The University at Buffalo season opener Saturday at UB Stadium felt more like a midsummer baseball game than the start of the college football season: Though there was tailgating and entertainment, the band and cheerleaders, the temperature at kickoff was a record-high 89 degrees and there was a 44-minute delay for lightning which brought on heavy rains, completely clearing the stands.
Despite the incongruous scene, the UB Bulls started out their quest for the program’s first consecutive winning seasons since 1983-84 with a 38-28 against the Duquesne Dukes of the Northeast Conference who were competing against an FBS team for the first time in school history.
“Anytime you win a close game it says a lot about your team,” head coach Jeff Quinn said. "What does it say? They’re 1-0 for the first time since 2010 despite blowing a 21-point lead and they could have done better in a game that was much closer than the score indicated.
“It’s certainly not what I expected in terms of the overall performance,” Quinn said. “But there were moments in that game that I saw our kids really come up big especially late in the game….Certainly we know we have more work to do to compete at the highest level for teams up and coming, we have to play much better.”
Joe Licata – the first consecutive opening day starter for the Bulls since Drew Willy in 2008 – hooked up with junior tight end Matt Weiser on a play-action, opening-drive 41-yard touchdown on the left sideline. The pair also scored the first touchdown of the 2013 season against Ohio State. The junior from Williamsville South finished with 298 yards on 25-for-36 passing with one interception and three touchdowns.
The mandatory 30-minute lightning delay went into effect (and was reset once) during the Bulls’ second drive of the game after a three-and-out for the Bulls’ defense with them leading 7-0.
Fifty-four seconds after the game resumed, they were back in the end zone with an 11-yard run from Anthone Taylor in front of an announced crowd of 20,329. Taylor ran for a game-high 117 yards.
After he converted a fourth down, Taylor ran for his second touchdown from five yards out, making the score 21-0 Bulls with 5 minutes remaining before halftime.
With Duquesne sputtering the Bulls gave them a gift of field position after punt returner Marcus McGill fumbled one that bounced in front of him and it was recovered by the Dukes.
They immediately responded with a 25-yard pass from quarterback Dillon Buechel to Chris King to put Duquesne in the red zone, but one more mistake hurt the Bulls leading to their first touchdown allowed this season. Cornerback Dwellie Striggles’s interception of a Buechel pass in the end zone was called back on a pass interference call to put the Dukes at the 2-yard line. Two plays later Buechel completed a pass to Noel Oduho to put them on the board.
To close the half, kicker Patrick Clarke missed a 44-yard field goal with the Bulls leading 21-7.
Duquesne came out of the locker room surging after a languid first half. Compiling just 80 yards of offense in the first half, they capped a 75-yard opening drive with a 3-yard rushing touchdown by Randy Morris to close the gap to a touchdown. It followed a 41-yard, perfectly-placed ball from Buechel to King to put them at the UB 3.
After a UB punt, the Dukes tied the game at 21 with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter. King was untouched for most of the 88-yard touchdown reception beating Striggles in the Bulls secondary up the right sideline for the Dukes’ third unanswered touchdown.
The Dukes once again abused the secondary with a 45-yard pass to a wide open Kevin Enright to the UB 2 as the third quarter expired. Buechel lobbed a ball for King in the corner of the end zone the very next play and the Dukes took a 28-24 lead. The play was reviewed and confirmed.
At this point is was hard not to be reminded of the Bulls’ overtime scare last season against another FCS team, Stony Brook.
The Bulls put together a solid drive with 11 minutes left in the game to take back the lead. Licata completed a 46-yard reception to Ron Willoughby from their own three-yard line and later hit Willoughby again for a 24-yard touchdown to bring them back ahead 31-28 with 9:50 remaining. The junior wide receiver finished with career highs of10 catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
“The coaches leaned heavily on me all summer and spring and I knew I was ready for the challenge,” Willoughby said of being a go-to receiver. “So I tried to step up.”
“I got a lot of faith in Ron as a receiver, it doesn’t matter who’s guarding him. He goes up and gets the ball very well,” Licata said, who later added Willoughby lived up to his nickname “Willabeast.”
Now back in possession of the lead the Bulls executed a 6 1/2-minute drive ending with an 11-yard touchdown reception by Willoughby with 1:32 remaining, chewing up time by handing off to former Sweet Home quarterback Jordan Johnson and picking up first downs opened up by the successful run game. Johnson, who compiled 38 yards on nine carries, carried the ball five times on the game-preserving drive including two third-down conversions.
“I wasn’t pleased with Anthone’s ball security tonight, but I was pleased with Jordan’s,” Quinn said. “I thought he did a nice job pressing the open seams and gaps that he is responsible to do. I saw him put his shoulders down. I saw him breaking tackles which is nice to have -- more than one running back in the backfield that you can lean on.”
Licata scrambled for a key fourth down on that drive at Duquesne’s 47 yard line.
The Bulls next face Army on the road next week at noon.
MORE photos of UB's opener...