UB football’s front seven need help

No Division-I team has allowed more rushing yards than UB football this season

The Bulls football team certainly has not started the season the way they expected.

Coming off a 5-7 mark last year, Buffalo (1-5, 0-2 Mid-American Conference) had potential to become a bowl-eligible team this season. They haven’t delivered. Their rushing defense has been their Achilles heel and has hindered them in almost every game this season.

The Bulls are allowing more rushing yards per game than any other team in the nation, 285.3. They have faced 325 rushing attempts and just 118 passes. Part of this is a result of the run-heavy offenses they have faced, but this has clearly become a trend. Teams are running it right down Buffalo’s throat and their front seven is breaking down behind the constant pressure.

Through six games, Buffalo is facing an average of about 54 rushes per game. Both of the Bulls’ MAC opponents have exploited this fact and ran a combined 104 times on Buffalo’s defense for a total of 697 yards. In total, they’ve given up 1,712 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground this season.

There certainly is no easy solution to this problem, but Buffalo defensive coordinator Brian Borland needs to become more creative and challenge teams to throw the ball. All last season, Buffalo’s defense faced 491 rushing attempts. Halfway through this season, they have already faced 325. The front seven is starting to look lethargic against the rush. Coming off one of their better performances against the run at Boston College, allowing just 2.5 yards per carry, they’ve allowed six and 7.6 yards per carry to Ball State and Kent State respectively. The Bulls have already given up 340 or more rushing yards in four games this season, including both MAC games.

The first thought obviously seems like run blitzing more and stacking the box would be the best way to slow down a team’s rushing game. The Bulls have been using the blitz effectively, they just need to use it more. Of the team’s 34 tackles for loss, linebackers have 11.5 of them. The secondary has six of its own.

Buffalo’s pass defense has yet to be thoroughly tested this year, but has generally played well. Junior defensive end Demone Harris had a big hit on sophomore quarterback Riley Neal that caused a fumble. Senior defensive end Brandon Crawford also had two quarterback hits in the game.

Another huge part of the problem is that Buffalo’s offense is unable to sustain drives. As long as they are ahead – as every team has been against Buffalo in the first half – opponents will continue to run right at Buffalo’s weakness. Any defense will break when they’re forced to constantly be on the field.

Buffalo has enough talent to generate a consistent pass-rush if they find themselves in a shootout, or even a competitive game perhaps, but they have been punched in the mouth early and often. This makes the job of the defense, particularly the front seven, near impossible.

Buffalo’s secondary has currently faced the lowest number of pass attempts in Division I. I think the Bulls will need to increase the secondary’s workload and decrease the front seven’s if they hope to turn the season around. It will take a contribution from all units on the team and some creativity from the coaching staff. But if teams continue to run wild, Buffalo will continue to look like the 1-5 team they currently are.

There is talent in Buffalo’s secondary. There’s a reason senior cornerback Boise Ross entered the season on the Jim Thorpe Award watch list, awarded to the nation’s best corner. After ranking fifth in the nation in passes defended last year, Ross hasn’t had much opportunity to have the same contribution this season.

Their fourth-ranked pass defense in the nation may be a product of the low attempts, but their secondary has also stepped up and made some big plays. Junior safety Ryan Williamson had a diving interception against Ball State. As a unit they held Ball State senior receiver KeVonn Mabon, one of the top 10 receivers in the MAC, to 84 yards and no touchdowns.

Teams won’t suddenly stop running the Bulls who ranked last in the nation against the rush, but the Bulls are going to have to make them. The answer is definitely a complex one but a necessary one. If they can start pressuring teams to try and throw on them, this season can still be recovered. Teams like Miami (OH) and Akron coming up it will be interesting to see if the Bulls can turn it around in these games. But first they visit a Northern Illinois team that runs 53 percent of the time and averages 218 rushing yards a game.

And if something doesn’t change, those numbers will be even higher after Saturday.

Dan Petruccelli is a sports staff writer and can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com