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Final game at UB Stadium hits home for seniors

Not long ago at practice Matt Simon, University at Buffalo running backs coach, approached Branden Oliver and asked if he knew how many days remained until the end of the season. Oliver admitted he hadn’t been moved to figure it out.

“Thirty-five days,” Simon told him, and the number hit Oliver like a January plunge into Lake Ontario.

Thirty-five days? That’s it? It’s all come down to 35 days?

“I didn’t want to hear that at the time,” Oliver said.

These are bittersweet days for the 21 UB seniors. They’re on a six-game winning streak, the program’s longest since 1959. They’re bowl-eligible and alone in first place in the Mid-American Conference East. Everything they’ve striven for over four years, and in most cases five, is paying off. It was their goal to make this season special and so far, at 6-2 and 4-0, it has been that.

At the same time, as Simon reminded Oliver, the clock is ticking. Tuesday night’s critical ESPN2 matchup with Ohio will be the season’s final game at UB Stadium, the last time players like Oliver and Khalil Mack, Alex Neutz and Fred Lee, Najja Johnson and Colby Way, will play on campus. They endured and fought through the disappointment of 2-10, 3-9, 4-8 and now that the getting’s good the finish line looms.

Earlier this week, Oliver thought about what Simon had said. Then he sent a text message to the team’s senior class. He reminded them of all they had sacrificed to reach a place where their oft-stated goal of winning the MAC lies within their reach.

“Bo talked about this being our last game and that God brought us here for a reason and we’ve got to just continue to work together to make this season what we want it to be,” Lee said. “It’s our last opportunity here at UB Stadium to show everybody what we can do. So hopefully we got a stadium packed with fans.”

“It’s the last one and it came faster than we all thought it could come,” Mack said. “It’s going to be a special day for us. We fought so hard to get to this point and to be able to play your last game fighting for a seven-game win streak is pretty spectacular.”

One has to wonder whether UB might ever again have such formidable talent within one senior class. Oliver is the all-time leader in rushing yards and career 100-yard games. Neutz is two off Naaman Roosevelt’s record for career TD receptions and should finish third in career receptions and career receiving yards. And then there’s Mack, the linebacker who resisted the NFL’s siren call in order to return for another season and get his degree. That decision, and an off-the-charts senior season, has improved his draft stock to where the question is not whether he’ll go in the first round, but how high.

There’s more. Johnson, a cornerback, is four passes defended shy of tying the school record. Way, a defensive end, ranks ninth in career sacks. Lee is having a career year at receiver. The 2008 championship team was loaded with talent spread throughout different classes. The concentration of standout seniors is what makes this group unique.

“I just want to thank God for bringing us together our freshman year,” Oliver said. “This is our last home game at UB Stadium. This game, it means a lot. We just want to go out with a bang but we still got to take it one day at a time.”

Three games remain on UB’s schedule after Tuesday. The Bulls play at Toledo and Miami before concluding the season against Bowling Green, a Black Friday contest that has been moved to Ralph Wilson Stadium in part because UB students are on break. But no one in the UB football complex is looking that far ahead. All the seniors know is that Ohio, a perennial East title contender, is next. The Bobcats are the last team they’ll ever face at UB Stadium. And the outcome will have championship implications.

“It’s really hard to put your mind around it,” Neutz said. “This season’s probably been the most enjoyable. We beat UConn pretty good, we beat Eastern pretty good, just hanging out on the sideline when you’re up in the fourth quarter, just enjoying those times with your teammates and celebrating is something I’ll just never forget.”

“This is what we’ve been talking about,” Oliver said. “The goal’s at the finish. We have to keep working. We’re No. 1 now so everyone’s trying to jump on our backs, so we have to keep working even harder than we’ve been working to get where we need to go.”

“It’s an emotional time because we’ve played four years in this stadium and I’m playing my last one here on a Tuesday night in a nationally televised game,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be emotional, but we want to be victorious. There’s a lot of great memories we’ve had out there and we want to cap it off with another great one, a win over Ohio.”