The University of Buffalo football team came to Columbus last year to finish its 2012 football season, losing 21-7 to Bowling Green in a neutral game site at Crew Stadium. The Bulls are returning to Columbus this weekend to kick off their 2013 season, and they aren’t expecting to lose again.
This time around, the Bulls will be playing Ohio State, as the two teams kick off their seasons at Ohio Stadium Saturday at noon. OSU will be starting its campaign for a second consecutive undefeated season under Urban Meyer’s second year as coach, while the Bulls are looking to improve on a 4-8 record from last year.
Although the Buckeyes may be heavily favored to win, the Bulls aren’t backing down from their opponent.
“Our thinking is go in and get a win,” said Buffalo senior linebackerKhalil Mack. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Buckeyes, ranked No. 2 the AP preseason poll, are expected to be among the top contenders for a college football National Championship this season. Sophomore quarterback Joe Licata, however, said the Bulls also come into this game with high expectations.
“They have obviously very high expectations,” Licata said. “They want to play in the National Championship at the end of the year, but we have expectations too, we want to make a bowl game at the end of the year.”
The Buckeyes are the highest-ranked opponent the Bulls have played since 2006, when they suffered a 38-7 loss to then-No. 2 Auburn. That said, Bulls coach Jeff Quinn said his team’s preparation will not change in response to the team’s opponent.
“I prepare our football team the same way each and every week,” Quinn said during the Mid-American Conference coaches’ teleconference Monday. “I don’t think we try to get too far ahead of ourselves. We know we’re playing one of the best football teams in the country.”
If Buffalo is going to pull off the upset, they are going to have to hold Buckeyes junior quarterback and reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller in check.
Quinn first saw Miller play while he was the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati, while Miller was a freshman quarterback at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio.
“Even though he was a young high school freshman, I saw a lot of skills that I hadn’t seen in players that were juniors and seniors at that time,” Quinn said.
Since then, Quinn said Miller has developed into “by far one of the best” players in college football.
“We were the first ones to get in there and get our eyes on it and the more I’ve studied him, the more I think he’s a complete player,” Quinn said. “He can throw the ball, he can run the ball, he manages the offense. He’s making good quality decisions and this team really rallies behind him.”
One of the players most responsible for bringing pressure on Miller will be Mack. A first-team All-MAC selection for the past two years, Mack’s 21 tackles for loss were the seventh-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision last year. He also holds Buffalo school records with 56 tackles for loss and 11 forced fumbles.
Mack said what stands out with the Buckeyes offense is “how well they play together.”
“They have a nice tempo offense,” Mack said. “They move fast, Braxton is fast, they complement each other, they complement his speed with the protection that they use. It’s a very disciplined team all around.”
On the other side of the equation, Meyer has also been impressed by Mack. He said Monday that Mack is the second-best NFL draft prospect among outside linebackers in college football this season, and called him a “tremendous player.”
“(Mack) would start for Ohio State and will be a very good NFL player,” Meyer said during Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference.
The Bulls run a 3-4 defensive scheme, in which they employ Mack as a pass-rusher off the edge from the outside linebacker position. He is expected to match up primarily against Buckeyes redshirt-senior left tackle Jack Mewhort, an NFL prospect in his own right who was named a captain for the Buckeyes earlier this week.
“They got a good defense,” Mewhort said. “They throw some different looks at us and they do some different things, and that’s what we’ve been preparing for, so I’m excited to get out there.”
Mack said he is excited for the opportunity to play against a top team and Mewhort and said he expects to take advantage of it.
“Being able to go against some of the best competition, that’s more than I can ask for,” Mack said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
On the other side of the ball, the Bulls will be led by Licata, who replaced then-junior Alex Zordich as the Bulls’ starting quarterback during the team’s final four games of last season.
In nine total games last season, Licata completed 52.8 percent of his passes for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns, with three interceptions.
Licata wants to prove himself further by leading the Bulls to a win Saturday.
“You don’t go looking to have a moral victory, you go in to look to win the game,” Licata said. “If you have a moral victory, that means you lost the game.”
Even if the Bulls do not win, however, Licata said it is more important that the team feels good about the way they play Saturday.
“We need to just stay confident and keep pushing,” Licata said. “Things are going to go wrong at some point. That’s the game of football, that’s what happens. So when that one thing goes wrong, we can’t let it escalate and turn it two things or three things and get ourselves behind.”
Although the Buckeyes will have eight new starters on their defense Saturday, Licata acknowledged that the Bulls offense will face a tough test.
“I know that they’re very aggressive and they have a lot of great players,” Licata said. “They’re the most athletic team that we’ll face all year probably. There’s a reason why they were undefeated last year, and it started with their defense.”
Licata will need help from some of the key players around him. Those key players include senior running back Branden Oliver, who has 2,514 career rushing yards and 18 career rushing touchdowns and senior wide receiver Alex Neutz, who caught 65 passes for 1,015 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior.
Many of the Bulls are familiar with the Ohio. Thirteen players are natives, including sophomore punter Tyler Grassman, who played at Lincoln High School in Gahanna.
Playing in Ohio Stadium, however, presents a different challenge for the Bulls. At a capacity of 102,329 people, Ohio Stadium is more than three times larger than Buffalo’s home stadium (29,013).
Quinn said it is key for his team to “keep their poise and composure” as they deal with the road environment.
“I know they’re going to be excited about being in that kind of environment,” Quinn said. “The energy is going to be outstanding. How you control and how you respond is going to be a big part of the beginning of that game. Be in the moment, focus on the process, staying very very locked in, trying to block out all that noise and that environment and just play football.”