Lost behind in the rubble last week in a record-setting defeat to Western Michigan was a ceremony that included a blue-and-white shovel, complete with a University at Buffalo logo, marking the start of construction on the $18 million indoor practice facility and signaling better days ahead for the football program.
A section of bleachers on the scoreboard side of UB Stadium, which had remained empty for years, was reduced to a pile of scrap metal Saturday before the Bulls' game against Northern Illinois. More demolition is necessary before real progress is made on the 90,000-square-foot Murchie Fieldhouse.
UB coach Lance Leipold couldn't overlook the obvious parallel between his football team and the long-awaited project. UB was solid in his first year with Jeff Quinn's recruits before taking a step backward last season. What once appeared to be an unsightly mess was actually a work in progress.
"It's exciting," Leipold said. "It's much like this program. It's still under construction, but it's great seeing how things changed and how things are going. I want to thank our athletic administration because I wear them out. … Hopefully, we'll be on a more level playing field. That's all we've asked for. We're not asking for 'better' than what everybody else has in our league. We just want to be on par with them."
Incremental signs of improvement often go undetected, but there was evidence supporting Leipold's argument even in defeat. It was obvious for the second straight week, this time in a 14-13 loss to Northern Illinois, that Buffalo can play with anybody. UB played well enough to beat a very good team Saturday.
The Bulls in the past two weeks have lost two games by a total of four points. One came against Western Michigan, which played in the Cotton Bowl last season. The other was to Northern Illinois, which had an easier time taking down Nebraska on the road than it did before another sparse crowd at UB Stadium.
How does that pass for progress?
Last season, UB was a train wreck while finishing 2-10. Their losses included a 44-7 pummeling by Northern Illinois and a 38-0 smackdown by Western Michigan. The Bulls could have beaten either team in the past two weeks with backup quarterbacks, and some would argue they should have won both. UB is the only team in the nation with a 6-0 record against the spread.
"We're close," Leipold said. "These are the top teams in recent history for the most part, and we're showing we can line up for four quarters – four quarters-plus – and play with these teams. It says a lot about how far we have come, yet we're not there yet to finish. That's my responsibility, to find a way to get that done."
Drew Anderson, who threw for a Mid-American Conference-record 597 yards and seven touchdowns in the epic 71-68 loss last weekend to Western, suffered a shoulder injury after getting drilled by Sutton Smith in the second quarter. Leipold had the unenviable task of handing his offense to true freshman Kyle Vantrease.
Anderson proved himself a capable quarterback while making his third start for Tyree Jackson, who has been sidelined with a sprained knee suffered since a 34-31 win over Florida Atlantic in the fourth game. Anderson was just starting to move the offense Saturday when he was walloped by Smith.
Vantrease, an all-state player in Ohio who graduated a semester early from high school and enrolled at UB in January, participated in spring practices. He unexpectedly was tossed into his first Division I game against the best defense in the conference and fared well under the circumstances.
He completed 8 of 16 passes for 153 yards and one interception. He completed a 47-yard pass to wideout Anthony Johnson and was sacked three times. Nobody knows for sure whether UB would have beaten Northern with Anderson or Jackson, but common sense says the Bulls would have improved their chances.
"Obviously, because it was a new experience, I was a little nervous for the first couple plays," Vantrease said. "You get out there, and it's just football. Nothing too major, but I just have to get more comfortable. I'll practice with the (first team) and see where it goes from there. I'm expecting to be firing on all cylinders."
UB was held to one touchdown, but overall it has been more exciting this season than any time in recent memory. The Bulls were coming off the greatest game on any level in the history of the university. The defense gave up touchdowns on consecutive possessions in the second quarter but otherwise pitched a shutout.
Johnson had another good game with seven receptions for 140 yards. The 6-foot-2, 207-pound junior with 4.4 speed in the 40 could be the best receiver in Buffalo, and that includes anyone playing for the Bills. Ludicrous, you say? Many had the same response when Khalil Mack played for UB and a similar claim was made. But it was true.
Indeed, there are signs.
Perhaps, people will notice someday.
UB wasn't expecting a big crowd Saturday, but there were only about 2,500 in the stands after their fireworks display the previous week. No kidding, there may have been more fans who attended a cross-country invitational at Alden High on Saturday morning than were sitting behind the Buffalo bench in the afternoon.
They missed another competitive game before UB fell short, again, in the end. Buffalo is 3-4 overall after losing close games to two of the better teams in the conference. If they can get healthy at quarterback, they're capable of running the table.
Like the pile of junk where bleachers once stood, the Bulls aren’t as bad as they look.
"We're finding ways to battle," Leipold said. "I can't be more proud of where we're at but, and we keep saying this, you can't keep coming in here and talking about moral victories. I still say after seven (games) that our body of work is very solid compared to where we were last year. Now, we have to find a way. We will – or we'll die trying."