The formula to win in the Mid-American Conference is simple: While a strong running game, defense and special teams are fine, you need a steady quarterback. Jim Hofher has yet to find one for the University at Buffalo.
At this point, in his fifth season as coach, Hofher wouldn't mind finding someone as dependable as Joe Freedy, who by no means was a star but played better than everyone who followed.
Quarterback quandary. Quarterback dilemma. Call it whatever you like at UB.
Freshman Drew Willy, who will be the starter Saturday at Western Michigan, will with any luck turn into the comforting alternative to the others who have played since Freedy graduated after the 2001 season.
The Bulls hope he will play better than Randall Secky and P.J. Piskorik, who shared starts for two seasons, or Chris Moore, Stewart Sampsel and the rest of the provisional caretakers.
"Anybody in coaching would like to be able to find one," Hofher said. "If you can find and develop one, often times it can lead to a second. Part of it is what you do and what you have and a lot of it is supporting cast."
Since 2002, UB quarterbacks have thrown for 5,292 yards, 24 touchdowns and 37 interceptions while completing 48.5 percent of their passes. The yardage is just 550 more than what Texas Tech quarterback Sonny Cumbie, the national leader, threw in 2004, and the touchdowns are nine fewer than USC Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart's total from last season.
The Bulls haven't ranked higher than 89th nationally in passing offense, 112th in total offense and 108th in scoring offense. UB currently is 114th in passing offense, 116th in total offense and 117th in scoring offense. The Bulls haven't scored a touchdown in their last four games dating to last season and haven't thrown a touchdown pass since Nov. 6 against Kent State, a stretch of five games. During the last 15 games, UB's quarterbacks have thrown 11 touchdowns.
What's puzzling is Hofher's background has a heavy emphasis on quarterback development. He's been a quarterback coach at Miami (Ohio), Tennessee, North Carolina and Syracuse, where he tutored such names as Ronald Curry, Oscar Davenport and Andy Kelly. He started at quarterback for Cornell from 1976-78 under George Seifert for one season and Bob Blackman for two.
But Hofher has learned that nothing is more difficult than unearthing a nugget at quarterback, much less developing him into a serviceable player.
Since Hofher became coach in late 2000, he's made a play for Omar Jacobs, who signed with Bowling Green, UNLV's Jarrod Jackson and Williamsville North's Dan Gronkowski, who is playing tight end at Maryland.
Others signed with UB and left the program. Mike Radon transferred after saying he didn't want to be part of a two-quarterback system. Piskorik and Datwan Hemingway were academic casualties. Radon, whose last play at UB was a touchdown pass, would have likely started the past two seasons. Sampsel, who struggled through the first two starts of his career this season, showed promise in the third two weeks ago against Rutgers before he was slammed to the turf and broke his collarbone. He's likely out for the season. Moore has been hindered by shoulder problems.
While Freedy will never be confused with Ben Roethlisberger or Byron Leftwich, he was functional in comparison to the players who have followed. In his senior season in 2001, Hofher's first season in the program, Freedy was 187 of 371 for 2,077 yards, 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, and the Bulls went 3-8, their best record in Division I-A. No one has equaled Freedy's numbers over the last three seasons, and the Bulls are 4-34 since 2001.
It would be unfair to base the record solely on the quarterback. For example, UB hasn't had a game-breaking receiver since Andre Forde in 2002, and the defense was among the nation's worst in '02 and '03.
"You have to have people around him, too," Hofher said. "The best UB's had around has been Drew (Haddad). . . . I'm not going to say, 'Geez this is exactly how I expected it,' or how frustrating or disappointing it is. It is what it is."
Perhaps the run of interim quarterbacks stops with Willy. He considered Syracuse, Illinois and Pittsburgh before coaching changes forced him to look elsewhere and he landed at UB. Willy is arguably the best quarterback the staff has ever signed.
"Time will tell if he's the most capable of any of the young guys who have come through," Hofher said.
They don't need Willy to play like Roethlisberger or Leftwich, just a little like Freedy.