If you want to slay a giant, then you should probably strike first.
The University at Buffalo football team’s home opener didn’t start out exactly according to plan on Saturday. Against Pittsburgh, a BCS school that finished just outside of the Top 25 last season, the Bulls fell into an early hole and couldn’t climb out.
The Bulls’ starting offense didn’t touch the field until they were already down by two touchdowns. The Panthers struck early with a touchdown on their first drive (a 10-yard pass from Bill Stull to Dorin Dickerson) and then recovered a fumble by UB senior running back Mario Henry on the ensuing kickoff. Dickerson found pay-dirt again as he hauled in a 23-yard pass, putting Pittsburgh up 14-0.
The gap widened as the game wore on, culminating in a 54-27 victory for the Panthers.
The score may indicate a blowout, but any of the 21,870 in paid attendance would tell you that it was anything but until the final few minutes of the fourth quarter. Even Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt was holding onto his mustache until the end.
“There wasn’t a sigh of relief until the last minute or two,” Wannstedt said. “Every time they had the football, I had the feeling anything could happen.”
That “anything” starts with Bulls sophomore quarterback Zach Maynard. Maynard is silencing the pre-season skeptics who weren’t sure if he could step in and replicate the scoring juggernaut Buffalo had become under graduated senior Drew Willy. If anything, in only two starts, Maynard has made the Bulls even more dangerous – even without senior running back James Starks.
Maynard threw for 400 yards on Saturday with four touchdowns. His ability to throw on the run has extended plays in ways the offense never could under the more pocket-happy Willy. And despite breaking nearly every school record in his time here, Willy never broke the 400-yard mark. The last Bull to do that was Chad Salisbury when he passed for a school-record 459 yards against Massachusetts in 1997, albeit before UB moved to Division I-A.
Also, for the first time in UB’s modern history, two receivers finished the day with over 100 yards receiving. Seniors Naaman Roosevelt and Brett Hamlin have found ways to come up big for an offense that wasn’t expected to be as explosive as last season’s incarnation.
Roosevelt’s two touchdown catches happened because he was able to make it into the open field where he’s almost impossible to stop. The first score, of the 54-yard variety, looked a lot like the play he took to the house last week against UTEP.
“Naaman, after the catch, that’s what he’s about,” Maynard said. “He made a couple guys miss and his game speed is insane. He did all he could to get into the end zone.”
The second touchdown pass thrown to him was thrown slightly behind him and down by his hip. Roosevelt caught it with one hand and turned it up the middle of the field for a 67-yard touchdown near the end of the first half.
Hamlin has become the Bulls’ most sure-handed receiver over the last two seasons and set career highs in yards (149) and receptions (12). Three of those catches came on third down plays on Saturday. If Hamlin is able to continue to produce at this level, opposing defenses will have a lot on their plates.
All of this of course, doesn’t come without some bumps in the road for UB.
“We [didn’t] come out to play the first half and that’s on us as players. So we need to get that corrected this week,” senior safety Mike Newton said of the defense’s effort. “We were focused and prepared. We just [didn’t] come to play the first half… There are no excuses for it.”
In the first half, the Panthers were 4-4 in red zone situations and Pitt running back Dion Lewis had 57 yards rushing in the first quarter alone. Dickerson added a third touchdown midway through the second quarter.
The run defense has been shaky so far this season and emphasizing tackling technique will surely be the focus of the defense this week. The Bulls defense played better in the second half, when they settled down and simplified things.
However, Buffalo’s inability to stop the Panthers offense early added more pressure to the UB offense.
And despite the gaudy numbers, the offense committed several turnovers that led directly to points for the Panthers. It’s not often UB is on the wrong end of the turnover battle.
Henry committed his second turnover on his first carry of the game in the second quarter. Henry lost a fumble on the UB 14-yard line. Five plays later, Pitt took a 27-7 lead. Henry wouldn’t touch the field again until late in the fourth quarter but Gill said he is confident that he will be able to bounce back and produce well next week.
Maynard made his first costly error as a starter in the third quarter when he faced pressure from the defensive line and fumbled an option pass on the 50-yard line. The ball was scooped up by Greg Williams who ran it into end zone to give the Panthers a 40-20 advantage.
“I tried to make something out of nothing and I wish I could get it back,” Maynard said.
The Bulls did bounce back to start the fourth quarter, driving 69 yards and scoring on a 12-yard pass from Maynard to junior running back Brandon Thermilus.
Thermilus himself rushed for 49 yards on 14 carries, showing that while he can hold his own, he can’t fill the giant void left by James Starks alone. Thermilus should improve each game but this might not be the best game to judge his performance, if only because UB got pass-happy because of the early deficit. And with Henry on the sidelines, the jury is essentially still out on the new-look run game.
Central Florida, the Bulls’ opponent next week, lost to Southern Miss by a score of 26-19 on Saturday. It might be a good week for the Bulls rushing attack as USM outrushed the Golden Knights 156-15. The Bulls would love to earn another win before conference play begins on Sept. 26.
“A loss hurts. Period,” Gill said. “But the biggest thing now is how are we going to respond? How are we going to respond to it? And we’ll find out next week.”