NCF Nation: Drew Willy

Jan 3., noon, (ESPN2)

Connecticut take by Brian Bennett: Connecticut will play in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history, but the Huskies aren't exactly streaking into the postseason.

They ended the season with two straight losses and dropped five of their final seven games after a 5-0 start. Uncharacteristic problems with turnovers and on special teams plagued the Huskies the second half of the year. Even with the return of senior quarterback Tyler Lorenzen from a midseason broken foot, the UConn passing game has been awful. Receivers have dropped throws and Lorenzen and his backups have been far too careless with the ball.

Buffalo has actually fared slightly better against the teams' two common opponents, losing to Pittsburgh by 11 and beating Temple by two. The Huskies fell to the Panthers by 24 at home in the season finale and nipped Temple by three in overtime.

Still, UConn hopes to have star cornerback Darius Butler (knee) back in time for the bowl. And Buffalo will have to find an answer for Donald Brown, the nation's leading rusher who can surpass 2,000 yards with a slightly above-average performance in Toronto.

Buffalo has its own star rusher in James Starks, who ran for 1,308 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. And the Bulls' offense is far more balanced, as quarterback Drew Willy had 3,091 yards passing and 25 touchdowns.


Buffalo take by non-BCS blogger Graham Watson: Buffalo is a team of destiny, according to quarterback Drew Willy, and after the Bulls' improbable win over Ball State in the Mid-American Conference championship game, it's hard to argue the point.

Buffalo is one of the more diverse offenses in the MAC. Willy, receiver Naaman Roosevelt and running back James Starks are all record-setting performers this season. Roosevelt has five consecutive 100-yard games heading into the International Bowl.

Willy, who as thrown for more than 3,000 yards this season, is a four-year starter and is smart with the football. The Bulls like to utilize speed out of the backfield with screens to Starks and even Roosevelt. Starks and fellow running back Brandon Thermilus are both power backs that like to run between the tackles and over their defenders.

The Buffalo defense hadn't been all that dangerous until last Friday and has really struggled against the run. That will need to be shored up before going against the nation's best rusher in UConn's Donald Brown.

Connecticut will be the toughest defense the Bulls will face this season. The Huskies are 10th in the country in total defense (281.42 yards per game) and seventh in the country against the pass (164.50 yards per game). They haven't given up more than 259 passing yards in any game this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
 
 Michael Sackett/US Presswire
 The Buffalo Bulls are 15-22 under coach Turner Gill.

DETROIT -- As Buffalo players gathered in the middle of the field after their 42-24 win over Ball State in the Mid-American Conference Championship game, Willie Evans stood on the sideline, hands in his pockets, taking it all in.

Evans was one of two African-American players on the 1958 Buffalo team that declined a bowl invitation because the bowl wouldn't let integrated teams play. It was the only bowl invite the Bulls ever received and the only semblance of a championship they'd ever won.

So as Evans stood on the sideline, he was filled with pride as his alma mater achieved a goal that was 50 years overdue.

"Unbelievable, remarkable and all the other possible adjectives you can think of," Evans said. "To see these young men work so hard and see them come through with a win is just great. You can't imagine what this is doing for the University and the Buffalo community."

In the midst of the chaos, Buffalo athletic director Warde Manuel couldn't contain his emotion either. His eyes welled up with tears as he hugged every player, manager, coach and member of the 1958 team within arms reach. The emotion was not just from pride in his program, but from the fact that for so long Buffalo had been the doormat of the NCAA.

Entering this year, the Bulls were 13-59 in MAC play, the worst winning percentage of any school in the conference, and 17-86 overall as a member of the MAC.

The Bulls' eight wins this year (8-5) is the team's most wins since becoming an FBS program The Bulls are 15-22 under Turner Gill, but were 10-69 in their previous seven years of FBS football.

"So many people told us we couldn't do it, told us not to come [to Buffalo], told [coach] Turner [Gill] not to come and just the belief of the kids and the community and the university and to be where we are today is just overwhelming," Manuel said. "I thought it would take a little bit longer, but Turner is the best person, the best coach, the best motivator, the best leader, one of the best I've ever been around. What he's done with these kids, we were told we couldn't do it here."

After Friday's game, representatives from the International Bowl offered an invitation to the Bulls to their Jan. 3 game, which they accepted. Manuel said the entire 1958 team, several members of which have been around the program most of the year, will also get complimentary trips to Toronto to play the representative from the Big East.

"The president and I have decided that the 1958 team will have a bowl experience, and they will be coming with us and we will have them with us, as many of them that want to come, to Toronto for the International Bowl," Manuel said. "They're a part of it. It's great to do it on the 50th anniversary and we look forward to them finally having, after 50 years, the bowl experience they rightly deserve."

Quarterback Drew Willy, a senior who was the freshman starting quarterback when the Bulls were 1-10 in 2005, hugged Evans and the two shared a laugh and some kind words. Willy hugged Manuel, who looked like he didn't want to let him go, and Willy hugged his fellow seniors -- guys who had toiled through one and two-win seasons to have this one moment in the middle of Ford Field to the sound of about 5,000 chanting fans.

