When Paul Shaffner took over the Buffalo State football team a year ago, he had a major rebuilding effort on his hands.
This year, it looks like he's whittled the project down to some finishing touches.
The Bengals had difficulty in two key areas Saturday afternoon -- finishing drives and completing tackles.
The shortcomings put Buffalo State on the losing end of a 38-21 final to Ithaca in front of 2,310 at Coyer Field.
While the result is the same as last year, Buffalo State demonstrated measurable improvement. Consider that in 2004 Ithaca shut out the Bengals, 48-0, thanks in large part to eight turnovers.
This year, Buffalo State didn't turn the ball over once. Couple that with 21 points on the board, breaking Ithaca's streak of holding opponents scoreless for 11 straight quarters on opening day, and you have tangible signs of a team on the rebound.
"I think our attitude is improving," senior quarterback Mike Mikolaichik said. "There were times when Ithaca would score and the offense didn't hang their heads at all. We just said, 'Let's get back out there.' "
The Bengals' offense spent plenty of time on the field. It sustained long drives, moved the ball well particularly with the short passing game and looked, well, competent.
Then came "the red zone" and the drives would fizzle.
While the Bengals finished the game 3 for 6 from inside the 22, the first empty trip proved to be a huge momentum shift.
With Ithaca up, 10-0, early, Buffalo State constructed an effective 72-yard, 18-play drive that culminated in a first-and-goal from the Ithaca 8. After an incomplete pass and a 5-yard rush by Mikolaichik, the Bengals had third-and-goal from the 3. A rush by Franklyn Wright up the middle resulted in a loss of 2 yards. On fourth down from the 5, Mikolaichik dropped back and was sacked for an 8-yard loss.
"From the standpoint of the psyche of our players, we needed to have that to motivate us and to help us see the light," Shaffner said. "That would have made the game 10-7 and that would have changed the momentum of the game. We're still battling the mode of not being sure about things and hoping that we're going to do good things. We can't hope. We've got to know."
Mikolaichik set a school record for most pass attempts in a game with 53. He completed 27 of them, two for touchdowns, while throwing for 276 yards. Jonathan Allen caught 10 passes for 96 yards.