Lance Leipold has been searching for little signs, tiny hints of progress that when added up amount to genuine reasons for encouragement about UB's football program. Sometimes, optimism shows up when nobody is watching, during spring practice and summer workouts away from untrained eyes.
When Tyree Jackson's left knee crumpled under him late in the first half Saturday, he wasn't just bearing the weight of Florida Atlantic defenders who were tackling him. For people watching from afar, he was carrying the weight of Buffalo's football program going into conference play.
Leipold knew when Jackson left the field under his own power that he would not return against FAU. The people who didn’t know UB's quarterback situation may have been holding their breath, but the Bulls' third-year head coach was relaxed knowing his offense would remain in capable hands.
"At halftime," Leipold said, "there wasn't a sense of panic."
Junior quarterback Drew Anderson had been waiting for his opportunity since taking a circuitous route to Buffalo. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder threw for 4,047 and 47 touchdowns his senior year. He averaged 21.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in basketball and batted .414 in baseball.
It makes you wonder how he fell under the radar of big-time schools.
Anderson made the team at San Diego State as a walk-on, left after one season for a junior college 15 minutes from his home and showed up in Buffalo with nothing more than an opportunity.
He played a grand total of one play last season, completing a short screen pass in the forgettable season finale against Bowling Green. He came back this season knowing he wouldn't see the field barring an injury to Jackson, but he was ready when Leipold summoned him from the sideline.
"I never felt like this level was too much for me or anything like that," Anderson said after the game. "I felt that if I had an opportunity, I could play well. Hopefully, the offense doesn't skip a beat. As a backup quarterback, that's your job. When a guy goes down, the offense can't stall."
UB couldn't have asked for a smoother transition with their No. 2 on the field. Anderson completed 7 of 9 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown pass to Anthony Johnson that ended up being the difference in a 34-31 victory over a Florida Atlantic team that refused to buckle.
"Drew Anderson had a fine spring," Leipold said. "He had a great camp. He doesn't say a word. He doesn't get rattled. I saw a young man who did an excellent job executing our offense. He managed the clock at the end. He was managing the clock at the line of scrimmage with the cadence. He did a lot of things that helped us win."
The Bulls were waiting for more tests on Jackson's knee before knowing the severity of his injury, which happened at the 6-yard line after he marched the Bulls down the field. X-rays taken during the game were negative. He's expected to undergo more examinations in the next few days.
Anderson led the Bulls to 17 second-half points while the Bulls patched up their roster. Starting running back Johnathan Hawkins missed the game with an undisclosed injury suffered last week against Colgate. Emmanuel Reed gained 109 yards in 26 carries.
Redshirt freshman Theo Anderson scored his first career touchdown on a 7-yard run. The Bulls have been without starting right tackle David Goldsby all season. Left guard Brandon Manosalvas was injured in the first half Saturday and didn't return.
"These kids battled their butts off tonight," Leipold said. "There's a lot of stuff going on right now in our program. Our guys are battling. We're building depth alone the way. This is a big one to get. There's still plenty to work on."
Anderson doesn't have Jackson's double-threat ability or game experience, but he played well enough to win. Jackson is an elusive runner despite his 6-foot-7, 245-pound frame and has a cannon arm. Anderson was calm and collected from the start and made some critical throws to help UB gain the lead.
If you're not sure where the program is headed, join the club. UB has shown flashes of brilliance during the four games. The Bulls could have one of the more dangerous combinations in the Mid-American Conference with Jackson throwing to Johnson.
On Saturday, it was Anderson who found Johnson with a perfect touchdown pass Saturday that gave UB a 34-24 lead. Johnson finished with six catches for 87 yards and the 20-yard TD toward the corner of the end zone. Anderson should have no problem being ready if needed next week against Kent State in the conference opener.
"I knew what he was capable of," Johnson said. "We see it in practice every day. He was ready when his time came."
UB played well in a loss to Minnesota before dropping a game against Army, the kind of team Buffalo needs to beat if it's going to be taken seriously this season. The Bulls buried an FCS team in Colgate. They jumped to a 14-0 lead against Florida Atlantic, which plays in Conference USA, before falling behind.
Saturday's game looked like UB's first three games wrapped into one, intermittent lapses on both sides weaved into signs of progress. UB rolled to touchdowns on its first two possessions before the offense stalled without warning. It wasn't as if FAU, which had similar problems, could be held up as a standard for UB.
We'll see what happens with Jackson. If he's not ready, the Bulls appear to be in good hands with Anderson. Leipold is seeing signs of a team coming together, even when its record or the score suggest otherwise. The Bulls appear to be going in the right direction. Sometimes, it's revealed when it's least expected.
"It feels good," Leipold said of the win. "You don't want to overanalyze, but it gives you confidence going into conference play. Hopefully, fans can see that this team is exciting. We have some explosiveness. We play hard and we're pretty fun to watch. Hopefully, those are things we can take to Kent State next week."