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In a way, it was a lot worse than losing to Connecticut, 55-0. Worse than getting smoked, 50-0, by Ohio University. Worse than rushing out in front of Youngstown, but then losing, 52-17.

It was worse because of what might have happened; what should have happened.

The University at Buffalo football team, in the morass of a four-game losing streak, had the chances, had the gazillion yards passing, had the momentum to defeat the University of Massachusetts Saturday afternoon.

Then it met the enemy, and it was them.

You could tell it was worse than any of the recent muggings to which the Bulls fell victim because coach Craig Cirbus' face and voice showed it.

Cirbus has been Mr. Optimistic, the Prince of Upbeat, since the day he arrived at UB in January of 1995. By 4:30 Saturday afternoon, the facade cracked. All the unfavorable bounces, the bad decisions, the mismatches of the last month caught up with him. Upbeat had been replaced, albeit on a temporary basis, by exasperation.

His quarterback, Chad Salisbury, had just passed for 459 yards. His three chief receivers, Drew Haddad, Kali Watkins and Jamie Gasparre, each caught more than 100 yards worth of receptions. Gasparre had touchdown explosions of 48 and 63 yards.

The Bulls also lost their fifth consecutive game, 26-20. The memory of last season's 8-3 record was long forgotten. In its place was the coach's exasperation.

"I have no experience when it comes to scoring 40, 45 points in order to win a game," admitted Cirbus. "I'm a terrible coach if it comes to that. I have no confidence in that type of game whatsoever."

Cirbus is a creature of Penn State football, of Joe Paterno football. He came directly to UB from the Rose Bowl, where his Nittany Lion offensive line was central to victory. It was the football to which he became accustomed: Buckle on your helmet, take your stance at the line of scrimmage and create those seams to produce first downs that lead to victory.

There has never been any such thing as Joe Pa's aerial circus. Cirbus never intended it to happen at UB. What he would have preferred to see on his home field was a running game that would earn the Minutemen's respect, allowing the Bulls to use play-action passes, not the harum-scarum sort of throw-on-almost-every-down attack that finally materialized.

"Honestly, I didn't think they even tried to run," said Mike Hodges, the Massachusetts coach. "They were pretty easily discouraged."

In the final analysis, the Bulls passed twice as much as they ran. In a close game, that is the formula for eventual disaster. A great many things can happen when the ball is put up that often in a college game, and a number of them are bad.

That's what cost the Bulls this game: Two disastrous plays, both when they had possession of the ball in the final quarter.

The first came as the Bulls, trailing 19-13, pushed toward the lead. They had third-and-goal on the Minutemen 5 when Chad Salisbury's pass was tipped by free safety Bryan Mooney. The carom hung in the air for a split second, just long enough for corner back Tehran Hunter to catch it and assess his prospects.

"All I saw was grass," Hunter said. He didn't stop until he reached the Buffalo end zone, 103 yards away. In college football, they award the yards only from goal line to goal line, so it goes into the books as a 100-yard return.

The Bulls came back to cut Massachusetts' lead to 26-20 when Salisbury connected with Haddad for an 11-yard touchdown play. Less than six minutes later, the Bulls were in position to pull out victory.

Yet on first down, Salisbury launched a deep sideline pass toward Haddad. The Minutemen had seen it too often. Mooney waited for its arrival like a center fielder sizing up a routine fly ball. It was an easy interception and Mooney returned it to the Bulls' 38.

Game over.

The day's most exasperating moment came seconds after the Bulls' last touchdown. Their fervor hadn't yet cooled when Darryl Thomas returned the next kickoff 62 yards. The Bulls' defense ended up holding, but the failure to pen Massachusetts in its own end of the field is symbolic of UB's youth.

"They have to learn not to be afraid to lose," said Cirbus. "They covered that kick as if they were afraid to fail. We shouldn't have to spend 35 minutes explaining kickoff coverage. We have to convince them to just make it happen."

If these Bulls can't be led to do the basic things that win games, the coach is going to have to rely on something in which he has little faith: Air Cirbus.

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