He said Thursday he thought all along that Buffalo was a team of destiny. That destiny smiled on the Bulls yet again.

"All the overtimes, all the late heroics, I think someone up above was looking out for us," Willy said. "I think we're a team of destiny. This is what we came here for. My class, we came here to turn it around. When you've got a man like coach Turner Gill, everything is possible. We were 1-10 my freshman year and to go out a MAC champion is something I can truly cherish."

And then there was Gill, the coach who took on the task of turning around a hopeless team and doing so in a short amount of time. Gill was lost in the sea of blue and white after the game, but when he finally reached the interview room, he let out a big "Wooo!"

"Great feeling, great feeling," Gill said "Proud of these guys. Proud of these student-athletes. They understand love. They understand faith. They understand belief. They understand family. This is what this program is today. It's what it's going to be also tomorrow."

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

DETROIT -- The perfect season is in some serious jeopardy.

Buffalo returned two fumbles for touchdowns to take a 28-17 lead into the fourth quarter. The two fumble recoveries for touchdowns ties an NCAA record set by USC in 2003.

And early it looked like Ball State was going to take a 10-point lead.

It started with James Starks fumbling his second ball of the game. Ball State took its drive to the 2-yard line before Ball State quarterback Nate Davis tried to do his best Sam Bradford flying-through-the-air-at-the-goal-line impression and fumbled the ball. It was picked up Mike Newton and run back 92 yards for a Buffalo touchdown.

On Ball State's next series, Ball State center Dan Gerberry snapped the ball before Davis was ready and it was picked up by cornerback Sherrod Lott and returned 74 yards.

All night there's been something off about Ball State, but it looked there was some semblance of rhythm early in the third quarter. That's gone now, and the Cardinals find themselves in unfamiliar territory, down 11 heading into the fourth quarter. The Cardinals have not faced a fourth-quarter deficit this large this season.

And Buffalo know how to close out game and play to close endings. Buffalo has played in four overtime games this season and is 3-1. It's played three games with point differentials of a field goal or less.

Ball State was in a tight fourth quarter game against Central Michigan and won late. Otherwise, it hasn't had much competition beyond the third quarter.

While I thinking about it, there have been a couple records set during this game:

  • Buffalo quarterback Drew Willy became the first Buffalo quarterback to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season. The threshold was broken on the second touchdown pass to Naaman Roosevelt.
  • Ball State running back MiQuale Lewis set the single-season rushing record when he hit 1,625 in the third quarter. He has over 100 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
  • Ball State receiver Briggs Orsbon has 11 catches, which is a new MAC Championship record.
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

DETROIT -- A week ago, I thought Western Michigan would ruin Ball State's perfect season because of the diversity of the offense and strength of the defense. Obviously, that didn't happen. But as I've watched Buffalo through the first quarter of the MAC Championship, it is playing out the way I thought Western Michigan would a week ago.

The Bulls have been able to successfully move the ball on the ground and in the air and it has been efficient on defense. Nate Davis has had a lot of time to throw, but the coverage has been fantastic. Davis went deep once and he failed to connect.

A fumbled snap between Davis and center Dan Gerberry forced Ball State to turn the ball over at the Ball State 25, which resulted in the only score of the quarter -- a two-yard fade from Drew Willy to Naaman Roosevelt.

The touchdown was huge for Buffalo because the Bulls have proven to themselves that Ball State is not invincible. Had Ball State scored first, this might be a lopsided game.

The only problem for Buffalo has been two key false start penalties, including one on a third-and-9 situation that stopped a potential scoring drive.

Davis hasn't played poorly, but he hasn't been the Davis we've seen most of this season. If he was sick earlier I guess you could blame it on that or nerves, but he'll need to pick it up against an inspired Buffalo team.

The Cardinals started to play better toward the end of the quarter behind some tough and shifty running by tailback MiQuale Lewis and Cory Sykes.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Turner Gill doesn't have some secret coaching mojo.

There are no magic words or special techniques to explain how he turned Buffalo from a 1-10 team when he took over in 2006 to a 6-4 team sitting atop the Mid-American Conference East Division.

All he asked his players to do when he took the job was learn something about each other.

 
 Getty Images
 Turner Gill has his team sitting atop the Mid-American Conference East Division.

It probably seemed like an odd request since a lot of the players had played as true or redshirt freshmen. They'd been around each other a whole year and battled to a 10-6 win over Kent State -- the team's only win in 2005.

But what Gill saw was a team that was familiar, but didn't really know each other. And how could they fight for each other on the football field if they didn't really know for whom they were fighting.

"I had the players stand up in front of our team and share who they are and share their experiences," Gill said. "Through that, we got to know these people in a more deeper way. The more you talk, the more you have a clear, open mind and not already have a predetermined motion of who this person is, why he is the way he is, whether he's rich or poor, whether he's black or he's white, whether he's from New York or he's from Texas or wherever he's from. You find out that there's a lot more in common that you have than differences."

