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Bulls' losing streak sheds a critical light on program

You want to believe this is going somewhere. You would like to think that the men in charge of the University at Buffalo's football program know what they are doing.

But it's hard to see the progress, especially when one lopsided loss follows another.

UB got trounced Saturday by Syracuse, 31-0, in the Carrier Dome. This comes on the heels of a 38-0 embarrassment at Connecticut last week. For those keeping score at home, the Bulls have scored a grand total of zero points in their last 12 quarters dating to last year, while allowing 98.

Now I wasn't naive to think UB actually had a chance to win Saturday. As mediocre as Syracuse looked last week in a 15-7 loss to West Virginia, the Orange's talent is still superior to what the Bulls have to offer. SU went into the game as a heavy favorite, and rightly so.

But was it asking too much for UB to at least be competitive?

Some people believe it's not realistic for UB to match up with a team from one of the nation's power leagues. That's a fallacy, considering what other teams in the Mid-American Conference have done over the past week.

Miami University went to Ohio State and played the fourth-ranked Buckeyes tough for four quarters. Northern Illinois pushed No. 3 Michigan in Ann Arbor. Western Michigan put a scare into No. 23 Virginia in Charlottesville. Wisconsin needed a fourth-quarter surge to hold off Bowling Green. Indiana and Cincinnati survived close encounters at home to Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan, respectively. Two days ago, Ohio defeated defending Big East co-champion Pittsburgh.

If those MAC schools can compete with the best of the Big Ten, Big East and Atlantic Coast Conferences, why can't UB?

"It is a bit of a mystery right now," Hofher said of the team's flops against SU and UConn. "We haven't knocked enough holes to run through. We haven't been sturdy enough in our protections. We haven't thrown the ball accurately enough. And we've had too many self-inflicted wounds. In the end, we haven't produced."

I have no doubt that Hofher is working hard to make UB respectable. He's a bright guy who has worked for major colleges, so he knows what it takes to build a good program.

But knowing and doing are two different things. After four years and two games, there are not enough signs that UB football is headed in the right direction. I imagine new Athletic Director Warde Manuel will start having similar thoughts if this season doesn't turn around soon.

What is most discouraging about this is Hofher is fielding his most experienced team. It's a group that's more mature and physically tougher than his previous squads. UB hasn't looked that way in their first two games. It has a decent defense, but we might never see it because of a putrid offense.

The Bulls managed just 123 yards Saturday. The 236 rushing yards gained by SU running back Damien Rhodes is just 24 less than UB's total in two games.

Hofher attributed Saturday's sorry performance to some questionable coaching decisions and poor execution. Here's my reason: The Bulls don't have enough talent. Mistakes happen to every team, but when they occur on a weekly basis, you sense a trend.

Hofher's greatest shortcoming during his UB tenure has been an inability to recruit a top-notch quarterback. Let's be clear about this: Stewart Sampsel is not the answer. His performance Saturday was abysmal, completing just 4 of 18 passes for 19 yards and two interceptions. In two games, he is 10 of 35 (28.6 percent) for 70 yards. I don't know what that passer rating is, but zero sounds about right.

Sampsel is a first-year starter, but this is his fourth year in the program. He spent three years on the bench because he couldn't beat out Randall Secky.

Maybe it's time Hofher turned to true freshman Drew Willy, who came in at a garbage time and showed some promise with his live arm and ability to escape the pass rush.

The Corrigan Report showed that Hofher is hamstrung by an underfunded program. Maybe more money will mean more talent on the roster and a better product on the field.

But Hofher needs to win now. UB has lost 16 straight road games and dropped seven of its last eight overall. Hofher has never won more than three games in a season.

You would like to believe he can turn this thing around. You want to believe this program is heading in the right direction. It's just hard to see that right now.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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