Saturday afternoon's season opener saw the UB Bulls start the season as you'd expect against the FCS Duquesne Dukes, using a heavy dosage of Anthone Taylor and Devin Campbell to march down the field on their first drive before TE Matt Weiser got entirely lost behind the Duquesne secondary, hauling in a 41-yard touchdown pass from Joe Licata. After a quick defensive stand, the Bulls' next drive was interrupted by a 44-minute lightning delay that sent the entire crowd to the concourses. UB took only three plays post-delay to score again, this time on an 11-yard run by Anthone Taylor.
The story of the offense in the first half, however, was the apparent rapport between Joe Licata and 6'4" junior receiver Ron Willoughby, who clearly gained Licata's trust in the offseason, as he was targeted five times in UB's first five drives, hauling in 2 receptions for 19 yards while also absorbing a pass interference penalty. Later in the first half, Willoughby just bobbled a potential 38-yard catch that was overturned on review, and was the targeted receiver on a Licata pass that sailed high and was intercepted by Nick Floyd on the 1. 31 yards on three first half catches was only the start of a breakout performance for the 6'4" receiver.
Meanwhile, UB's defense showed their strength up front early, forcing five punts and a fumble in Duquesne's first six possessions. The first time Dillon Beuchel and the Duquesne offense were able to cross midfield, they were immediately pushed back on consecutive losses thanks to Kristjan Sokoli, Tedroy Lynch, and a sack from Adam Redden. The tide shifted, though when UB was unable to capitalize on a stop as Marcus McGill let a punt hit his shins and lost the fumble. Despite a handful of TFLs from Sokoli on the short field, UB was undone by a Dwellie Striggles pass interference penalty, and the Dukes scored a few plays later, a successful mini-drive that only contained a whisper of Duquesne's sucess to come - in Striggles' miscue.
An efficient UB two minute drill was thwarted when Joe Licata was sacked by Nathan Stone, and Patrick Clarke pushed the 44 yard field goal attempt wide. UB went into the half with a 21-7 lead, but also with two failed drives in Dukes territory.
Building on their previous possession, Duquesne moved down the field for a quick TD, biting off a big chunk thanks to a 41-yard completion down the left sideline to Chris King at the expense of Cortney Lester. Suddenly, a 21-0 advantage was cut to one score with most of the third quarter remaining. An Andre Davis holding penalty derailed UB's next drive, and Duquesne took over at their own 7, only for Dwellie Striggles lost his man - King again - who hustled 88 yards down the sideline on third down to tie the game.
Less than half the crowd remained after the lightning delay, but it was a very quiet UB Stadium that watched Devin Campbell take the next kickoff to the 50. But UB was undone by Duquesne's own Devin - senior Devin Williams, who sacked Licata on second down for a 9 yard loss and then broke up the long third down pass intended for receiver Boise Ross.
UB was able to force a punt and move to first and goal from the 6, but was settled for a 24 yard FG. Once again Buechel found a big gain at Striggles' expense as Kevin Enright got open and was brought down just short of the endzone before Duquesne would score to take a 28-24 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter. All told, the Dukes racked up 238 yards of offense in the quarter, scoring on three of their four drives, while UB suffered a number of three and outs, and only moved the ball 28 yards in their one scoring drive.
Fortunately for the Bulls, they used the fourth quarter to return to their winning formula from 2013: a grind-it-out run game behind five returning starters on the offensive line. Each side would only get three drives in the quarter, and UB made the most of their first: a 97-yard TD drive that featured only two pass plays: a 46-yard bomb down the middle of the field to Willoughby, and a 24-yard finisher to the same. The wide receiver whose entire career line consisted of three catches for less than a hundred yards had nearly matched that on this crucial drive alone.
The Bulls defense was able to force a three-and-out after a first-down sack from Adam Redden and turned the ball over to their offense with 8:06 remaining. Duquesne wouldn't get the ball back until it was much too late, as Licata handed the ball off on fourteen of the next fifteen plays and let the offensive line do their thing. But for a few runs from Jordan Johnson, Anthone Taylor did the lion's share of the work moving the pile down the field, except for an early third down conversion to Willoughby. When Duquesne Coach Jerry Schmitt called his final timeout with the Bulls facing a third a five on the Dukes' 11, UB needed only a first down to ice the game.
Instead of going back to Taylor or Johnson, however, Coach Quinn called for a pass to the deep corner of the endzone, where - who else? - Ron Willoughby was there to haul in the ball and get one foot down before backpedaling out of the endzone. Duquesne's final drive was unable to move the ball quickly enough and finished in the UB red zone as time ran out.
A tighter-than-expected matchup for UB belies just how much the game was played in the extremes: UB outscored the Dukes 35-0 in the first 25 and final 10 minutes of the game, while Duquesne controlled everything in outscoring the Bulls 28-3 in those middle 25 minutes. Ultimately, though, consecutive three and outs from the Dukes' offense in the fourth quarter doomed the visitors, who were unable to stop the slow tide of the UB rush attack in the fourth and deciding quarter.
