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Temple game started UB resurgence

PHILADELPHIA -- The details remain clear-cut. There have been so many victories, so many celebrated times forced in between that exhilarating day and the first anniversary that slipped by.

There was the narrow win against Army and the first win over Miami (Ohio). The showdown at defending Mid-American Conference champion Central Michigan and, of course, Ball State, the one that brought home the league title. But the triumph that started it all, the one that gave the team conviction and helped change the downbeat perception of University at Buffalo football was the last-second, 35-yard Hail Mary pass from Drew Willy to Naaman Roosevelt that lifted the Bulls over Temple.

UB and Temple open conference play at noon today at Lincoln Financial Field.

"That victory was a turning point for the program," said senior safety Mike Newton. "That game helped us win the MAC championship. When it came down late in the season, it was a very important win."

If it didn't turn around the program, the Bulls' 30-28 win proved it had changed. The standard, the expectations had been elevated.

Before the championship, before all the awards and accolades, the Bulls began conference play with a pulsating, last-second win and ever since that Sept. 13, 2008 victory, they considered only a championship good enough.

"That was the first thing that blew the program up," Roosevelt said. "That was the big first step for us."

But the transformation of the Bulls did not begin with the win against the Owls. That is when the change became public and palpable.

The Bulls changed the season before when events altered the team into champions-in-waiting, and a program into one that would accept nothing less.

The previous season, Turner Gill's second as coach, the Bulls won a share of the East Division title. They finished the regular season 5-3 in league play, a run that raised expectations. But they finished 5-7 overall and were left out of bowl consideration after late-season losses on the road to Miami and at home to Bowling Green, leaving them hungry for more and determined to carry the season into December and January.

"Bowl or bust," quarterback Drew Willy said before the season.

The year began with promise. A blowout victory over Texas-El Paso was followed by a strong showing in a loss at Pittsburgh. Next came Temple, which UB welcomed into the MAC the season before with a 42-7 thumping on the road. The Owls played the entire afternoon like they remembered what happened that afternoon in Philadelphia.

A field goal by A.J. Principe with 2:27 left gave UB a 24-21 lead but the Owls weren't finished. They responded by driving 74 yards in nine plays and taking the lead with 38 seconds left on a touchdown pass from Adam DiMichele to Bruce Francis. The Temple sideline erupted. Finally, it appeared, a win over Buffalo.

"At that moment, I was disappointed, especially with the defense because we had just given up a score," Newton said. "The offense had done such a good job so there was a lot of disappointment."

Said cornerback Domonic Cook, "I looked at the scoreboard -- that was kind of tough."

On the UB sideline, the offense gathered in a tight circle. A blue and white storm was brewing with Willy in the eye.

"We are going to score," he said. "Let's go ahead and do this."

The Bulls caught a break when the drive started on the UB 40 because the kickoff went out of bounds. Willy threw two incompletions intended for Brett Hamlin but on the second, Temple was called for defensive holding, moving the ball to the 50.

Willy completed a 20-yard pass to Roosevelt to the Temple 30, then spiked the ball to stop the clock. After another incompletion, Willy hit Gary Rice for 11 yards to the Temple 19. Wait a minute. The play was wiped out because of illegal motion on the Bulls' Brandon Thermilus. Third-and-15 from the Temple 35. Five seconds. Time for one play.

Willy was in the shotgun with Hamlin, Ernest Jackson and Roosevelt to his right. He took the snap, immediately rolled to the right hash mark, planted and let fly. The recipient of the pass in the end zone was Roosevelt in front of three Temple defenders.

"It was a crazy play," Roosevelt said. "When I got down to the end zone, it felt like 20 people were down there but when I went up in the air it was like me by myself. It was pretty crazy."

Owls coach Al Golden later told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Roosevelt, "caught it like a punt. That's how bad it was defended."

"It was a play that we practiced, but it's something that you don't find too often in college football," Newton said. "To be part of something like that is something special."

Five more last-second or overtime games followed. The Bulls won two games in a combined six overtimes on the road, and although they would eventually lose to Connecticut in the International Bowl, the Bulls made a statement that things had changed.

Asked to reflect on last year's game, Gill true to his nature, said, "What's happened in the past, happened in the past. It has no reflection on this year's game. There's different people playing in some spots and that's what makes every season a unique deal."

Indeed, there's a different culture at UB. It all started with a win over Temple.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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