So what did we learn from game one of the University at Buffalo 2014 footballs season? I learned a number of things, although the first item I already knew before the game even started.
Joe Licata is good. Despite losing key players like Branden Oliver, Alex Neutz and Khalil Mack, Bulls Head Coach Jeff Quinn had the luxury of a returning quarterback. Licata won't wow you but he just makes plays. The Williamsville South product doesn't have a rocket arm but he has a number of assets including tremendous touch, accuracy, decision making, poise and leadership. All were on display as Licata completed 25 of 36 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns while remaining undefeated at home as a starter.
Licata bailed the team out in a game that looked like it would allow Bulls fans to relax and enjoy a blowout but ended up leaving them on the edge of their seat, praying they wouldn't lose to an FCS team that has just 35 scholarship players and facing an FBS team for the very first time.
Duquense appeared to be easy prey as UB opened up a 21-0 lead with about 5 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter but the Bulls shoddy pass defense opened the door for the Dukes who stunned the crowd by taking their first lead of the day, 28-24, on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The veteran UB quarterback started their comeback on a drive that began at UB's three yard line. The Bulls put together an impressive 97 yard touchdown drive with two big plays coming from the arm of Licata and the hands of junior wide receiver Ron Willoughby, who we learned could be the next in a line of successful UB receivers following Neutz and Naaman Roosevelt.
The first big play was a 46 yard pass which seemed to hang in the air forever, before coming down in the hands of the 6'4" receiver from Avon Lake, Ohio. Four plays later, Licata threw a perfect 24 yard touchdown to Willoughby who caught the ball in stride in the end zone to put UB in front 31-28.
The Bulls defense, which allowed the Dukes to take the lead, then came up with a second consecutive three and out which set up Licata and company for a second huge TD drive.
Nursing the three point lead, UB got the ball at their own 25 yard line with 8:06 left on the clock. Mixing run and pass, the Bulls went 75 yards and ate up six minutes and 34 seconds. They converted four times on third down and another on fourth down to keep the drive going. Willoughby did a great job of getting one foot in at the back of the end zone on an 11 yard TD pass from Licata to close the drive and seal the victory.
Willoughby and Licata had great chemistry in the opener, connecting on big play after big play. Willoughby showed strong route running ability and Licata exhibited pinpoint passing.
On at least two passes, Licata threw to a spot and when Willoughby finished his route and
turned around, the ball was right there. Willoughby, who had just three catches for 83 yards in his first two seasons as a Bull, finished with 10 for 132 and 2 TD's.
I also learned UB's running game should be just fine in the post Branden Oliver era. Anthone Taylor had 117 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. If you add in the work of Devin Campbell and former Sweet Home star Jordan Johnson, the running backs had 45 carries for 192 yards and the two scores.
As much as we talked about the losses of Oliver, Neutz and Mack, I learned that we might be overlooking the loss of three starters in the secondary. It was not a good day for the Bulls defensive backs who were singed for 322 yards by Duquesne on just 18 completions. Dwellie Striggles was pressed into starting duty due to an illness and was repeatedly beaten.
Quinn and Defensive Coordinator Lou Tepper will have to do some serious work to get that group better and fast. It shouldn't be a problem against Army on Saturday but Baylor QB Bryce Petty could eat that group alive on September 12th.
The run defense was great, with the Dukes gaining just 51 yards on 33 attempts but there were too many breakdowns in pass coverage.
All in all, it was a very entertaining game to watch and UB did what it was supposed to do, beat an FCS team, even though it was more of a struggle than many had expected.