Run Defense: UB's run defense was stellar throughout the game, holding the Dukes to under 2 yards per carry throughout. Even when Buechel was carving up the Bulls secondary, his run attack could get nothing going on the ground. Kristjan Sokoli, who tied for the team lead with 7 tackles, was a force in the middle of the line for Buffalo.
Willoughby Will When Nobody Will: See above for a blow-by-blow. At 6'4", Willoughby is two inches taller than any other wideout on the roster (Only J.R. Zazzara even stands at 6'2"). It's clear that he's developed a connection with Joe Licata, who found him on a wide variety of routes. All told, Willoughby had 132 yards receiving on 10 catches, including a whopping 94 yards and 2 TDs on four catches in Buffalo's final two drives that recaptured and sealed the lead for the home team.
Secondary: It's no understatement, especially given the success of the run stoppers, that the secondary was victimized beyond recognition today. Duquesne scored all four of their touchdowns on a stretch of five drives, all sparked by a penalty or long pass to quickly move down the field. All but one of those came against Dwellie Striggles, who was consistently caught by Chris King throughout. The other, a 41-yard pass to King that set up Duquesne's second touchdown, came at the expense of Cortney Lester.
Also lost in much of this game is that UB in fact lost the turnover battle. Beuchel passed 37 times, only completing 18, and escaped without an interception. UB is replacing a ton of faces on defense, but you'd expect something from such a pass-happy offense, especially once Duquesne couldn't get anything on the ground.
Taylor or Campbell? - Earlier this week, Conrad touted the multiple abilities of the underused Devin Campbell, while Coach Quinn proclaimed that Anthone Taylor had earned the starting job, in part because of his efforts against Stony Brook last year. During the first drive, it looked like the two talented backs would be able to share touches, as Taylor rushed four times for 13 yards, while Campbell managed out of his two touches. Cambpell would only touch the ball twice more before the end of the first half, while Taylor earned the bulk of the carries.
Out of the second half, UB's first drive was undone by a holding penalty, and the second by sack, but the third started on the Dukes' 35. Campbell got a few more touches, notably a 20 yard burst up the middle, but the drive stalled on the 7 after a Taylor loss and Licata incompletion. Campbell did not get a touch in the third quarter as Taylor and Jordan Johnson chewed up yards and clock.
Taylor will get the accolades, having gained 121 yards and two scores on 31 touches, but he was without a doubt the least explosive and least efficient back of the night. Jordan Johnson in just 9 touches got to 38 yards, while Campbell out of the offense alone accumulated 57 yards on his nine touches. Throw in kick returns and Campbell nearly matches Taylor's total yardage on twenty fewer touches.
Based on both the numbers and the eye test, the pecking order would appear to be Campbell - Johnson - Taylor. In practice however, it's exactly the opposite. Taylor is a good, good, back, and his numbers are no doubt diminished by UB selling run all the way in the fourth quarter. But Campbell can help this team move the ball, and help this team win, and deserves more than nine touches a game out of the offense.
Defensive Playcalling: The Tepper Blitz. See Secondary. The front seven held Duquesne to 1.5 yards per carry and yet the Bulls barely blitzed all game, leaving Buechel with all sorts of time on obvious passing downs. Marcanthony earlier this week hyped the need for UB to pressure the sophomore, and instead he was given time to wait for UB's secondary to lose their marks.
3rd Down Efficiency: Like most of this game, this one is a tale of two extremes. On the day, UB converted 11 of 20 third downs, but found themselves woefully inefficient in the midst of Duquesne's offensive burst. Between McGill's fumble that led to Duquesne's first points, and the Dukes' second three-and-out of the fourth quarter, UB was just 1-5 on the third down, losing drives to a sack, a penalty, and three imcompletions thrown far deeper than the first-down sticks. The one success? That 20 yard run from Campbell to set up first and goal from the six.
On the flip side, once UB got the ball in the fourth quarter, needing to get points and eat clock, they completed 6 of 7 third downs, and used a Licata keeper to keep the drive moving after the one failure.
If It Ain't Broke: For all the flash in the first half, it was the fourth quarter where the team seemed to find its identity, grinding out yards. Neutz and Lee have graduated, and Licata has a bunch of new toys to play with, but his deep balls still have a lot of arc underneath them. For as open as Willoughby, Ross, McGill, and Weiser were able to get, the long passes generally didn't work, while Licata was able to find his guys on intermediate routes.
Meanwhile, the fourth quarter looked a heck of a lot like the third quarter template we saw last year, when the BOdozer put on his Juggernaut hat and dared MAC defenses to stop him. Kudos to the coaches and the team for going to what works when faced with adversity.
Ultimately, this wasn't nearly as bad as Stony Brook last year, as far as FCS stumbles go. UB was able to move the ball in this one, and came through when it mattered instead of fizzling and capitalizing on a shaky kicker. Last year Stony Brook was the kicker for a surprising win over UConn. This year, today's struggles against Duquesne will hopefully wake the Bulls up before a tricky Army team.