Walking into UB Stadium yesterday, there was palpable excitement among the numerous UB fans tailgating and partying in Stampede Square, and for good reason: there's a new sheriff in town and his name is Lance Leipold.
Leipold brought with him a winning pedigree from Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he won 6 National Championships and was the quickest coach to reach 100 wins at any level. There were questions of offensive specifics, of how the defense, poor at best last season, would look with a new scheme and lots of new players. By game's end, questions and concerns were quelled when Leipold's Bulls steamrolled of the Great Danes 51-14. All three phases of the game looked good, with both new and old players standing out across the board.
From the day he was hired, Coach Leipold talked about offensive balance being the key to a championship team, and the offense was certainly balanced yesterday, as the Bulls gained 255 yards through the air and 232 yards on the ground. Senior tailback Anthone Taylor mentioned in the post game press conference that Offensive Coordinator Andy Kotelnicki stresses balance saying: "Coach K says that if you want to be champions, you have to be balanced."
Kotelnicki was true to his word as the Bulls mixed in a healthy dose of run and pass, with Joe Licata taking snaps under center and in the shotgun. The Bulls also used Power I formations, 5 wide formations, bunch and trips formations, 2 tight end formations, and more with a variety that was never seen during the Jeff Quinn era.
The UB offense was also hyper-efficient, scoring points on eight of 12 drives in the game and going a perfect 6-of-6 in the redzone. There were also a couple gutsy 4th down calls by the coaching staff, the first being a 4th down and 2 at the Albany 16 yard line, which Licata converted with a 14 yard pass to tight end Mason Schreck, who was stopped just short of the goal line. Licata would quip in the post game presser with a smile on his face: "Mason was stopped on the goal line twice, I don't know if he doesn't want to score or what". Fortunately, the drive ended with Jordan Johnson punching the ball into the endzone to extend the UB lead to 24-7 before halftime.
Licata looked sharp in his senior debut, making all the right reads, stepping up into the pocket when he needed to and finding efficiency with the ball. He even showed off his wheels on a nine yard scamper for a first down early in the game. The real highlight of Licata's day was hitting UAB transfer Collin Lisa on a beautiful bomb for 46 yards early in the 3rd quarter. Licata avoided pressure and stepped up in the pocket to make a great throw that dropped right into Lisa's hands. Joe also made use of the weapons around him, hitting eight different receivers throughout the game. Leipold said of Licata: "He's everything you want out of your senior QB and leader". Licata would finish 20-26 for 246 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The offensive line was another question mark coming into the season, and generally looked good yesterday, but there were a few mistakes that will need to be corrected. The offensive line paved the way for Anthone Taylor and Jordan Johnson to both average over 6 yards per carry, and the first unit also kept Licata's jersey clean, as he finished the game unsacked.
However, new center James O'Hagan has room for improvement. I mentioned in my Making the Leap series that the QB-Center exchange is extremely important and that miscues can cost games. O'Hagan snapped the ball over Licata's head late in the 1st quarter. Luckily UB fell on the ball, but mistakes like this can have a ripple effect if the outcome were to swing the other way. The miscue on the snap also stalled a UB drive and UB settled for a field goal instead of a touchdown. O'Hagan was also called for a false start and an illegal snap penalty, which will need to be cleaned up. However, Coach Leipold did praise O'Hagan and the entire offensive line for their performance.
The UB defense was a gigantic question mark coming into the season, with a new 4-3 scheme and new starters in the front 7 and defensive backfield. After the initial Albany 82-yard touchdown drive, UB fans had concerns of 2014 once again. Junior cornerback Boise Ross said of the first Albany drive, "We were just trying to get our bearings and after we did well". Following that opening score, the Bulls defense held Albany to 10 or fewer yards on half of their 12 drives, with only three drives going for more than 40 yards.
