Just when the University at Buffalo offense seemed headed slightly north of liability comes the news it could be without its starting quarterback for several weeks.
Junior Stewart Sampsel, who seemed to excel in the Bulls' new spread option offense, suffered a severe shoulder injury during Saturday night's 17-3 loss to Rutgers. Sampsel had X-rays taken early Sunday morning and while UB coach Jim Hofher didn't know the severity of the injury, Hofher said the team will be without the junior quarterback "for weeks."
UB (0-3) has a bye this week before beginning Mid-American Conference play at Western Michigan on Oct. 1. Sampsel had his best game of the season Saturday, completing 15 of 26 passes for 140 yards while rushing for 44 yards on 11 carries. Sampsel was injured late in the fourth quarter after a hit by Rutgers' Corey Barnes following a 10-yard completion to tight end Chad Upshaw.
In Sampsel's first two games, he completed just 10 of 35 for 70 yards and two interceptions.
"He certainly played his most productive game on Saturday," Hofher said on Sunday. "It's a shame for him and it's a shame for our team."
Hofher will probably turn the offense over to true freshman Drew Willy, who rotated with Sampsel on Saturday. Willy completed 10 of 15 passes for 88 yards and was sacked twice. After Willy, there's junior college transfer Tony Paoli, who has appeared in one game, and sophomore Chris Moore, who has steadily received more reps in practice as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
But Sampsel's injury is a huge blow to UB, a team that still hasn't scored a touchdown this season, but perhaps found its footing on Saturday. The Bulls piled up a season-high 349 yards of total offense, but couldn't find the end zone and scored just once on four trips inside the red zone.
When Mike Baker kicked a 33-yard field goal with 6:53 left in the third quarter, it ended a scoreless streak of 14 consecutive quarters without a point.
"They were very much a combination of the teams we faced in week one and week two," said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. "They took a little bit of Illinois and a little bit of Villanova and they took what they liked the most."
UB may be on to something with the spread offense, one of college football's new toys. The offense is used to spread out the field with three and four receiver sets, which also creates more running lanes. Junior tailback Steven King averaged 4.6 yards a carry and finished with 60 yards on 13 carries, while Sampsel was able to tuck the ball and run on several occasions. Sampsel and Willy combined for 25 of 41 for 228 yards and hit seven different receivers. Brett Hamlin led with six receptions for 56 yards, while Upshaw, Evan Wallace and Derrick Dyer had five receptions each.
After losing to Syracuse, 31-0, on Sept. 10, Hofher and his staff spent the next two days figuring out how to pump life into a moribund offense that produced zero points and 260 yards of total offense in losses to Connecticut and Syracuse. They decided to toss the ace and I formations for the spread, which also included sudden option pitches that produced some positive results.
But no touchdowns.
Said Schiano, twisting the knife a bit: "The fact of the matter is, three points is still three points."
Even the usually optimistic Hofher was in no mood for moral victories.
"We needed more, we wanted more, we need to get more," he said. "That will be our challenge. However it comes. We're willing to do anything that's going to help us move that ball even better and to score. We had 85 plays and scored three points, obviously that doesn't gibe."