Running Of The Bulls

Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett first came in contact with Turner Gill when he was coaching in his native Texas and the player was a scholastic all-star quarterback in that state, but Gill ended up going to Nebraska.

Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt also tried to secure Gill's talents by hiring him as an assistant coach with the Miami Dolphins six years ago, but that didn't work out too well, either.

No, Gill took over at Buffalo three seasons ago and has transformed the program from an NCAA doormat, routinely ranked last among the 119 Division I-A schools, to one that can compete for the Mid-American Conference title this season and has even higher hopes for the future.

The Panthers (0-1) play host to Buffalo (1-0) Saturday at 6 p.m. at Heinz Field in the first meeting between the two schools.

"Turner and I go way back,'' Bennett said. "He's done a fine job at Buffalo. He has them playing very well now, (and) you can see in their team that they're playing like they expect to win. They with poise and confidence.''

The Bulls certainly aren't a winning program just yet, but it should be no surprise that they're playing like winners. Gill has been part of winning programs for years, consistently keeping Nebraska in championship contention as a player and coach. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist and coached on three national championship teams.

The progress at Buffalo has been slow, to be sure, as the Bulls went 7-17 during his first two seasons. However, they started this year with a bang, a 42-17 thrashing of UTEP last week.

"I had an idea we were starting from scratch and had to build a program at Buffalo,'' Gill said. "I was looking for something different because I had been in traditional programs and wanted to start something.''

That wouldn't have been possible, Gill noted, without support from the school's athletic department and administration. And that likely didn't come without some trepidation, because Buffalo won just 17 games in nine seasons since moving to Division I-A in 1999.

The faith in Gill, who arrived in 2006, appears to be justified. He was the MAC coach of the year last season after going 5-7 and clearly has turned things around. And he's done it by instituting an offense that's more conventional than fancy and a defense that's hard-nosed with an ability to make big plays.

"They're more of an offense that we're used to, unlike Bowling Green,'' Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "They're more of a traditional offense with two tight ends and two running backs, and they like to run the ball. So, we've got to stop them up front and be better than we were last Saturday.''

Buffalo's quarterback, 6-foot-4, 214-pound senior Drew Willy, actually leads the nation in passing efficiency after going 10-for-16 for 221 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions last week. And junior wideout Naaman Roosevelt was his top target with four catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns against UTEP. The two combined for a 68-yard hookup.

But for the Bulls to be successful, they have to run the ball successfully. And 6-2, 211-pound junior James Starks is the main ball-carrier. He had 31 carries for 179 yards in the opener, including a 34-yard run. Fullback Chris Scharon primarily is used as a blocker.

"The receiver, Roosevelt, and the quarterback Willy's accuracy really are what carried them the last five games last year,'' Bennett said. "But I would think they lean a little bit more toward being a running team rather than passing.''

That's because Buffalo's offensive line is a veteran group with all returning starters, including 6-6, 300-plus pound bookend tackles in Ray Norell and Andrew West. The guards and center after 6-3 and 300 pounds, so the Bulls have some big boys up front.

"They have good size on their O-line, and they're going to come right at us,'' Bennett said. "But great defenses, and I believe we have a chance to be great, are ones that dictate how the game is played. We have to force them to play our game, and to do that we have to force more turnovers.

"I told our players that we did some really good things (against Bowling Green), a lot to build on, but we had two fumbles that were on the ground -- including a quarterback sneak -- that we missed. So, there were missed opportunities. We had a chance to make more than we did, and that's our focus this week.''

Buffalo's strength defensively is speed in the secondary with all four starters returning, but the only seniors among the unit are on the line. Senior end Mike Thompson is the top pass-rusher, while junior free safety Mike Newton has nine career interceptions.

Gill was a finalist for the Nebraska job last year, but the Cornhuskers hired Bo Pellini. Buffalo rewarded him with a contract extension through 2012.

So, one of the hottest young college football coaches has a chance to finish the job he started with the Bulls.

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