A team that has struggled to craft an identity took a huge step toward determining its bowl fortunes Tuesday night. On a cold, windy evening James Starks rushed for a season-high 185 yards and two touchdowns and the University at Buffalo defense forced five Ohio University turnovers.
That helped UB sprint to a big lead it never relinquished in a 32-19 victory over the Bobcats on Tuesday night, the first of five critical Mid-American Conference games to end the regular season. It was the first win for the Bulls at Peden Stadium since joining the MAC in 1999.
The Bulls pulled into a tie with Akron in the MAC's East Division at 2-2, while Ohio fell into last place at 1-4. UB coach Turner Gill is now 2-1 against Frank Solich, the former Nebraska coach under whom Gill worked with the Cornhuskers from 1998 to '03.
"Overall," Gill said, "this is one of the best games that we've played."
Whenever UB needed a big play, it looked to its running game, which has been a major disappointment all season. The Bulls entered Tuesday night's game ranked 10th in the MAC in rushing at 114.7 yards a game, but that is largely because Starks hasn't been healthy for most of the season.
"It was kind of hard to sit there and watch them play against Army, not being there," said Starks, the former Niagara Falls star who missed the Bulls' last game with turf toe. "I went to treatment five times a day to try to get back in there and practiced hard. I felt some [pain] but I fought through it; that's what I had to do."
Starks combined with sophomore tailback Brandon Thermilus for 258 yards and the Bulls finished with 279 yards rushing, an average of 6.2 yards a pop. Thermilus had the longest run of the night, a 39-yard run which led to a 3-yard TD run by Thermilus that gave the Bulls a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.
"That's what I was looking for, that's what we are capable of doing," Gill said. "The offensive line answered the bell. Obviously James Starks made some great runs but the offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage."
Ohio cut a 24-7 deficit to seven in the fourth quarter after a back-in-the-end-zone touchdown reception by Riley Dunlop with 8:41 left in the game but Starks turned the momentum on one play. On third down, the junior tailback sped past the defense for a 52-yard TD. The run gave Starks his ninth 100-yard game of his career.
"I had a little crease and from there it was a foot race," Starks said.
Before the run senior fullback Chris Scharon, who threw the key block on the play, came up to Gill and said, "Coach, I can block their [middle] linebacker."
Said Gill, "After that, it's James one-on-one with the safety and every once in a while he can make a cut and make a guy miss and that's what happened."
Quarterback Drew Willy completed 14 of 23 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. Willy provided an immediate response to Ohio's only score of the first half with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Naaman Roosevelt (St. Joe's) and gave the Bulls a 21-7 lead. His performance was particularly crucial because he rebounded from an uneven performance in the Bulls' last game against Army.
UB (4-4 overall) became the first MAC East Division team to win back-to-back games this season before an announced crowd of 10,042 at Peden Stadium, all of whom braved chilly conditions and rain throughout the evening.
Tuesday night's critical drive came on the opening possession. UB won the toss and elected to take the ball to start the game. The Bulls gave the ball to Starks on four of the drive's six snaps but the biggest play was Willy's quarterback sneak that went for 25 yards. The drive went 64 yards in 2 minutes 32 seconds for a 7-0 lead.
The drive was kept alive because Ohio safety Michael Mitchell delivered a late hit on Willy on third down. Starks finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.
That set the game's tone for the Bulls, who will enter November with a .500 record for the first time in its Division I-A history.