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Bullish on the Bulls



I'll admit I was skeptical when it came to pre-season talk about the UB Bulls competing for a Mid American Conference title this football season.  I was not on board when the contract extension for Head Coach Jeff Quinn was announced.  It couldn't have been performance based since his first four years on campus had produced an overall record of 9-27 and a MAC showing of just 6-18.

But Quinn and the Bulls sure look like they're in the midst of a turning point season and there are a number of positive signs that point towards contending for the East Division crown.

The Bulls have their first three game win streak since the 2008 team went on to win the school's only MAC Championship.   UB has its first five game win streak at home(dating back to last season) since 1983.

Their 3-2 record is the program's best after five games since they moved up to Division 1A, now known as the FBS, in 1999.

Having beaten Eastern Michigan for the first time in five tries in their MAC opener last Saturday, the Bulls can make history with a win at Western Michigan this weekend.  The Bulls have never won the first two MAC games of the season since they joined the league in 1999.

The offense is humming, having scored 83 points in the last two games, wins over UConn and Eastern Michigan.

There are some things about the 2013 Bulls that remind you of the 2008 group that beat Ball State for the MAC title.  That group had a "Big Three" on offense and a very opportunistic defense.  This season's Bulls have their own version of the "Big Three" but they aren't at the level of Drew Willy, James Starks and Naaman Roosevelt, all of whom got a shot in the NFL.  They also have a defense that likes to take the ball away and boasts perhaps a first round NFL draft pick.

The offense has been buoyed by the emergence of sophomore quarterback Joe Licata.  The Williamsville South product re-wrote the Western New York high school passing record book during a tremendous career for the Billies and has brought stability to the all important position for UB for the first time since Willy was in charge.

Licata moved into the starting lineup with four games to go last season and won three of the four starts, beating Miami of Ohio, Western Michigan and UMass.  His only loss came at the hands of Bowling Green.  To this point in his UB career, Licata has a 6-3 record as the starter, has completed 59% of his passes for 1,799 yards(an average of 199 a game) and 13 touchdowns.  He's thrown just 6 interceptions in 253 pass attempts. By comparison, Willy in 2008 completed 65% for 3304 yards(236 per game) with an eye popping TD/INT ratio of 25-6.

Licata has shown poise in the pocket and an understanding of not only what the Bulls offense is doing but what opposing defenses are doing in an attempt to stop him.  His decision making is sound, his arm strength is good enough and he even showed some escapability and running skills during the win over Eastern Michigan.  The book on Licata, who was also a standout basketball player in high school, was that he is a leader and a winner.  Both of those attributes are clearly evident even though he has less than a full season of starts under his belt.

Playing the role of Starks on the 2013 Bulls is senior Branden Oliver, who is on pace to break Starks' record for most career rushing yards at UB.  Oliver, who broke Starks' record for most rushing yards in a season with 1,395 in 2011, is a combination of power and speed.  He can bust through up the middle and then has the legs to pull away from defenders on the second level.  Last Saturday he tied the school record with the 13th one hundred yard rushing game in his fine career.

The Naaman Roosevelt part of the equation is a WNY product as was Roosevelt.  Wide receiver Alex Neutz starred for Grand Island high school and is one of the best receivers in the MAC.  Neutz is very good at getting open but will also win one on one battles if Licata gives him a chance.  Neutz has a great pair of hands and can haul in just about anything thrown in his direction.  He's 4th in career receptions(166), 3rd in yards(2588) and 2nd in touchdowns(24).  Roosevelt is at the top of the list in all three categories. 

The defense boasts one of the best playmakers on that side of the ball in Khalil Mack who seems destined for the NFL but this group is far from just the one stud.  St. Francis grad Adam Redden leads UB in tackles and is tied for first in tackles for loss with mack.  Redden's three sacks is second on the team behind Mack.  Senior Colby Way has two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss and Beau Bachtelle has a couple of sacks as well.  The secondary is led by cornerbacks Najja Johnson(2 INT's, 6 break ups and 8 passes defensed) and Courtney Lester(2 INT's).  The Bulls have 16 sacks and 12 takeaways in the 5 games played.

The MAC schedule plays out in UB's favor with the Bulls getting the easier cross over games on paper.  They faced a 1 win Eastern Michigan team and will next meet a winless(0-6) Western Michigan squad while not having to face the best from the West Division, Northern Illinois and Ball State.

Their first East Division opponent will be UMass which is also currently winless(0-5).  The Minutemen visit UB Stadium on October 19th.  UB has a very good chance of being 3-0 in MAC play which would put them in contention for the East crown going into the more difficult conference tilts against Kent State(October 26), Ohio(November 5) and Bowling Green(November 29).  How cool would it be if the Bulls game with BG in the regular season finale is for the East title and berth in the MAC Championship.  That game will be played at Ralph Wilson Stadium the day after Thanksgiving.




 

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