The defensive line had a consistent push against the Danes' offensive line and got penetration at the point of attack. Chris Ford and Randy Anyanwu collected half a sack each (the first of their respective careers) in the 4th quarter off of a great bull rush on the overmatched Albany offensive line. Demone Harris also had a good day in run defense with a great stuff early in the 1st quarter. Harris is inexperienced with high upside, but based on today he'll be a name worth watching.
The linebackers were down Jarrett Franklin, but Brandon Berry stepped into his starting position and performed well, dropping back into coverage and supporting the run game. The real star of the linebackers was senior Nick Gilbo, who had a brilliant leaping interception to stop an Albany drive into the UB end of the field in its tracks. Someone on Twitter called him "Gilbo Snaggins," which I like, and hopefully it sticks if he keeps up with the interceptions. I'm not the only one reminded of Khalil Mack dropping back into coverage and making those kind of athletic plays. Okezie Alozie had the other UB sack, showing his speed off the edge to drill the Albany quarterback for an eight yard loss and forcing a fumble at the same time.
The stars of the defense were one of the weakest groups on the team last season, which goes to show that a change of scheme and coaching staff can do wonders. Starting corners Boise Ross and Marqus Baker were tight in coverage all day long, and Ross collected the second of UB's interceptions on a diving play where he read the quarterback's eyes and made a play for the ball.
Ross jokingly said that he wanted to make up for dropping an easy interception earlier in the game; his interception helped UB tie its total from last season before the first game of the Leipold era was finished. The safeties were without regular starter Andrews Dadeboe due to injury, and true freshman Brandon Stanback started in his place, performing admirably, recording a solo tackle with four assisted tackles and a fumble recovery in the 4th quarter. Speaking of true freshmen, cornerback Cam Lewis also saw the field and had an athletic pass break up. He'll be another name to watch out for in the future.
In all, the UB defense held the Albany passing offense to 128 yards and forced 2 interceptions, while the run defense allowed 141 yards on the ground. It should be noted, though that 66 of those yards came in the 4th quarter when the game was well out of reach and the backups were playing.
The oft-forgotten aspect of football, but one of the most important, UB's special teams had a solid day, with a few miscues and a terrifying injury. On a kickoff coverage, backup safety and UAB transfer Jordan Collier took a nasty blow to the head, was knocked unconscious, and was surrounded by training staff for several minutes before being transported to a local hospital via an ambulance.
Luckily, Collier quickly regained awareness, was able to move his extremities, and was at the hospital for precautionary reasons and he will be all right. So, shout out to the UB Medical staff for responding so quick, and it's a sobering moment seeing a play like that and watching a young man being hauled away in an ambulance.
One positive was that UB may have found a reliable kicker, which is excellent news. Redshirt freshman Adam Mitcheson drilled a 40 yard field goal on his only attempt of the day and was almost perfect on extra point attempts (one was blocked, and that was out of his control). Coach Leipold was not pleased with the protection units on the field goal try and the extra points, citing the block as something that shouldn't happen.
The big news on special teams was Jacob Martinez taking a punt return late in the fourth quarter 86 yards to the house -- UB's first punt return for a touchdown since 2002. Martinez turned on the afterburners as he sliced and diced his way through the Albany kick coverage, something I thought worthy of a SportsCenter top 10 nomination. This return was also without Devin Campbell in the lineup - so look out, MAC: UB could have an explosive returner tandem like never before, and that could be a huge help to the team as a whole.
By the Numbers
19 - UB Football players who played in their first Division I football game yesterday. Coach Leipold expressed his excitement that he is able to play so many different players and the flexibility that comes along with it.
0 - Sacks given up by the UB offensive line - a big step for a line that is comprised of three new starters from last season.
9 - Combined catches from Matt Weiser and Mason Schreck. We knew that the tight ends would feature more prominently in the Leipold offense, and it showed. Schreck nearly scored twice, and set a career high for receptions in a game. Joe Licata said of the tight ends: "A good tight end is a QB's best friend; and I have two of them."
110 - Career wins for Coach Lance Leipold. Congrats Coach, you've earned it. Now go beat Penn State.