There have been times when opposing offenses have rolled over the University at Buffalo's defense as easily as a truck on smooth pavement. However, the opposition has found the terrain a little rougher to navigate this season.
The Bulls have the third-ranked defense in the Mid-American Conference, allowing 335 yards per game. That's a remarkable turnaround for a unit that yielded 413 yards per game and allowed 40 or more points four times in 1998. More importantly, the defense has a more ornery disposition and is sending a message that it won't be pushed around anymore.
"I think Buffalo is much better defensively," said Ohio University coach Jim Grobe, whose team hosts the Bulls Saturday. "When we played them two years ago (a 50-0 Ohio win), we were able to knock them around a little bit. They seem to be more physical and meaner and hitting everything that moves."
One reason for UB's defensive improvement is experience. There were three true freshmen, one redshirt freshman and seven sophomores in the starting lineup at some point during the season.
The players took plenty of lumps, but seem to have come of age because of those growing pains.
"They're a year older and a year better," UB coach Craig Cirbus said. "When someone scores on them, they come back and rise to the challenge. When those things happened last year, the team was like, 'Uh oh, this must be happening to us again. Maybe we're not good enough.' This football team is saying, 'Lets get back after it and try to do what it takes to stop them.' And they're doing just that."
Another change is the defensive scheme. During the offseason, the Bulls switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4. With three down linemen and four linebackers on the field, it is more important than ever for the defense to be lined up properly.
"The 3-4 is better suited for our personnel," said Bulls defensive coordinator Joe Reich. "When we ran a 4-3, the three linebackers had to be really instinctive. Being that our kids were so young, I think they struggled with that. In the 3-4, the reads are a little more true. We tell them, 'If this guy does this, you do that. Period.' There is no gray area."
Inside linebacker Chris Shelly likes the simplicity of the new scheme. He played middle linebacker in the 4-3, but at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, he doesn't have the size to fight off big offensive linemen.
Teaming Shelly with another linebacker inside will allow him to flow to the ball quicker without as much traffic obstructing his path.
"It's really a defense where you have to trust everyone to do their job," said Shelly, who set a UB freshman record with 80 tackles last season. "If I do my job and everyone else does theirs, we will play a lot better. You'll see this defense get better as the year goes along because we'll be making the right calls and be in the right spots more consistently."
The 3-4 is designed for linebackers to make the most plays. So far, the scheme has produced the desired results.
Shelly and fellow sophomore inside backer Brandon Jordan averaged more than 10 tackles in UB's first two games. Junior college transfer Marcus Cole (Turner/Carroll), who started only because of an injury to senior Dan Curcione, has been a big-play force on the outside. Cole has 15 tackles, including five for 37 yards in losses, two sacks, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Josh Trexler, the only senior starter, along with juniors Chris Gray (Frewsburg), Kulaa Bacheyie and Brandon Nishnick have made significant impacts as well.
"We're not the most athletic group, but because those guys are so aggressive, that's helped us," said Reich, the brother of former Buffalo Bills quarterback Frank Reich. "Plus we've thrown a few things in, such as zone blitzes, to enhance our package and to put guys in position to make some plays."
Reich said the 3-4 wouldn't work if not for the work of the defensive line, which has held up well despite being weakened by injuries and inexperience.
"If there's one area on the team that has stepped up a level, it's the defensive line," Reich said. "They're not going to get a lot of tackles in a 3-4, but they have to be beasts inside. They do a good job of attacking and occupying offensive linemen so the linebackers can roam free. (Defensive line coach) Tom Jones has done a great job getting after those guys and they have excelled because of that."
Execution in the 3-4 has to happen not only from the front seven of the defense, but also the backs. The secondary needs to react to what the offense is doing and adjust quickly. For safeties Eric Pipkins and Craig Rohlfs to have 21 tackles each is usually a sign of trouble. But UB's defense is designed for the defensive backs to be strong run-supporters.
That usually makes a team susceptible to big pass plays, but cornerbacks Carlos Spencer (South Park/Traditional) and Tory Smith have been up to the task thus far.
"If we're going to be a dominant defense some day, we have to improve back there," Reich said. "They're coming along. We haven't faced a team that's going to throw it every down, so we still have to see where we are against the pass. But I like the progress we're making as a run defense and as an overall defense. We still have a ways to go, but we're a lot farther along than we were at this time last year."