Brian Polian is going back home this weekend.
“I have a very warm place in my heart for Buffalo,” the Nevada Wolf Pack head football coach said this week.
Polian’s Wolf Pack (1-2) will take on the Buffalo Bulls of the Mid-American Conference Saturday (12:30 p.m. kickoff) at UB Stadium. Polian went to high school in Buffalo (1988-92) at St. Francis High and used to hold the sideline headsets for former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy during NFL games while his father, Bill, was the pro personnel director and general manager of the Bills from 1984-92.
“This is my home,” the 40-year-old Polian said. “It will be special for me.”
For the Wolf Pack players, it will be merely their final non-conference game of the regular season and the first game they are expected to win (after losses to Arizona and Texas A&M) since beating UC Davis in the season opener three weeks ago. Polian, who also coached for the Bulls in 1998 and again from 2001-03, scheduled a brief trip this week to nearby Niagara Falls and a lunch at a Buffalo Italian restaurant to give his team a little taste of his youth.
“But it’s not their deal,” said Polian, whose wife Laura was also born and raised in Buffalo. “They don’t care where I was raised. I will manage the distractions. And, for the most part, they (the payers) won’t even be affected by it at all.”
The most important part of the weekend for the Wolf Pack, Polian said, is to come home a winner. Polian, now in his third season as Nevada head coach, has just nine victories against Division I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) teams on his resume. The Bulls, who have a shorter Division I-A history than the Pack (Buffalo made the move from I-AA in 1999, seven years after the Pack), have had just one winning season in the last six years. That was when they went 8-5 in 2013 with future NFL players Kahlil Mack and Branden Oliver and went to just their second bowl game in school history.
“We definitely need a win,” Wolf Pack senior defensive end Lenny Jones said. “We want to start a 9-0 win streak going into the (Mountain West) championship game. But you have to start with one win before you can start a streak and this is as good a week as any to get one.”
The 2,125-mile trip for the Wolf Pack is the sixth longest journey a FBS team will take this season. The Pack will also be just the third school west of the Mississippi River to ever play at UB Stadium after UTEP in 2008 and Baylor in 2014.
“If we play our overall A game I think we’ll be fine,” Wolf Pack wide receiver Hasaan Henderson said.
The atmosphere at the 29,013-seat UB Stadium will be a bit different than the environment the Pack experienced last week in a 44-27 loss at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field in front of a crowd of 102,591. The Bulls have never attracted a crowd of even 30,000 fans at UB Stadium.
“It’s not going to be 100,000,” Polian said. “The energy in the stadium will be different. Like I told my team, if you are looking for 100,000 people and wanting to feed off the energy, you are not going to get that.”
The Wolf Pack, Polian said, might miss the environment they experienced at Kyle Field. “There were times our team did feed off the energy,” Polian said. “They kind of liked it. We just have to make sure we bring our own energy on Saturday. I expect we will get a nice crowd (against Buffalo) but it‘s certainly not going to be Kyle Field. I don’t know if that’s good or if it’s bad.”
Buffalo, which has won 12 of its last 14 home games, features quarterback Joe Licata (556 yards, four touchdowns), running back Anthone Taylor (313 yards, two touchdowns) and wide receiver Ron Willoughby 12 catches, 147 yards, one score). All three are seniors.
“The quarterback is a veteran,” Polian said. “No doubt he’ll be ready to play. They have some playmakers and we have to be aware of them.”
The Bulls have beaten Albany (51-14) and Florida Atlantic (33-15) and lost to Penn State (27-14). They scored three defensive touchdowns in the win over Florida Atlantic last week. Buffalo is coached by Lance Leipold, who is in his first year after coaching Wisconsin-Whitewater to six Division III national titles in eight years. He was 109-6 at Wisconsin-Whitewater, reaching 100 victories faster than any coach in history at any level.
“That was a terrific hire,” Polian said. “It was somewhat out of the box because you don’t often see a guy go from Division III to a head coaching job in Division I. But if you are a good coach, you are a good coach, no matter what level you are at.”
The 51-year-old Leipold also coached for three years (2001-03) as an assistant at Nebraska, the same years that Polian was at Buffalo.
“We have to improve offensively and continue to progress defensively if we’re going to have a chance to win this game,” Leipold said.
The Wolf Pack, which hasn’t even won a half of football since it outscored UC Davis 21-3 in the first half in the season opener on Sept. 3, is also expecting its numbers to improve from here on out, especially on defense. The Wolf Pack gave up an average of 44 points and 552 yards to Arizona and Texas A&M.
“We played good in spurts,” Jones said. “But 44 points will never be good. That’s never acceptable. Until we can get that down we’re not doing a good job.”
Leipold isn’t paying too much attention to the Wolf Pack’s defensive statistics against Arizona and Texas A&M. “That has more to do with who they’ve played the last two weeks,” Leipold said.
Polian is also not all that concerned.
“We’ve played opponents that just might be a little bit better than us,” he said.
The Wolf Pack beat Buffalo in 2004 at Mackay Stadium, 38-13, when current Wolf Pack assistant coach Jim Hofher was the Bulls’ head coach. Hofher was 8-49 as the Bulls’ head coach from 2001-05, when the school was still trying to find its footing in the FBS. Polian was an assistant at Buffalo under Hofher from 2001-03. Wolf Pack graduate assistant coach Steven King was also a running back at Buffalo, playing for Hofher (and Polian in 2003) from 2003-06, leading the team in rushing in 2004 (476 yards) and 2005 (532 yards).
“I’m sure there will be some extra emotion for them,” Leipold said. “But at the end of the day it will still be about the players and it will still be about what’s done between the lines.”
The Wolf Pack is starting a stretch of nine very winnable games. No team in the Mountain West is unbeaten after just three weeks. Polian, though, is concerned about an emotional letdown this week, coming off two games against nationally ranked opponents (Arizona, Texas A&M) and with a game against rival UNLV next week.
“I made it very clear to our football team that we are not looking back to Texas A&M and not looking forward to our friends from the south,” Polian said. “We have to stay with a narrow focus this week (on Buffalo).”
And, when time permits, see some old fiends.
“My mom and dad are coming up for the game and I will have a lot of friends and family there,” Polian said. “But that means nothing to our team, nor should it. It won’t affect my preparation for the game.”