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Preseason practice was one week old when Marcus Cole picked up Sports Illustrated's college football preview issue and found that the magazine had placed UB at the very bottom of the Division I-A rankings.

Cole, a Buffalo native who played high school ball at Turner-Carroll, ripped the offending page out of the magazine and taped it inside his locker.

"I kept that 114 ranking for motivation," Cole said Saturday night. "Because every game we're going to go higher. I know we're a good football team."

The Bulls did not beat Akron Saturday night in their long-awaited return to Division I-A football. They did not "shock the nation," as Cole declared in a moment of youthful exuberance after Akron narrowly escaped from UB Stadium with a 17-10 victory.

But UB certainly did not play like a 20-point underdog. The Bulls did not act like the team that many fans and skeptics feared would get blown out of every game this season.

They put on a brave performance in defeat, one certain to give hope to the 20,835 fans who showed up for the university's return to the "major college" ranks.

The Bulls pulled themselves together after a dreadful first quarter, dominating the second period and putting themselves in position to tie the game in the last five minutes before Akron's superior depth prevailed in the end.

When you consider how disappointing the Bulls were a year ago, and how desperate this town is for a legitimate college football program, it was a special night, a cause for genuine optimism.

Coach Craig Cirbus wasn't buying the notion of a moral victory.

"None. Zero. Zilch," Cirbus said. "There's a lot of positives you can take out of this, but this was a game we could have won, should have won -- all those words."

Cirbus closed practice the week of the opener, so intent was he on competing with the Zips and maybe stealing a win.

Still, Cirbus had to be pleased with his team. Critics had begun to lose faith in his ability to attract capable football players to UB. Where were the players who would make him competitive at the next level?

People finally got some answers. The young UB defense, which was shredded on a regular basis by I-AA opponents a year ago, came of age against a solid Akron offense.

Sophomore linebackers Chris Shelly (10 tackles) and Brandon Jordan (13 tackles, one sack) were solid. Nose tackle Bob Dzvonick, another soph, anchored the new 3-4 defense.

Cole, a transfer from Alfred State, was sensational at outside linebacker in place of injured senior Dan Curcione. Cole had 10 tackles and forced two fumbles. Late in the first half, he sacked Akron QB Butchie Washington, jarred the ball loose and recovered it on the Zips' 6-yard line.

Unfortunately, UB failed to score after that huge turnover. But Cole's individual effort was a sure sign that this is not the shoddy Bulls defense of a year ago.

"Marcus Cole was called to move up and played a huge role for us," Cirbus said. "Wow. He played his heart out."

All of them did. Tailback Bam McDonald, a redshirt freshman from Rush-Henrietta, sparked the crowd and the team with his 4.3 speed, breaking off some nice runs when the Bulls were asserting themselves in the second quarter.

Watching McDonald run, and seeing sophomores such as Shelly, Jordan, Craig Rohlfs and Dzvonick make defensive plays, you saw signs of hope. There's solid evidence the talent level is improving.

"Did we make steps tonight? We sure did," Cirbus said. "Did we make steps in the offseason. We sure did. Did recruiting take huge steps? Evident. There isn't a person who has followed our program who couldn't see the improvement in our defense."

After 29 years, this was an encouraging way to come back to the big time. It looks like something to build on. The Bulls have no place to go but up.

Cole has the evidence taped inside his locker.

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