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UB remains hopeful as Rutgers looms

With their record sitting at 0-2 after a 31-point shutout loss to Syracuse University and a new-and-improved Rutgers looming, morale stands to become an issue with the University at Buffalo.

With big losses at Connecticut and Syracuse, an offense that has sputtered and a defense that has given up points in mass, the Bulls have little call for hopefulness. Still, players said moving on and holding out hope they can change things are their only reasonable courses of action.

"Mentally, everybody has to stay positive," said UB senior linebacker Bryan Cummings, who had a game-high 10 tackles against Syracuse. "You can't have any negativity at all. Negativity is like a cancer, it will start to spread."

Yet pessimism and that here-we-go-again line of thinking hover around UB. There are 116 teams ranked in Division I-A football, and not one of the other 115 is statistically worse than Buffalo in total offense. Dead last. The bottom. The pits.

While the offense has received the weight of the criticism after two games, the defense, thought to be the program's bread and butter, has come up short as well. The Bulls are coming off a game in which they gave up four touchdowns and 236 yards to Syracuse tailback Damien Rhodes. They have surrendered 34.5 points per game even though they have a veteran, experienced group. They could experience more of the same in their home opener at 8 p.m. tonight against Rutgers (1-1) in UB Stadium.

One week after becoming Rhodes kill, the Bulls come home, where, save for the complete clunker against Kent State, they were actually respectable last season. But the reality is the Scarlet Knights are on the rise and, despite having some success against Rutgers recently, the Bulls may not have the tools to keep pace.

Rutgers has overwhelming speed on offense that can hurt an opposing team in a variety of ways. Instead of grinding away, it can explode in bursts.

"They will resemble, in many respects, the first two opponents we've played," said UB coach Jim Hofher.

The defense is another matter. Rutgers was beating Illinois, 27-7, in the third quarter before allowing four consecutive scores in regulation and losing in overtime, 33-30. While Rutgers piled up 517 yards of total offense, the Fighting Illini put up 437. Then in last week's 38-6 victory over Division I-AA Villanova, the Wildcats were held to just one first-quarter touchdown but still managed 444 yards of offense.

"It's a little bit tricky, and we're not going to intimidate anyone with our size," said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. "I do think it's a group of kids who will battle every week, and that's all I can ask."

This would seem like the kind of team UB could play with, but the Bulls haven't proved they can move the ball on offense to warrant much fear for Rutgers.

Hofher won't name a starting quarterback until game time but will probably once again tap junior Stewart Sampsel, who has completed just 33.9 percent of his passes for 70 yards and two interceptions in two starts. But if the offense dances to the Three-and-Out Tango early, look for Hofher to go with true freshman Drew Willy, who sparked the offense late against the Orange.

The Bulls haven't scored a point in three games, and the quarterbacks haven't thrown a touchdown pass in four. To score or not to score, that is the question.

"Going out and not getting it done at times is frustrating," said senior split end Derrick Dyer. "That just makes us more determined, and on Saturday, you'll see that. I really believe our offense will come out and compete as hard as we can."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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