AMHERST, N.Y. – Lance Leipold knew long before leaving the sidelines Saturday that the University at Buffalo lost more than a football game. The non-conference defeat to Army meant little in the grand scheme of football and could easily be pushed aside.
Saturday offered something special for UB. Junior wide receiver K.J. Osborn told his coach as much when they stepped off the bus and walked into UB Stadium together two hours before the game. There was a heightened sense of excitement and anticipation.
"Coach, we come a long way, haven't we?" Osborn said to Leipold.
Indeed, the program has come a long way in the 19 years since it made the ambitious leap to Division I. The Army game was a chance to validate UB's start and sell college football in a market that had been slow to embrace the program.
The Bulls had raised their voice and gained momentum with four wins to open the season, including road victories over Temple and Rutgers. Buffalo football fans listened. They climbed aboard UB's bandwagon with the Bulls inching toward the national landscape.
One benefit of playing in an NFL-crazed football town like Buffalo is their cavalier attitude toward the college game. It worked in UB's favor Saturday. Many fans didn’t realize Temple was having a down year in the American Athletic Conference or that Rutgers is the worst team in the Big 10 by fair margin.
It didn’t matter to them, either. What did matter was UB beating teams from better conferences. People noticed when Buffalo received votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, a connection to big-time college football. It was enough to pull casual fans from their couches and join the fun at UB Stadium.
Army showed it was no pushover. The Black Knights, who held the ball for nearly 45 minutes in an overtime loss to Oklahoma last week, ran their signature ball-control offense in a 42-13 victory over Buffalo and quieted 23,671 fans who sensed success and were eager for more.
"The [players] see it, and they're disappointed," Leipold said. "You worry about a matchup. It's not one where it's a college football game, and it's a shootout, and that's the one that brings them back. But it was a heck of a crowd. "Shoot, there were more people sitting in the end zone than sat in the end zone, combined, in the last three years."
The crowd was the fifth-largest in UB history and the largest in years. Buffalo announces tickets sold rather than actual attendance, presumably because so few bodies were inside the stadium for most games in recent years. They typically drew a few thousand.
It wasn’t the case Saturday.
On a sunny day with temperatures in the high 50s – perfect football weather – the 29,013-seat stadium was almost full and full of energy. Traffic was jammed an hour before the game. Buzz from the pregame tailgate could be heard a quarter-mile away.
It felt like Division I football in Buffalo, for a change. The only thing missing was UB’s dangerous passing game. Star wideout Anthony Johnson was limited to only a few plays while nursing a sore hamstring, and Tyree Jackson was off target for much of the game.
Would the outcome been different if Johnson played, allowing Osborn to avoid the attention devoted to UB's best receiver? Did that affect Jackson's timing in what became his worst game this year? Maybe, but it had little impact on Army converting nine of 13 on third down.
UB couldn’t have asked for a better start. Osborn took a screen pass from Jackson and ran for a 53-yard touchdown on the fourth play from scrimmage. Army scored three straight touchdowns, including a blocked field goal that was returned 80 yards for a score.
Buffalo answered in the third quarter when Kevin Marks scored from the 1, but Army continued to flex its muscles. Kelvin Hopkins Jr., found Jordan Asberry for a 23-yard TD, and Darnell Woolfolk gave Army a 35-13 lead in the fourth quarter when scored from the 2.
The loss Saturday made little difference for either team in the grand scheme. Barring an implosion in conference play, UB will win enough games to become bowl eligible for a second straight season and should contend for a conference title.
In the big picture, what mattered most Saturday was the atmosphere and the chance UB had to bring people back to the stadium. The upper decks of the stadium and bleachers, typically empty save a few exceptions in recent years, were bustling with fans. They saw an entertaining, albeit lopsided, game.
"It's where I feel bad," Leipold said. "I feel bad for the people that came. I feel bad for our loyal fans and the alumni that came back. All things that we've been climbing towards, we did not give that full view of what this team has been and what we've been doing. That's disappointing."
UB has star players at skill positions. Allow me to repeat: Johnson is the best receiver in Buffalo, including anybody playing for the Bills. The Bulls could have used him Saturday, but he checked into the lineup only for a few plays with UB around the goal line in the third quarter.
Jackson entered the game with 15 touchdown passes and three interceptions while playing behind an offensive line that had yet to allow a sack. He was off-target Saturday, threw eight straight incompletions at one point and finished 10 of 24 for 152 yards and the one touchdown.
Buffalo is still off to its best start since making the jump to D-I. It was apparent at the time, and obvious now, that the Bulls for years were unprepared and ill-equipped to compete at the D-I level, but that changed this season.
Every athletic director and the people working under them, from the top lieutenants to the grunts on the ground, contributed to the greater cause, chipping away with whatever they had to offer while nudging the football program toward respectability.
By no means does the strong start this season announce the arrival of UB football. It was evident Saturday that there’s much ahead to build a consistent winner in a cyclical conference. In fact, the Bulls could take a step backward next season.
For one Saturday afternoon, however, and more to come this season, UB was allowed to bask in its success before getting into the meat of their conference schedule. For a single day, it felt like the college football game dreamers from days long past had always envisioned.
So when we’re talking about wins and losses, what happened on the field was only a fraction of the total equation. UB Stadium, for years inhabited by more empty seats than devout fans, devoid of charm and enthusiasm, suddenly came alive.
The fans responded.
How many will return?