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Months of anticipation and preparation are behind them now. There are no more playbooks to study, no more game tapes towatch, no more sleepless nights to endure.

Tonight in UB Stadium, before an expected crowd of 20,000, the University at Buffalo Bulls make their return to Division I-A football and their Mid-American Conference debut against the Akron Zips (7, Radio 1520).

"The players have been really working hard and are excited about this," said UB coach Craig Cirbus. "Some of them have been looking forward to this since they were recruited three, four years ago. And now, finally, it's here."

Senior offensive tackle Tom Brown calls it "A dream come true."

"All throughout high school, you dream of playing I-A ball," the former Amherst standout said. "This is it. This is something we've been working our tails off for the last year. Now we have to lay it on the line (tonight)."

How important is this game for UB? The coaching staff began watching film of the Zips almost immediately after the 1998 season concluded.

Their objective is clear.

"We're going into this game with the anticipation of playing a heck of a football game against Akron," Cirbus said. "We're going in to win, not to look respectable and not to have our introduction and welcome into the league. I don't care if they're the Green Bay Packers, Notre Dame, Akron or Virginia, we're going out there to win a football game."

That seems like a tall order for a 20-point underdog. But none of the players are backing away from the challenge.

"We feel confident going into this game," senior wide receiver Drew Haddad said. "You have to believe you can win every time you go out there. We have too much pride not to give it our best shot."

The Bulls face an Akron team still stinging from a 70-24 loss at second-ranked Penn State last Saturday.

There are a couple of ways to view that blowout. First of all, Penn State gained 553 total yards and scored 10 touchdowns. But on the other hand, Akron gained 281 total yards, better than what Arizona mustered the week before. Its 144 yards rushing was just two shy of the Nittany Lions' largest yield last year. The difference in the game was the Lions' superior depth and team speed, which allowed them to make big plays and turn a close game through 1 1/2 quarters into a rout. But the Zips played well enough for Penn State coach Joe Paterno to say, "Until they got tired, we could not handle that line of scrimmage."

Cirbus saw the same thing on television.

"What I saw was one heck of an aggressive defense, and they have an awfully good defensive line," he said. "I saw (Akron's) nose man handle the Penn State center a few times. Their offensive line opened up a lot of holes for the running backs."

The Zips are picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the MAC's East Division, but their goals are a lot higher. Coach Lee Owens said it's imperative his team understands the importance of this game.

"You hate to play a conference game, especially on the road, this early until you get your team squared away," he said. "But we can't afford a loss this early if we want to be a contender in this conference. We're on the road against a new team coming into the league, moving up to Division I-A football and opening the season. Your opener is always an emotional game. Our job is to try and match Buffalo's emotion." Cirbus said don't be fooled by Akron's loss last week. He calls the Zips the best team UB has faced since he's been here. That includes MAC member Ohio, which trounced the Bulls, 50-0, two years ago.

"Akron is a well-rounded football team," Cirbus said. "Not only are they talented, but they challenge you with those eight-man fronts. I think they have a good offensive line. They've got misdirection all over the place. They present a lot of problems."

Cirbus added that the key to this game will be how his veteran offensive line matches up with Akron's defensive front, which no doubt will come after new UB quarterback Joe Freedy early and often. Junior defensive end Ade Edwards, an All-MAC candidate, is a strong pass rusher and senior George Cameron is a big hitter at the whip position, a hybrid outside linebacker-down lineman.

Brown agrees that the weight is on the offensive line's shoulders.

"I think we're going to just have to take charge of the game," he said. "We're going to have to establish the running game, and thats going to open up the passing. It's important that we have balance, and it all starts with us."

Akron's offense presents its share of problems, too. Quarterback James "Butchie" Washington, who threw for two touchdowns against Penn State, is a playmaker.

"On defense, we just need to show improvement over last year," Cirbus said. "If we can get off the blocks a little quicker, and if we can run some things down without them being 30, 40-yard gainers, I think we'll be competitive."

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