The Bulls had heard going into Saturday's game against Miami that RedHawk return man Eddie Tillitz was a game breaker, someone who can change the course of a game any time he gets his hands on the ball. If they didn't believe it then, they do now.
The Bulls were within striking distance, trailing 17-7, when Bull's punter Scott McMahon boomed a 49-yard punt down to the RedHawk 20-yard line. The only problem with the 49-yard boot was it was returned 80. Tillitz followed a convoy of blockers, going unscathed into the end zone to break the game open. While the Bulls pulled back to within 10 in the fourth quarter, they would get no closer and the RedHawks cruised to a 31-14 victory.
Miami may have won comfortably, but the Bulls threw a big-time scare into the heavily favored RedHawks. UB out-gained the RedHawks in the first half, and could well have had the lead if given a couple bounces. During the second quarter Joe Freedy and the passing game were clicking as well as it has all season.
With the game tied at seven, the Bulls' defense stiffened inside their red zone, as they have been doing all season. Facing a fourth and three from the Bulls 18, RedHawk Coach Terry Hoeppner made the most critical decision of the game when he decided to go for it, rather then attempting a 35-yard field goal.
"We needed that play, I felt confident, it was a calculated risk at that time," said Hoeppner.
That risk resulted in an 18-yard touchdown pass from RedHawk quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to running back Steven Little. With his receivers covered, Roethlisberger escaped from the pocket and rolled to his right. Little, whose primary assignment on that play was to block, snuck out of the backfield and beat UB linebacker Bobby Johnson to the corner of the end zone where he caught a perfectly thrown ball.
"They threw it to the back of that side where I was supposed to be," said Johnson. "That was all my fault right there."
Freedy promptly marched the Bulls back down to RedHawk 14, only to watch Dallas Pelz's 32-yard field goal attempt sail wide left as the half expired. The Bulls went in trailing only 14-7 to MAC powerhouse Miami, who achieved their 600th career victory on Saturday afternoon.
"One thing that has started to become apparent with our football team is we have tremendous grit and toughness and we have played as long as we possibly could in a game, as hard as we could," said Coach Jim Hofher.
Leadership and toughness start from the top, and it was no more evident than in the gritty performance Freedy turned in on Saturday. Late in the first quarter, RedHawk linebacker Matt Robillard hit Freedy on a blind-side blitz in a shot heard around Yager stadium. The 20,108 in attendance let out a collective gasp as Freedy was splayed out on the grass, the ball bouncing into the arms of a Miami defender who took it to the crib for an apparent touchdown. After seeing that hit, the initial reaction was not if Freedy would return to the game, but whether or not he would think he were Batman for the rest of the afternoon, or if his head would still be attached to his body.
The Bulls actually got two breaks on that play. First of all, their senior leader bounced up a minute later and did not miss a down, a true testament to his durability and toughness. Also, it was ruled that the ground caused the fumble, not the 225-pound Robillard truck, much to the chagrin of Miami's Coach Hoeppner.
"We had a vote. The official voted it wasn't a fumble, I said it was. He won," said Hoeppner. "From my vantage point it was."
Freedy responded by leading the Bulls on one of their most efficient drives of the season, a seven-play 73-yard march almost exclusively through the air. That drive culminated in a nine-yard scoring strike to Chad Bartoszek. On the drive, Freedy went 4 for 5 for 80 yards, including the touchdown.
Coming out of the half, it was obvious Miami had made the right adjustments, while the Bulls may have had one two many Buffalo burgers at the break. Miami out-gained the Bulls by a margin of 136 to 7. Still, the Bulls defense bent but didn't break, playing their patented red zone defense, and only yielding a 34 yard field goal off the leg of Jared Parseghian. They were aided by two missed field goals, as well as undisciplined play by the RedHawks, who accumulated 105 yards of penalties on the afternoon.
The true carnage of that quarter was done on special teams, and the return by Tillitz. "What has to happen on that play is the ball has to bounce. The ball didn't bounce, it didn't move," said Hofher, implying that punter Scott McMahon may have out-punted his coverage unit on the play.
The Bulls were also unable to get the ground game on track, an integral reason for their second half failures on offense. With the exception of a fourth quarter five-yard touchdown run where he broke two tackles, Bulls back Marquis Dwarte was held in check for the afternoon, accumulating a paltry 41 yards on 21 carries.
"I think they have a very good defensive line, very aggressive linebackers, and they made some very aggressive play calls," said Hofher.
While the Bulls defense limited the RedHawks run game to 128 yards on 42 carries, Miami did a good job of keeping the Bulls off balance and giving Roethlisberger plenty of time to find his targets. Roethlisberger went 23-30, 212 yards, and two touchdowns. He was not sacked, and was able to distribute the ball to nine different receivers.
The Bulls will go from playing at parent's weekend in Miami to Homecoming at Buffalo. While the environment may be friendlier, the competition gets even stiffer. The Bulls will try to slow down Byron Leftwich and the explosive Marshall Thundering Herd passing game in a MAC showdown Saturday at 1 p.m. in UB Stadium.
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