Fifty years ago, halfback Willie Evans and the 1958 Buffalo Bulls football team had to turn down a bowl-bid to the Tangerine Bowl, leading the program into a downward spiral that would haunt the school well into the next millennium.
Half a century later, the Bulls are finally stampeding into the spotlight.
After an improbable 42-24 victory in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship game against then-No. 12 Ball State, the Bulls (8-5) are finally going to their first bowl game on their own terms. On Jan. 3, the Bulls will faceoff against Connecticut (7-5) in the International Bowl, held at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
"I'm just proud," said Buffalo head coach Turner Gill. "We came to a program where there wasn't a lot of hope or expectations. We came together as a unit and that's why this football team is successful."
After losing four of their first six games, the Bulls erupted with a five-game winning streak, beginning with a 27-24 overtime victory against Army. Following were key victories against Akron and Bowling Green, putting the Bulls in their first ever championship game.
"Nobody probably outside of our locker room, our administration and our fans thought we could do this," said Buffalo senior quarterback Drew Willy. "It just feels awesome to know that we are MAC champions."
The Bulls are led by a trio of athletes that are helping the team gain national attention.
Willy has thrown for 3,091 yards, 25 touchdowns and five interceptions heading into the bowl game, while throwing 13 touchdown passes and only one interception in his last seven games.
Junior wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt has been Willy’s go-to-guy throughout the season. He has had 96 receptions for 1,312 yards, earning 13 touchdowns in the process. He is currently ranked eighth in the nation in receiving yards.
For Roosevelt, knowing that his team has won a MAC Championship as well as heading to the International Bowl is something he is still trying to process.
“It's a crazy feeling,” he said. “It's unbelievable.”
Junior running back James Starks has been a monster on the ground, rushing for 1,308 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns. He is currently ranked eighth in the nation in rushing, a statistic which is one reason why the Bulls are playing their first football game ever in the month of January.
"It was, 'UB doesn't win, blah, blah blah.' It was real bad," Starks said. "Now I can talk to those people and say, 'Hey, look at what we did."
While Starks is climbing the national rankings, Huskies running back Donald Brown has singlehandedly been the factor in Connecticut’s offense. The nation’s leading rusher leads the FBS with 1,822 rushing yards and has scored 17 touchdowns throughout the season.
While the International Bowl has yet to be played, Brown is already thinking to the future, announcing he will return to Connecticut for his senior year in hopes to fulfill a dream he has.
“My goal is to go to the Orange Bowl,” Brown said. “That's what I want to do, and next year will be my last shot."
Brown will more than likely carry the offense on his shoulders against the Bulls. Buffalo is ranked 83rd in the nation in rush defense, allowing 158.8 yards per game. Currently, quarterbacks Tyler Lorenzen and Zach Frazer have struggled, combining for only four touchdowns and 14 interceptions throughout the year.
The Huskies trip to Toronto will be the first time in their history that they have earned bowl games in consecutive seasons since joining Division-IA. Because of this, head coach Randy Edsall believes that it only shows how hard his athletes are working.
"For the overall good of the program, it's a significant step to be in back-to-back bowls," Edsall said. "I just want to give the kids a lot of credit for doing what they've done."
Kickoff from the Rogers Centre takes place at noon.