For those who expected the University at Buffalo to get blown out by Akron on Saturday, there is just one thing to say.
Hope you didn't bet the ranch.
The Bulls' return to Division I-A was not a complete success as they lost, 17-10. However, it was far from the rout oddsmakers predicted.
UB, which came in as a 20-point underdog, gave the UB Stadium-record crowd of 20,835 a pretty good show. And if not for some missed scoring opportunities early, the Bulls' Mid-American Conference debut might have been even more memorable.
"Yeah, we lost the game, but I think we proved a point," said sophomore linebacker Chris Shelly. "We can play in the MAC."
Shelly will get no argument from Zips coach Lee Owens. While he felt his team lacked the emotion it showed last week against Penn State, he was impressed with the Bulls' showing.
"I'd like to compliment Buffalo for a great effort," Owens said. "They played very well, they had a good game plan. I think as they get better, they're going to be very competitive in the Mid-American Conference."
Akron (1-1) had twice as many first downs as UB and nearly double the total yardage. But this game had nothing to do with statistics.
After the Bulls fell behind, 10-0, early in the second quarter, fans seemed to prepare for yet another of those routs to which they have become accustomed.
But UB had other ideas. It fought back and refused to wear down as the game wore on.
Coach Craig Cirbus took no solace in his team's competitive performance, but he had to admit his players gave a good account of themselves.
"There were a lot of positives I feel we can grow on," Cirbus said. "The program is growing, so we have to acknowledge that there are steps along the way to be competitive with a team like Akron. But we're all athletic competitors, and if we take our eye off the goal of winning then we would be something less than this university deserves."
Akron's first two scores came on a 19-yard quarterback draw by James "Butchie" Washington on its first possession and a 20-yard field goal by place-kicker Zac Derr in the second quarter. The Zips dominated play the first 20 minutes, outgaining the Bulls, 136 yards to minus-6.
But the momentum took a dramatic shift as UB's defense got stingy. A pass rush that was non-existent a year ago got to Washington for three sacks and several more pressures. The Bulls also had 12 tackles totaling 56 yards in losses.
After such a productive first quarter, Akron gained just 1 yard in the second.
"I think we're playing more of a team defense," said linebacker Marcus Cole (Turner/Carroll), who finished with 10 tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles. "We're playing a different defense now and it's coming together. We made our share of mistakes, but I think we'll improve."
It's a good thing the defense was in fine form because UB's offense was not able to get going. The Bulls gained just 189 net yards and had just 10 first downs.
But, oh, those missed opportunities. Twice in the second quarter the Bulls were in scoring territory and came away with no points.
One promising drive ended when redshirt freshman tailback Bam McDonald fumbled after a big run to inside Akron's 15-yard line. After Cole sacked Washington and recovered the fumble at the Zips' 6, place-kicker Scott Keller (Amherst) had his 22-yard field-goal attempt blocked.
"We didn't start out the way we wanted to," said UB quarterback Joe Freedy, who made his first career start. "Obviously you want to come out and get on the board, but that didn't happen. We should have capitalized on some of those opportunities, but we had some breakdowns that we'll have to correct."
The Bulls finally got on the board, thanks to a 34-yard run by Tory Smith off a fake punt late in the first half. It led to a 33-yard field goal by Keller.
"We love that play," said Shelly (10 tackles). "As soon as the play was called, we knew we were going to get it. I think (Cirbus) believes in us. And as long as we trust, we can make the play."
Tailback Brandon Payne gave gave the Zips a seemingly commanding 17-3 lead late in the third quarter. But the Bulls refused to fold as Cole forced Payne to fumble and free safety Craig Rohlfs recovered at the UB 46.
After fullback Josh Roth converted a fourth-down run, Freedy found flanker Drew Haddad behind the defense for a 32-yard touchdown pass with 11:49 left.
"We thought we had the momentum and we felt energized," Haddad said. "We were in great position to win the game."
UB hits the road next week to play Connecticut.