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UB HOPING TO CLOSE ON HIGH NOTE

A cursory peek at the University at Buffalo's record logically leads to the assumption that today's season finale has added importance in a season filled with only a smidgen of hope and promise.

But for UB, the final game is just as significant as the season opener.

"It's no less or no more important than the other 11 that we've played," said UB coach Jim Hofher. "We're going to attack this game the way we have so many games in the latter half of the season."

Unfortunately for Hofher, his young Bulls (1-10, 0-7 in the Mid-American Conference) have been bad far more often than good. In fact, when UB plays favored Ball State (5-5, 3-3) today (1 p.m., Radio 550 AM) in Muncie, Ind., it will be seeking its first league victory this season and first MAC road win ever. If the Bulls lose, as expected, they will finish with the worst record since the 1999 team went 0-11, 0-8.

Since replacing Craig Cirbus (who enjoyed only one winning season during his six years as UB's head coach) in 2001, Hofher has presided over a 4-18 record. The team is young. Thirteen freshmen and sophomores are among the probable starters for today's game, and 56 of the 86 players on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores.

"Guys, if nothing else, have learned how to compete," Hofher said. "Obviously the next step, whether it's this week or next year, is learning how to win. These guys have learned a lot about how to compete and what it takes to compete."

This season, UB has given up an average of 34.1 points, putting it 98th among the 117 Division I-A football teams, while scoring an average of 17.5 points, which ranks 112th. They are beaten down mentally and physically, which is why the Bulls need some of kind of momentum heading into the offseason.

"I think it will be a positive thing going into next season," said Demetrius Austrum, a junior right end. "It will be good to send out the seniors on a good note. Going into offseason workouts, winter workouts, everyone will have a positive attitude."

Still, no matter how young, inexperienced and uncertain the team was during the preseason, this was just not the way the players envisioned the year would be. Only twice -- against Ohio and Kent State -- did the Bulls have a chance of winning late in the fourth period. In losses to Connecticut, Marshall and Miami of Ohio, Buffalo was outscored, 135-24.

"I think at the beginning of the season, we all had high expectations, but you have to play the season," said Austrum, a cousin of Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Corey Simon. "I guess at this point, we're all a little disappointed with the outcome of the games, but we've all been working hard to improve and we'll keep working hard."

Today, the Bulls face a Ball State team that has won its last two and three of its last four. The Cardinals are 3-3 in the MAC but the three teams that have beaten them -- Bowling Green, Toledo and Northern Illinois -- are a combined 17-2 in league play and 23-8 overall.

The Cardinals are a ground-based team, so the Bulls will focus their attention on senior Marcus Merriweather, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound tailback who is the Cardinals' career rushing leader with 3,691 yards. He's the MAC's leading rusher this season, gaining 1,307 yards to become the first Ball State player to have three 1,000-yard seasons in a career.

Over the last four games against Eastern Michigan, Bowling Green, Western Michigan and Central Michigan, Merriweather has rushed for 614 yards, an average of 153.5 yards a game. Merriweather is eighth in the NCAA in rushing yards per game behind Miami's Willis McGahee and ahead of notables such as Oklahoma's Quentin Griffin, Ohio State's Maurice Clarett and Virginia Tech's Lee Suggs.

"You're going to have gang-tackle a guy like that because he's a big man," Hofher said. "He's a 215-pound man who probably runs more like a 230-pounder. He's a big, power guy and he's very, very patient in what they choose to do."

The following seniors will play their final games for UB today: tight end Chad Bartoszek; linebackers Ryan Buttles, Jason Coley and Deonne McClelland; cornerbacks Dahnel Singfield and Mike Lambert; punter Scott McMahan; wide receivers Maurice Bradford, Andre Forde, Dan Lindsay and Bam McDonald; and fullback Jason Montanez.
e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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