls finally break through and beat a brand-name team, it will be a benchmark achievement, a stepping stone toward a day UB can realistically consider joining the big boys in the big leagues, or at least entering the realm of mid-major elites.

Legitimate chances to get those wins don’t come along very often. Every time the Bulls fail to seize those opportunities it impedes the progress of the entire athletics program. For the sake of this particular football season, Quinn will seek to treat this loss like any other. It’s the best course of action going forward. But years later, it will matter more. Ask Reggie Witherspoon.

Quinn struggled to come up with the right message for his team after the game. He couldn’t hold them accountable for holding back the whole program. That wouldn't be fair to his players, and it wouldn't serve his mission. He could only hold them accountable for failing to win the game.

“What can you actually say?” he asked. “You played hard, you played UConn, they’re in your stadium, what a great evening, homecoming, and we weren’t able to deliver on it.”

Contact sports editor Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2264, or jonah.bronstein@niagara-gazette.com.

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