Forget the Result: Buffalo Football Takes Step Forward
KALAMAZOO, MI - NOVEMBER 19: Ishmael Hargrove #16 and Ryan Williamson #26 of the Buffalo Bulls celebrate after recovering a fumble in the second quarter against the Western Michigan Broncos at Waldo Stadium on November 19, 2016 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

For the first time in Lance Leipold’s tenure as head coach of the Buffalo football team, the future looks bright for the Bulls.

For 60 minutes, the Buffalo Bulls gave the Minnesota Golden Gophers all they could handle. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to come out on top.

There were many positives and a few negatives for the 0-1 Bulls, who fell to a PJ Fleck squad for the second consecutive road game. Quarterback Tyree Jackson seems to have finally found a dependable target, and linebacker Khalil Hodge picked up where he left off last season.

But more on both later. In the meantime, let’s get the obvious out of the way: This was a winnable game for the Bulls, who benefited from UMN’s quarterback uncertainty and a coaching change. Lance Leipold’s squad had multiple chances to put up more points.

“As I told our team afterword, we didn’t come here to play for a moral victory or hope to keep it close,” Leipold told Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News following his team’s 17-7 loss. “I am disappointed. We let some opportunities get away from us. We had some opportunities to put more points on the board. We didn’t.”

They didn’t, so ‘woulda, coulda shoulda’ aside, this was a pretty typical game of one team taking advantage of opportunities and the other failing to do so. But it hurts so much more knowing that Buffalo was in it the entire way, but couldn’t come out with the victory.

With losses like this, fans and bloggers alike will look for a scapegoat. In this case, the culprit seems to be junior kicker Adam Mitcheson, who went 0-for-2 on field goals, missing from 40 yards and 33 yards. His sole extra point barely split the uprights.

This is something UB will have to fix in the days ahead. The team’s other kicker, sophomore Michael Cummings, hasn’t appeared in a game before, giving Leipold and special teams coordinator Taiwo Onatolu few options. They’ll have to figure out something, though, as it’s almost impossible to beat quality competition without a legitimate place kicker.

The other blemish on an otherwise solid report is the run defense, which picked up right where it left off—struggling to contain opposing running backs. Minnesota had 169 yards rushing to Buffalo’s 51. UB allowed a school record 253 rushing yards per game last season, so while Thursday night’s results are certainly an improvement, they’re not where they need to be.

But… even with the loss, there’s a lot to like from Buffalo, like QB Jackson’s bond with Anthony Johnson, a 6’2”, 207-pound receiver who transferred as a junior from Iowa Western Community College. The pair connected for 11 completions and 140 yards—as well as the school’s lone score.

And although Jackson’s splits—a 1-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio—look awfully similar to that of last season, there’s reason to believe that he could be taking the next step in his development. The 6’7” gunslinger made some awfully impressive throws and showed off his tremendous right arm. With another year under his belt (remember: he’s just a sophomore), his future looks to be really bright.

The same could be said of Hodge, who racked up a team-leading 20 tackles in his first game as a junior. He was all over the field, both vocally and physically. While the Bulls’ front four struggled, it’s the strong play from the linebackers — Hodge and Jarrett Franklin, to single two out — that should have Bulls fans hopeful for a little bowl run.

“That said, I’m awfully proud of our football team,” Leipold said. “I think we took a big step forward as a program in what we’re hoping to develop as far as playing with a relentless attitude and battling to the end and making it tough on people.”

Justin Weiss is a staff editor at Elite Sports New York, where he covers the New York Islanders and Brooklyn Cyclones. In 2016, he received a Quill Award for Freelance Journalism. He has written for the Long Island Herald, FanSided and YardBarker.