0

Gill lands Buffalo on football map with bowl berth

TORONTO - For someone accustomed to big games and who won three national titles with Nebraska as an assistant, Buffalo coach Turner Gill was unable to contain his excitement in the days leading up to the International Bowl.

'Hello, ladies and gentlemen! Live at Rogers Centre ...' Gill announced, before breaking into a laugh as his players prepared for practice at the downtown Toronto domed stadium.

Yes, the Bulls have finally arrived, and the irrepressibly upbeat coach wanted to be sure everyone on either side of Lake Ontario heard about it.

Having produced one of the most unlikely turnarounds in college football this season, Gill has the Mid-American Conference champion Bulls (8-5) - a team that won a total of 10 games from 1999 to 2005 - preparing to make their bowl debut against Big East upstart Connecticut (7-5) today.

By national standards, this game is about as far removed as it could be from a BCS title matchup, and as foreign as the Canadian turf it will be played upon.

From the Bulls' perspective, however, it's like the Rose, Orange and Sugar bowls rolled into one because it is the program's first and Gill's first after only three seasons as a first-time head coach.

'This is special,' Gill said. 'It makes for a special unique place in my heart and hopefully a lot of people's hearts because this is a very, very special year for a lot of people.'

Connecticut is just as new to the Division I-A ranks, making the jump in 1999, the same year as Buffalo. But that's where the similarities end.

UConn benefited from a wealth of resources courtesy of its successful basketball teams. The name recognition helped smooth the transition for a football program now making its third bowl appearance in the past five seasons. The Huskies also feature the nation's leading rusher in Donald Brown.

Things have gone so well for Connecticut that this season is regarded as a disappointment. The team hoped to collect its second consecutive Big East title, but foundered down the stretch in losing five of its last seven games.

'Everybody says, 'Disappointing,' Huskies coach Randy Edsall said. 'Are you disappointed because you set your goals so high for yourself? Yes. But I mean, there's still so much that we've accomplished and that's part of our problem. We've gotten to where we are so quickly.'

No one's complaining in Buffalo.

With little money or athletic tradition, the Bulls suffered through one double-digit losing season after another before Gill arrived to provide direction and instill confidence.

This has been very much a season of firsts at Buffalo.

The Bulls won the MAC championship game by beating previously undefeated Ball State, Buffalo's first win over a ranked opponent. The Bulls registered their first winning season since going 8-3 in 1996 as a Division I-AA program, while also winning five in a row for the first time since 1986.

And their high-powered offense, revolving around the triple threat of quarterback Drew Willy, running back James Starks and receiver Naaman Roosevelt, has set numerous school records, including most points (404). Those three players alone have combined to set 14 single-season marks.

'People thought it was impossible,' Roosevelt said of the Bulls' turnaround. 'They laughed at me and made fun of me when I told them that I was going to UB. But now it's a decision that I'm happy with.'

The Huskies present a tough test with a defense that's ranked 10th in the nation in fewest yards allowed (281 per game). The offense features Brown, the Big East offensive player of the year who's averaging 151.83 yards a game and has matched a single-season school record with 17 touchdowns.

The only question regarding Brown is whether this will be his last college game. After vowing last month that he would return for his senior season, Brown is mulling whether to apply for the NFL draft in April.

'I'm not worried about next year. I'm not worried about a week from now. I'm just worried about Buffalo right now,' said Brown, who has 1,822 yards rushing.

Edsall has counseled Brown on his future, but won't say which way the player is leaning. What's clear is the impact the running back has had on the Huskies and on recruiting.

'I tell kids, you come to UConn and can accomplish anything you want to accomplish because he's proven that,' Edsall said. 'I told our team after practice that we need more guys that are like Donald Brown because to me, Donald Brown's a great one.'

SideBar: International Bowl

Who: Connecticut vs. Buffalo

When: Today, noon

Where: Glendale, Ariz.

TV: ESPN2