The University at Buffalo, Buffalo State and Canisius are enjoying impressive starts. Their combined record of 7-1 has each of them dreaming of a winning season.
But the challenge is finishing the year as strong as they started. All three have key games today.
UB (2-1) travels to Massachusetts (1-1) for a 1 p.m. matchup (Radio 1520). Buffalo State (3-0), ranked No. 19 in one national Division III poll, meets perennial upstate New York power Cortland State (2-1) for homecoming at Coyer Field (1, 91.3 FM). Canisius (2-0) also looks to remain unbeaten in front of a homecoming crowd as Siena (1-1) invades the Demske Sports Complex for a televised (Empire) Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contest at noon.
Although the UB-UMass series is tied at 4-4, the Minutemen have won the last three meetings, including last year's 26-20 decision at UB Stadium.
The new UMass coach, Mark Whipple, was 2-0 against Buffalo as the head man at New Haven. One of those wins was a wild 69-48 game in 1992.
Unlike past UMass coaches, Whipple prefers a wide-open attack. At Brown University last year, his offense set an Ivy League record for total yardage per game (474.3).
UMass quarterback Todd Bankhead, a junior college transfer, has thrown for 323 yards in each of the first two games. His favorite targets are tight end Kerry Taylor (15 catches for 157 yards) and split end Jimmy Moore (11 for 157). Freshman speedster Adrian Zullo is a big-play threat who has gained 10 or more yards on 13 of his 15 offensive touches.
The Minutemen still have a running threat in sophomore tailback Marcel Shipp (86 yards per game).
"We look forward to the challenge," UB cornerback Carlos Spencer (Traditional) said. "We like to show what we can do and how much we have grown as a young secondary."
UB quarterback Chad Salisbury torched UMass for 459 yards last year, but the senior has averaged fewer than 200 yards per game and completed less than 45 percent of his throws this season.
"We had all the (passing) statistics in the world last year, and we still lost," coach Craig Cirbus pointed out. "Do I want to improve the passing percentage and getting people open? Certainly, because we'll need to rely on that at some point. But what may appear to be a backward trend really to me is not a concern at all."
UB's winning formula these days has been a suddenly productive running game. Whipple thinks that component of the Bulls' offense makes their passing game even more dangerous for the young UMass secondary.
Whipple is less concerned about his front seven, which is anchored by Division I-AA All-America candidate Khari Samuel. The 6-foot-2, 248-pound senior linebacker averages 13 tackles per game.
The scoreboard could be lit up at Coyer Field as Buffalo State and Cortland State showcase the two most explosive offenses in upstate New York.
The Bengals have shown they can run and pass against anyone, but the Red Dragons have enough weapons to match them point for point.
Tailbacks Omar Darling (159 yards and three TDs vs. the Bengals last year) and Sean Chavious average 180 yards rushing between them. Wide receiver Erick Bernard averages 22 yards per catch and had 248 all-purpose yards and a punt return for a touchdown in a 53-27 win over Kean last Saturday.
Starting quarterback Jeff Humble missed last week's game with a knee injury, but Ryan McCarthy stepped in nicely by completing 15 of 22 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
"You have to defense Cortland in every area for four quarters," Bengals coach Jerry Boyes said. "Defensively, they are the most aggressive team we've seen. This will be a game of perseverance and staying with what you believe in. We'll see how much we've grown as a team (today)."
Siena figures to be more of a challenge than Canisius' previous opponents because of the Saints' team speed.
All-American Reggie Greene, arguably the best running back in MAAC history, has finally graduated. Sakima Grimes tries to fill Greene's shoes, but quarterback Steve Dearstyne is a threat to run as well as throw.
"They were more one-dimensional in the past, although Greene gave them one heck of a dimension," Griffs coach Chuck Williams said. "Now, they are more balanced with their (freeze) option."
Of course, Canisius' defense is no slouch. The unit has yet to give up a point in two games.
This is the Griffs' last home game until Oct. 31, so they want to head into the following four weekends on a positive note.