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UB seeks to take step toward bowl

Has there ever been a sports term that’s takes the word “average” and spins it into silk like the phrase “bowl-eligible?”

College football offers up 35 postseason games. Seventy out of 126 teams will participate. All it takes to qualify is six wins, which equates to a .500 record. When it comes to bowls, college football grades on a sprawling curve, affording many the opportunity to empty their athletic piggy banks for the privilege of playing a sponsor-titled TV game in some obscure location.

And yet the compound word “bowl-eligible” is employed as a rallying cry in many a program, particularly those that have failed of late to make the grade. “ For the less fortunate “bowl-eligible” suggests “significant progress” – Look, ma, we’re bowl-eligible! – even though in many cases the report card boasts straight C’s.

Bowl eligibility has become an annual centerpiece of conversation in the halls of UB Stadium and there’s no refuting that achieving it would represent significant progress. The Bulls made their only modern-day bowl appearance in their Mid-American Conference championship season of 2008. They have won just 10 games under fourth-year coach Jeff Quinn, four of those against FCS competition. Toss in a current season that’s had road trips to Ohio State and Baylor, and basically the Bulls have been reduced to 10 winnable games and bowl-eligibility equates to no worse than 6-4. That’s a major step forward.

UB’s 1-2, right where it figured to be given the circumstances. Now comes the up-for-grabs part of the schedule, a nine-game test that begins, coincidentally, today with a non-conference matchup against UConn, UB’s opponent in the 2008 season’s International Bowl.

“I think it’s going to be a tremendous matchup for us to see where we are at at this point,” said UB head coach Jeff Quinn. “We set a lot of goals in our program and this game’s an important one for us to achieve that.”

What he means, of course, is that every win takes UB closer to its goal of becoming bowl-eligible, while every defeat reduces the margin for error the rest of the way. The Bulls can accomplish their goal of being bowl-qualified simply by winning their five remaining home games.

“We got to take care of business this Saturday without a doubt,” Quinn said. “We talk about our team’s mentality and its focus being a bowl-eligible football team and if you take care of every game at home and you take care of at least 50 percent down the road you’re going to be right where you want to be down the stretch. And this one’s a big one.”

This is not the same caliber of UConn team UB’s faced in the recent past. The Huskies (0-3) are struggling on the offensive line, allowing 15 sacks and ranking among the least productive run teams in the nation. What they have, however, is a relatively experienced quarterback in junior Chandler Whitmer and a pair of tall, physical wideouts in Geremy Davis (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and Shakim Phillips (6-2, 209). However, a hamstring injury kept Phillips out of last week’s near-upset of Michigan and his participation today is up in the air.

“Guys who are bigger normally know how to use their bodies well and know how to box you out on certain plays,” said UB cornerback Najja Johnson. “They’re more physical guys but at the same time, we’re going to be ready to play football. It doesn’t matter how big they are. But size is definitely an advantage.”

UB also will be looking to get it going on the offensive side of the ball. The Bulls rank 102nd in the country in scoring and, like UConn, have struggled to sustain a running game. They may have turned the corner in the second half against Stony Brook, when backup Anthone Thomas found room and finished with 118 yards. He’ll give way this week to starter Branden Oliver, who’s back after missing the Stony Brook game with a knee issue.

“It’s going to be a physical, four-quarter battle,” Quinn said. “We know that. And the team that responds is going to come out of this one victorious.”