The University at Buffalo's last football win over Connecticut came three weeks into Jim Hofher's first season as head coach. Since then, the difference between the programs has become as stark as the difference between pizza and broccoli. They might have entered Division I-A on the same level, but the Huskies are now chic while the Bulls are still running in place.
The Bulls end their regular season today, when they'll play in front of 40,000 fans in Rentschler Field (noon, Radio 550, 1280 AM). The Bulls are not expected to win. But they weren't expected to win in 2001, either, when they humbled the Huskies, 37-20. And UB (2-8) is coming off its most impressive performance of the season, a 36-6 victory over Central Michigan in UB Stadium in which the Bulls registered a school-record eight sacks and helped Hofher's job status for next season.
Any chance of recapturing the magic of 2001? The oddsmakers say fat chance, installing the Bulls as 25-point underdogs to a team with a lot more at stake. The Huskies (5-4) need one more victory to become bowl eligible. Besides, this isn't the same UConn team UB defeated way back when.
"It's going to be tougher to win in this go-around because they've obviously improved," said UB senior flanker Matt Knueven, who along with 12 other seniors are playing their final game for the Bulls. "They've had our number the last couple of years, so it will be a difficult task, but one we feel we'll be confident that we can do."
Indeed, the Bulls are not intimidated by UConn despite its recent success, which includes wins in 18 of its last 24 games. The 2001 upset gives them hope.
"That was the foundation and the building blocks of this program as far as when I arrived," Knueven said. "It was a key component. It was my first win, it was coach Hofher's first win, it was the program's first win under his era and under his leadership. . . . That win put us in the direction where we needed to go. Bowling Green beat us pretty bad the week before (35-0) and we were reeling at the time, so we went up there and took care of business. So it was huge for our program."
Since then, UB has gone 6-36 while the Huskies have soared. Last season, UConn blew out the Bulls, 38-7, and finished with a 9-3 record as an independent. In 2002, UConn bashed UB, 24-3, the week following the Bulls' surprising 34-11 victory at Rutgers. Coincidently, that's the last time UB won on the road, a span of 16 games.
"It was a great boost to our egos and a big motivator," said UB senior center Eric Weber. "We needed it. We definitely needed it. Now we need it again. We need to have it again."
How do they get it? Containing quarterback Dan Orlovsky is critical. Let Orlovsky sit in the pocket and he'll carve you up (2,568 yards and 17 touchdowns), but make him think and react on the fly and perhaps he'll make a mistake (12 interceptions). Coming into the season, Orlovsky was thought to be a possible first-round pick but his numbers are down from last season. The competition became stiffer when the Huskies moved into the Big East a year early because of the defections to the ACC by Miami and Virginia Tech. But Hofher thinks Orlovsky might be underrated.
"He's an outstanding quarterback and tremendously productive," said Hofher, a Connecticut native. "He's highly experienced and will be a great challenge for our defense."
UConn coach Randy Edsall said Orlovsky merely has to play within the system.
"I don't worry about the national expectations or anything like that. What I worry about is how he functions within what we ask him to do," Edsall said. "I think he's done a tremendous job in terms of what we've asked him to do this year. Sometimes, I think he tries to do a little bit too much, which gets him into some problems, which leads into interceptions, but that's just a young man who wants to be very good."
The challenge for UB is forcing Orlovsky to make poor decisions. The Bulls had gotten conservative with their blitz packages in the weeks leading up to Central Michigan.
On the other side of the ball, if the Huskies turn P.J. Piskorik into a passer, the Bulls could be in trouble. If he runs free from the pocket as he did last week (85 yards rushing) the offense will open up and perhaps spark the team.
"The win showed our potential and what we can do, how we should play and how we can play," said UB linebacker Bryan Cummings. "But it's just one win and we can't let it go to our heads."