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UMass reopens football series with Buffalo

With Temple leaving, if the University of Massachusetts is going to develop a rivalry in the Mid-American Conference, Buffalo might be its most natural partner.

The Bulls are the closest team to UMass geographically. Both programs have a lot of work to do to be competitive in the conference and they actually have some history.

When Buffalo was a Division I-AA program, UMass and Buffalo played regularly. The Minutemen beat the Bulls in 1997 en route to a 2-9 season. UMass crushed UB 51-27 in its I-AA championship season of 1998 before Buffalo joined the MAC.

The teams have plenty of personal connections too. UMass coach Charley Molnar worked with Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn at Central Michigan in 2006 and at Cincinnati in 2007-09, when Molnar was the pass-game coordinator under Quinn, who was the offensive coordinator. They’ve remained close friends.

Molnar’s son Charley Molnar III served as a graduate assistant under Quinn in 2010 and 2011. The younger Molnar is now a grad assistant at UMass.

“I’ve talked to him about their personnel. But just like any good football program, their personnel should improve year to year,” coach Molnar said. “The same kids you didn’t think that much of two years ago can be some of the better football players in your program three years later. Not always the case, but it certainly happens. I’ve got a pretty good scouting report from him on all the guys that were on the team when he was there. That helps to a degree.”

Saturday will be the first Band Day at Gillette Stadium.

A look at Buffalo’s school and program:

NOTABLE FOOTBALL ALUMNI — Green Bay Packers running back James Starks; Former New York Jets star defensive tackle Gerry Philbin.

OTHER NOTABLE ATTENDEES — Movie producer and Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein; Former Red Sox pitcher Joe Hesketh; Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs; CNN’s Wolf Blitzer; Actor Ron Silver; Gregory Jarvis, an astronaut who died on Space Shuttle Challenger; Black Sabbath singer Ronnie James Dio attended but didn’t graduate.

BOWL HISTORY — The Bulls have been to one bowl. They fell to Connecticut in the 2008 International Bowl in Toronto.

Time & location: 3 p.m., Gillette Stadium, Foxborough

Records: Buffalo (3-7, 2-4 MAC); UMass (1-9, 1-5 MAC)

Last week: UMass beat Akron 22-14; Buffalo beat Western Michigan 29-24

All-time series: UMass leads 5-4

Last meeting: UMass beat Buffalo, 51-27 in 1998

TV/Internet: UMassathletics.com

Radio: WWEI-FM (105.5), WMUA-FM (91.1)

When UMass has the ball: Much of the Minutemen’s scouting report on Buffalo’s defense centers around junior linebacker Khalil Mack.

“He’s probably the best outside linebacker we’ve played all year,” Molnar said. “He’s an excellent pass-rusher. He can get out in coverage. Strip sacks over and over again. He’s an amazing football player.”

Mack leads the Bulls with 51∕2 sacks to go with his 69 tackles and two forced fumbles. He’s had plenty of help getting after opposing quarterbacks. Buffalo is third in the MAC with 26 sacks. Colby Way also has 51∕2 and Lee Skinner has 5.0. The Minutemen have given up the second most sacks (22) in the MAC, but the expected return of Al Leneus would give the Minutemen a healthy first-string offensive line for the first time all season.

Buffalo has been among the MAC’s toughest teams to move the ball against, allowing 379.0 yards per game.

When Buffalo has the ball: Statistically it could be a low-scoring game. The Bulls are the second-lowest scoring team at 21.9 points per game, ahead of only the Minutemen (11.2).

Junior running back Braden Oliver paces the Bulls offense. He’s averaging 133.5 yards per game and is on pace to reach 1,000 despite missing four games with an injury.

“The running back is as good as any running back we have faced,” Molnar said. “He’s not the fastest, but it makes no difference. He has great vision.”

Joe Licata, who took over as the starting quarterback when Alex Zordich got hurt, has retained the job with strong play in the Bulls’ back-to-back wins. He’s 55 for 103 for 651 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

Junior receiver Alex Neutz leads the MAC with 94.1 yards receiving per game. He’s caught 50 passes for 847 yards and a league-high 10 touchdowns in nine games.

The Bulls average a league-worst 32.7 yards per punt.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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