Coach Turner Gill pinpointed exactly what the University at Buffalo needed to address during the bye week: improving the running game and creating more turnovers.
After back-to-back losses, Gill isn't ready to sound the alarm. UB has rushed for just 115 yards, created only three turnovers and as a result there have been more than a few private testimonials by players and coaches about sticking together and not allowing tough times to tear the team apart. It started two weeks ago after the crushing 27-25 loss at Central Michigan.
"We're not in panic mode, we're in good shape," Gill said. "I feel very good and very confident about where we're at."
The Bulls (2-3, 1-1 Mid-American Conference) figure to be in a good emotional state going into the 3:30 p.m. game today at UB Stadium (1230 AM, TWC 13) against Western Michigan (5-1, 3-0), a team they have yet to beat in three tries. The last time the Bulls played the Broncos was in 2005 in Kalamazoo, Mich., when Drew Willy was a true freshman starting his first game. Willy dropped hints of what was to come with 288 yards on 30 of 38 passes and two touchdowns in the 31-21 loss.
"Four years ago when they came here I said, 'That kid is going to be a heck of a player,' and he has really turned into a good player under Turner's guidance," said Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit.
Since then UB's program has done a complete turnaround. It's been a season full of new experiences for Gill and the Bulls, who are playing with a target on their backs while making a play for the program's first winning season in 12 years, another league title and a possible bowl berth. After today and next week's nonleague game against Army, UB goes into a MAC minefield with three of its next four games on the road.
"We always talk about winning at home," said junior tailback Mario Henry. "We talk about what's going on in the league a little bit, but we let the coaches handle that, we let them think about that, and we just go out and practice and work hard for our next opponent."
There is no doubt the running game feels pressure to perform better. Other than some lapses on third down, the Bulls' defense has been solid, but the running game -- outside of the season opener against UTEP -- has been abysmal.
Some of it has to do with junior tailback James Starks missing the second half of the Temple game and all of the Missouri game with a hip injury. The former Niagara Falls star returned two weeks ago for Central Michigan and rushed 22 times for 94 yards while scoring his first touchdown of the season.
But for the season, UB is averaging 120.8 yards a game -- ninth in the MAC and 89th in the country -- and five touchdowns.
"The bottom line is execution," Gill said. "We're not going to have a wholesale change in our offense, but we need to execute a little bit better."
While Gill is pleased overall with his defense, he wants more takeaways. The Bulls have forced nine turnovers -- tied for fifth in the MAC with Central Michigan -- including five fumbles, but three came during the Missouri game. During the bye, UB went back to the basics.
"We did a lot of swarming to the ball and tackling," Gill said. "We may not have one great standout defensive player or two but overall our defense is getting better every week. The biggest thing has been the tackling which is a very, very tough thing. . . . But we need to create turnovers, at least two or three a game."
The Bulls ran drills the last two weeks in practice with an emphasis on stripping the ball away.
"After a ball is caught or after there's a run or something like that, you always had the defense coming behind your shoulder and try to slap or punch the ball out of your hands," said junior wide receiver Brett Hamlin. "You have to maintain a good grip and just grip the ball tight and keep running. Coach Gill made sure we had to finish through a certain cone and passed a certain point and the defense had to try and get the ball away from us."
Like UB, Western Michigan came into the season with decent expectations. Numerous pundits picked the Broncos as a dark-horse team of the MAC during the preseason, and five consecutive wins over Northern Illinois, Idaho, Tennessee Tech, Temple and Ohio have strengthened that sentiment. Now, they are one victory away from becoming bowl eligible while UB still has work to do.
"The doubts should be erased from your mind to be able to go out and accomplish your goals," Gill said. "We have to go out and execute our plays 100 percent of the time. Nobody is perfect, but you strive for 100 percent of the time of doing the right thing."