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Published: Wednesday, 11/13/2013

ROCKETS NOTEBOOK

Buffalo’s rise no surprise to UT coach

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Buffalo’s Branden Oliver is stopped by UT defensive end Christian Smith. Buffalo’s Branden Oliver is stopped by UT defensive end Christian Smith.
BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

Winners of seven in a row entering Tuesday night, Buffalo’s charmed rise is perhaps the biggest surprise in the Mid-American Conference.

At least one coach, though, claims he saw it coming. Toledo’s Matt Campbell, whose team hosted the Bulls at the Glass Bowl, says he knew something special was brewing in western New York last season after the Rockets escaped UB Stadium with a 25-20 win.

Buffalo responded from that late October defeat with three wins in its final four games to finish 4-8 and earn coach Jeff Quinn a contract extension.

“We felt like leaving there that day that this was a really good Buffalo football team,” Campbell said, “and they proved us right.”

After early-season losses to current unbeatens Ohio State and Baylor, Buffalo has cemented itself as a MAC title contender with one dominant win after another. All of its five league victories came by 20 points or more, including a 30-3 triumph over Ohio last week that punctured the Bobcats’ title hopes.

Buffalo, a perennial MAC bottom feeder, headed into the evening seeking its sixth MAC win for the first time in program history. The Bulls’ last good season came in 2008 when they rode the wave of several comeback wins to win the East before upsetting Ball State in the title game.

“I’m very impressed how they bought into the program and what Coach Quinn is coaching over there,” said Toledo running back David Fluellen, who grew up in the shadows of Buffalo and was once committed to play for the Bulls. “They’re really buying into each other and wanting to make a difference and make a change and give Buffalo something to talk about.”

Two seniors have fueled Buffalo’s resurgence. Running back Branden Oliver ranks atop the program’s career rushing list with 3,637 yards.

This year he ranks fifth in the nation in yards per game with 140.3.

Linebacker Khalil Mack, a prohibitive favorite to win league defensive player of the year honors, is projected to be an early-round selection in the NFL draft. Mack leads the league with nine sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.

Eight NFL scouts representing six NFL teams had seats in the press box, with many presumably there to get a closer look at the 6-foot-3, 248-pound Mack. Among the visitors was Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim.

“He’s a hard guy to block because he does a great job with his hands getting off blocks,” Campbell said of Mack.

“Then when he’s able to get off those blocks he’s such a sure tackler it’s made him a dominant football player.”

THE OTHER GAME: Tuesday’s game was an appetizer to today’s clash in DeKalb, Ill. Ball State (9-1, 6-0) and No. 20 Northern Illinois (9-0, 5-0) battle for the lead in the MAC West in a match up featuring two MAC player of the year candidates, quarterbacks Jordan Lynch (NIU) and Keith Wenning (BSU). Kickoff is at 8 p.m. and the game can be seen on ESPN2. Toledo is pulling hard for Northern Illinois to win and keep alive the possibility of a three-way tie in the division. The Rockets, who will hold the tiebreaker in that scenario, host NIU next Wednesday before wrapping up the regular season nine days later at Akron.

HEALTH REPORT: Three of the five Toledo starters who missed the Eastern Michigan game 10 days earlier returned to action. Defensive tackle Orion Jones, who missed two straight games with a concussion did not start but played early. Ross Madison, who was out the previous two contests with a sprained knee, started, as did fullback Zac Rosenbauer. Out for the second game in a row was Fluellen with a lower leg injury. Reserve safety Jordan Haden saw action in his second game of the year, appearing on special teams. Haden, who sustained a collarbone injury in the preseason, had a setback in the Sept. 28 Ball State game.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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