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Stayin’ grounded: Bulls exposed in win

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Buffalo’s offense has the makings of a juggernaut. We’ve sung star running back Branden Oliver’s praises for weeks and watched in surprise as Alex Zordich’s accuracy and trust in his receivers has vastly improved as an upperclassman. Toss in the “go-get-it” ability of receiver Alex Neutz and the sudden usage of tight ends Alex Dennison and Jimmy Gordon, and you have an offense with a variety of weapons that’s tough to prepare for.

The Bulls’ eight touchdowns Saturday in the 56-34 win over Morgan State overshadowed a few glaring problems—familiar ones—that have plagued the University at Buffalo in recent years: run defense and special teams.

Here are three things we’re worried about heading into the Sept. 19 clash against MAC foe Kent State:

1) Stooping to an opponent’s level: In the post-game presser, the prevailing notion was that the Bulls didn’t “play down” to FCS opponent Morgan State’s level. Certainly, the offense was dominant and had no problem shredding the Bears’ defense on the ground and through the air. When Alex Zordich was behind center, the FBS vs. FCS difference was noticeable.

Conceding 34 points to an FCS school, however, is unacceptable. Even in the Bulls’ difficult last three seasons, they’ve squashed their three FCS opponents (Gardner-Webb, Rhode Island and Stony Brook) by a combined score of 106-10. In all three tilts, the opposing offenses looked listless, unprepared for the speed and strength that the Bulls’ defenses presented.

For Morgan State, though, reserve quarterback Robert Council and starting tailback Travis Davidson exposed a lack of strength in the Bulls’ front seven, a propensity for missed tackles in the secondary and poor angles by linebackers on the edges. Credit Davidson for his burst when getting to the edge and turning the corner, and note the inexperience of UB sophomore linebacker Jake Stockman and converted safety Isaac Baugh in allowing 170 yards and two scores to Davidson. 

2) Return coverage: Because freshman Tyler Grassman only had to punt twice and Patrick Clarke nailed all eight extra points, the whole special teams wasn’t a liability, just the kickoff coverage unit. Six returns netted 180 yards for the Bears, including a 66-yard scamper by Chris Flowers. Missed arm tackles, wide open running lanes and a genuine lack of physicality were evident, and when the field position battle becomes increasingly important in conference play, the coverage units play a more vital role.

Buffalo finished in the middle-of-the-road in the MAC last year in kick coverage, allowing 21 yards per return. This year, however, opponents have returned 10 kickoffs for 323 yards—a 32.3 average—though that’s obviously inflated by Georgia’s Todd Gurley’s 100-yard return for a score in the opener.

Reserve running back Brandon Murie had some success as a gunner in 2011, but it’s guys like Kyndal Minniefield, Okoye Houston, Khari Brown, Rashad Jean, Scott Pettigrew and Imani Chatman who’ll be asked to sharpen their coverage skills or risk replacement this year.

3) Where are the turnovers? Does the secondary have any play-makers?: This was one facet that frustrated Quinn in the post-game: how did the Bulls lose the turnover battle against an FCS school? Given that Buffalo scored so quickly and so frequently—but couldn’t get off the field defensively—the Bears crushed UB in the possession battle at more than a 2-to-1 ratio (40:10 to 19:50).

The secondary looked suspect, too—Witney Sherry struggled with his tackling for the second straight game, and a brutal blown assignment down the left sideline (either Najja Johnson or Sherry) in zone coverage was to blame for the Council-to-King TD in the third quarter.

For a school that’s consistently trotted out decent, if not great, secondaries—Davonte Shannon, Mike Newton, Josh Thomas, Domonic Cook and Josh Copeland, to name a few quality defensive backs—the decline to Sherry and converted-linebacker Dalonte Wallace is far from encouraging.

Conclusions: How hard should you push the panic button? Not too hard, yet. Particularly on Morgan State’s second drive, Khalil Mack showed a glimpse of early-2011 form, racking up two sacks and a stuff at the line of scrimmage. While he disappeared for stretches in the second half and rotated with Willie Moseley in the lineup, Mack should continue to shake off the rust from his suspension. With his unreal combination of speed, strength and relentlessness, there are few offensive lines who can deal with an in-form Mack rumbling off the edge.

Defensive starters you feel confident in: Mack, Way, N. Johnson, Skinner, Lester.
Defensive starters who should be fine: Means, Sokoli
Defensive starters we’re worried about: Sherry, Baugh, Wallace, Stockman
Defensive players we’d like to see get more of a chance: Minniefield, Bachtelle, K. Brown, K. Patterson, Redden.

(Header photo by Kasey Poloncarz from home opener vs. Morgan St.—full gallery here).

TAGGED: jeff quinn, khalil mack, mac football, morgan state, travis davidson, ub bulls, ub football, university at buffalo, witney sherry

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