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Buzzsaw defense carries UB past Florida Atlantic

BOCA RATON, Fla. – University at Buffalo coach Lance Leipold had seen his teams find countless ways to win while compiling a 110-7 career record entering Saturday’s game.

He never saw anything like his 111th win – a 33-15 victory for the Bulls over Florida Atlantic.

“Never, nothing like that,” Leipold said after watching one of the most amazing defensive performances in UB history. “The most important thing is we found a way.”

The Bulls’ defense scored three touchdowns and a safety to win a game in which it got outgained, 490-290.

“Wow. How ‘bout that defense?” gushed UB quarterback Joe Licata.

“I’m still in shock,” said UB linebacker Brandon Berry. “We prepared for moments like this. But the way we swarmed, the way we pursued and made plays was amazing.”

You want amazing? UB’s defense had exactly as many fumble return yards as its offense had passing yards (105).

Maybe it’s time to set fire to UB’s preseason forecasts, which called for the Bulls’ high-powered offense to carry a defense that would be lucky to allow the 32 ppg that last year’s defense gave up.

UB improved to 2-1 with huge plays:

• Senior linebacker Travis Pitzonka turned the game around with a 60-yard TD return of a fumble recovery with 1:11 left in the first half. It pulled UB within 9-7.

• Junior cornerback Boise Ross jumped a sideline route early in the third quarter, intercepted the pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown that put UB ahead, 17-9.

• Sophomore defensive end Demone Harris knocked running back Greg Howell backward and linebacker Nick Gilbo tackled him in the end zone for a third-quarter safety that made it 19-9.

• Defensive tackle Brandon Crawford scooped up a fumble and returned it 11 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter for the final score of the game.

To be sure, UB caught an injury break. Florida Atlantic’s senior quarterback, Jaquez Johnson, was unable to play due to a sprained ankle. Redshirt freshman Jason Driskel, who had played reasonably well against Miami of Florida last week, made his first start.

But UB winning with defense against anybody is a big deal.

UB defensive coordinator Brian Borland killed Florida Atlantic by using two of his most athletic defenders – linebackers Okezie Alozie and Berry – on well-timed run blitzes.

Berry stopped FAU’s first drive in UB territory with a fourth-down stop in the backfield. Berry and Alozie blitzed into the backfield to stop a third-and-3 play on the third drive. Then the duo created the play in the backfield that Pitzonka took for a TD. Alozie and Berry blitzed on a third-and-1 run. Alozie corralled running back Jay Warren 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage and Berry popped the ball out.

“It’s crazy, the man’s a mastermind,” Berry said of Borland. “I’m just thankful I can be the person to blitz and make the plays.”

“Brandon Berry and myself, we might not be the biggest guys, but we can get back there with our speed,” Alozie said. “When it comes to blitzes and certain pressures, I think we do a good job of getting there and causing chaos.”

“We have to find different ways to create disruption,” Leipold said. “We’re going to find as many ways to get as many different looks and be creative.”

Driskel was pretty good in the first half, completing 16 of 28 passes for 237 yards. But UB kept getting stops to keep the Owls off the scoreboard.

Once UB got the lead in the second half, the Bulls’ pass rushers were able to tee off on the quarterback. Driskel finished 26 of 55 for 385 yards but his second half production was garbage yardage.

It was the first time UB ever got three defensive TDs in a game. The last time UB got two was the Mid-American Conference championship win over Ball State in 2008.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com