That simple exercise has helped Buffalo to a 6-4 record this season, including a 4-2 mark in conference play to lead the MAC East. It's the best overall record the Bulls have had since going 8-3 in 1996 and the most competitive they've ever been in the MAC. One more win should secure the Bulls' first bowl invitation since 1958.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

1. Upset special: With Southern Cal falling out of the No. 1 spot with a loss to Oregon State on Thursday, No. 2 Oklahoma looks poised to become the leader of the pack. This might be a perfect time for TCU to sneak in the upset.

2. Offensive explosion: Buffalo's Drew Willy and Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour are two of the most prolific quarterbacks in the MAC and when they get together this weekend, both defenses better be on high alert.

3. Catch more, Passmore: If you don't know the name Darius Passmore, you will by the second half of Marshall's game against West Virginia. Passmore leads all receivers in receiving yards per game and should have a field day against WVU's 86th-ranked pass defense.

4. Dominance of the Pac-10: The Mountain West and the WAC have a chance to continue to kick the Pac-10 while it's down. Fresno State will attempt only its second win in the eight times it's met UCLA, and Colorado State will look to extend the Mountain West's streak over the Pac-10 to 6-0 with a win at Cal.

5. Crazy finish: Arkansas State and Memphis have had some crazy finishes the last two seasons and considering the way Memphis' season is going, it wouldn't be surprising to see another one. The Tigers' last two loses have been by a touchdown or fewer.

6. Notre Dame, good or bad?: After its first loss of the season last week, there's no telling how the Irish will play this week when it hosts Purdue. This is one of many winnable games on their schedule, but you never know when thoughts of last year could creep in.

7. Moving on: Ball State played with great emotion after the loss of receiver Dante Love, but a week after his injury, how will the Cardinals respond against Kent State? The Cardinals are already in the midst of one of the best starts in school history and that should continue if they don't get in their own way.

8. Six more touchdowns: Tulsa quarterback David Johnson could throw six more touchdowns when the Golden Hurricane play FCS opponent Central Arkansas. Smith has thrown six touchdowns in each of the last two games -- a C-USA record.

9. Movin' on up: BYU could find itself in the top 10 this week even though it's idle. After Southern Cal's loss to Oregon State, every team below the Trojans figures to move up until the Trojans find their spot. A couple more upsets, which is possible, could put the Cougars in the top 10 for the first time since Dec. 2, 2001.

10. Success story: UNLV has burst onto the scene as a one-team BCS wrecking crew, but what happens when it drops back to non-BCS earth? We'll see this weekend when it meets in-state rival Nevada. Nevada has won each of the last three meetings, but might still be smarting from a thrashing at Missouri two weeks ago.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The ability to sit in the studio gave me the opportunity to watch a lot more football than I usually do when I'm sitting in a stadium watching a game. Heck, even more than when I'm at home and it seems like I forever have some household chore to do.

So, being in Bristol gave me a chance to really watch football. Here are some things I noticed today.

1. Is anybody else surprised that East Carolina struggled before barely escaping New Orleans with a narrow victory over Tulane? How many times have we seen the BCS-buster du jour come up flat after a couple of wins against the big boys? And the Pirates better prepare for it every week as Conference USA play continues.

2. Who needs View-Masters to hype Missouri QB Chase Daniel for the Heisman? After three games, how about 10 touchdowns and one interception. His quarterback efficiency rating has been more than 250 in each of the last two weeks.

3. Injuries for coaches are a miserable time. But doesn't Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis look especially glum after he was leg-whipped by John Ryan along the sidelines late in the first half?

4. Seeing Randy Quaid be such a prominent part of the Syracuse game-day experience today was somehow fitting as the Orange struggled through another disappointing loss. Remember, Quaid used to be "The Grey Ghost." And Syracuse used to be a place where running backs flocked.

5. Best story of the day was the emergence of Florida State WR Corey Surrency, who never played high school football. Surrency made his start playing in flag-football tournaments before going to El Camino Community College. He's simply emerged as Christian Ponder's go-to receiver.

6. Wonder how much moving Houston's game against Air Force to Dallas hurt the Cougars? Air Force jumped to a 31-7 lead before Houston stormed back to pull within 31-28 late. The Cougars have piled up 749 passing yards and 1,017 yards in their last two games. All they have to show for the offensive explosion are two losses.

7. Worst weekend this year goes to the Pac-10 for enduring humiliating losses (Baylor over Washington State, Maryland over California, TCU over Stanford, BYU over UCLA and Oregon's struggles with Purdue). But just like they've said over the last few years, thank goodness for USC.

8. Best finish of the day came at UB Stadium in Buffalo, where the Bulls eked out a narrow 30-28 victory over Temple thanks to a 35-yard pass from Drew Willy to Naaman Roosevelt with no time left. If I'm an athletic director at a struggling BCS school, I'm thinking about giving Buffalo coach Turner Gill a chance.

9. Seeing Michigan State RB Javon Ringer pick up a career-high 43 carries en route to 282 yards brings back memories of when Lorenzo White was toting the rock that much for the Spartans.

10. Sure, Northwestern has only beaten Syracuse, Duke and Southern Illinois this season. But coach Pat Fitzgerald's team has quietly fashioned a 3-0 record and is halfway to bowl eligibility.

SPONSORED HEADLINES