Growing gains for UB Bulls’ defense

Buffalo’s success on ‘D’ came sooner than imagined, but there were early signs of progress


Admit it, you were surprised.

Everyone was expecting a high-scoring affair, led by Buffalo’s senior ‘triplets’ and Florida Atlantic’s down-the-field threats. I even thought it was going to be one of the highest scoring affairs the Bulls would have all season.

It wasn’t even close to that.

In fact, 23 of Buffalo’s 33 points Saturday came from the defense. The offense wasn’t even a factor in the 33-15 victory over the Owls. The Buffalo ‘D’ took over the game early and didn’t look back.

The Bulls’ defense scored three touchdowns and recorded a safety in arguably the best defensive performances I’ve ever seen. Yes, I’ve seen Khalil Mack and that triumphant defense in 2013 play as well. There have been better individual performances, but there has never been a better team performance, from the first snap to the last.

And I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it.

Buffalo’s game against Penn State was the first time I realized the unit had serious potential. The Bulls only relinquished 13 points through the first three quarters and the Nittany Lions didn’t even sniff the end zone until halfway through the second quarter.

Buffalo had poise, confidence and swagger. They didn’t play like a unit with question marks. They didn’t even play like an inexperienced team. They played like – dare I say it – a Power 5 team.

I knew the team would eventually get into a groove. Piece by piece, the defense was coming together. They played like they wanted to prove skeptics wrong – possibly to even prove to everyone they can be the best unit in the Mid-American Conference. They were eventually going to be a force to be reckoned with.

I had no idea this week would be it.

The Buffalo ‘D’ simply manhandled the Owls. Other than the first quarter, The Bulls’ defense just dominated in every aspect imaginable. How dominant were they? The defense scored more points than Florida Atlantic put up during the entire game. Buffalo put up the same amount of fumble return yards as Florida Atlantic had rushing yards (105).

You could point out any of the game-changing plays that led to the Owls’ defeat: Boise Ross’ interception, Nick Gilbo’s safety or even the unheralded senior linebacker Travis Pitzonka’s fumble return for a touchdown. All of them helped define Buffalo’s day. There was nothing Buffalo needed more than a big game from the defense, especially with the questions surrounding how it would step up once the season began.

But many people forget the most important part of the day.

Quarterback Joe Licata admitted he had one of his most frustrating performances donning a Bulls uniform. He only threw for 105 yards and did not convert a touchdown pass for the first time since the 2013 season. That touted offense, other than a second half surge by the backfield, simply couldn’t find a groove. It’s not a knock to that unit, however. They’re still talented. They’re still going to do big things entering conference play. They’ll most definitely get back on track, even as early as next week against Nevada.

If it weren’t for that defense, the Bulls would be below .500 right now.

What Saturday’s game proved to me is the defense can step up when needed. When the offense struggles, head coach Lance Leipold now knows he can rely on defensive coordinator Brian Borland’s unit.

It’s not likely the defense will repeat its success, probably not for the rest of the season. It’s not surprising. This was the first time Buffalo ever scored three defensive touchdowns in a game. Buffalo will be lucky to accumulate three more defensive touchdowns in the entire season.

But the Bulls don’t need a performance like Saturday’s. Leipold needs a unit that can step up when needed. He needs a unit that will make those big plays from the first minute to the last snap. That’s exactly what he got today.

But will it continue?