Three up, three down
Bulls win third straight Saturday at UMass
Head coach Jeff Quinn and the Bulls celebrate Najja Johnson's (22) game-clinching interception in the fourth quarter. Courtesy of UMass Daily Collegian
The football team traveled to Foxboro on Saturday to play a UMass team that was supposed to be a pushover.
After a rough first half, Buffalo (4-7, 3-4 Mid-American Conference) found a way to rally in the second half and survive a close shave at Gillette Stadium, defeating the Minutemen 29-19. The win marked Buffalo's third straight victory.
"It validates the last couple of weeks," said head coach Jeff Quinn. "We haven't been able to win on the road and we had to dig deep tonight. A lot of guys had to dig deep. That's the beauty of this team. It's one of my favorite teams that I've coached."
After earning its first-ever victory in FBS play last week against Akron (1-10, 0-7 MAC), UMass jumped out to an early 6-0 lead, taking advantage of multiple three-and-outs by the Bulls early in the game.
The Bulls started to find their groove on offense in the second quarter as they pushed their way into UMass territory. But a fumble by junior running back Brandon Murie - who filled in for Buffalo's injured top two backs, junior Branden Oliver and freshman Devin Campbell - stopped the drive in its tracks. The Bulls went into the locker room down 13-0.
"I told them at halftime that that first half wasn't really the most responsible type of play we've seen over the course of these past couple weeks," Quinn said.
Buffalo's offense struggled to possess the football in the first half and totaled only 12:37 of possession. The Bulls also failed to convert on a single third down in the first half, going 0 of 5.
The second half was a new tale.
In the third quarter, the Bulls got the spark they were looking for when junior Adam Redden ran through the defensive line and blocked a UMass punt. The punt trickled past the line of scrimmage and freshman Kyndal Minniefield scooped it up and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown.
"I was kind of skeptical to pick it up at first, but I just saw the opportunity and I jumped on it," Minniefield said. "I was just concerned about getting the touchdown for the team so we could come back."
It was officially ruled a punt return because the ball crossed the line of scrimmage, which snapped a decade-long drought - the last time the Bulls returned a punt for a touchdown was Aug. 29, 2002 against Lehigh.
UMass responded quickly with a score of its own, a three-yard run by Michigan transfer running back Michael Cox. The extra point failed on a botched snap, putting the Minutemen up 19-7.
Buffalo bounced back behind the arm of redshirt freshman Joe Licata, who is 3-0 as a starter, and took control for good late in the third quarter. A three-yard touchdown pass from Licata to junior tight end Jimmy Gordon topped off a 79-yard drive.
"That's what we recruited [Licata] to do," Quinn said. "And now he's got an opportunity to build on that. Each week he's grown a lot more, in terms of the system, managing it and taking that lead. I think everybody rallies behind Joe."
The Bulls continued to ride the wave and marched right down the field again. Another long drive ended with Licata hitting junior wide receiver Alex Neutz on a touchdown pass from three yards out. Neutz hauled in nine catches for 76 yards and one touchdown.
The touchdown reception was Neutz's 11th touchdown grab this season, moving him into sole possession of second place on UB's all-time single-season receiving touchdown list.
"I rolled out right and there was nothing open, so I just looked back," Licata said. "When you've got a player as smart and great as Neutz is, you know he's going to be coming. So I just trusted him, threw the ball low and he got down on the ground and made a great play."
Licata finished the game with 226 passsing yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
The score put Buffalo up 22-19 after a successful two-point conversion.
With Oliver and Campbell out with injuries, the Bulls got a lift late in the game from Murie and senior Rashad Jean, who carried the load on ground.
Jean, a fullback who had yet to record a carry in his career, picked up 73 yards on 17 carries.
"It felt great," Jean said. "I've been wanting to do it for a long time but you've got to prove yourself before you do it. I finally got the chance to prove myself during practice and created during the game.
Murie added to the rushing total with 16 carries for 90 yards, which was highlighted by a 12-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that sealed the victory for the Bulls.
Junior linebacker Khalil Mack had a record-breaking day. Mack finished with 15 tackles (a career high), 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He broke Vince Cardosa's (1992-95) record for tackles for loss in a career. Mack now has 53.5 tackles for loss in his career and still has his senior year to play.
The Bulls will try to extend their win streak to four, as they travel to Bowling Green (7-4, 5-2 MAC) on Friday at 2 p.m. in that last game of the season.
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