The University at Buffalo football team ranked second-last in the Mid-American Conference in runs of both 10 yards or more and 20 yards or more.
The Bulls ranked 10th out of 13 MAC teams in pass plays of 20 yards or more. The UB defense ranked second-last in pass plays of 20 or more yards allowed.
Conclusion: UB needs more team speed.
“Our inability to stretch the field is obvious on film,” UB coach Lance Leipold said after the Bulls’ season-ending loss to Massachusetts.
Chunk plays were a problem all year, especially on offense. UB played like a basketball team that doesn’t get any easy layups.
The UB offense had just 12 scoring drives of six plays or fewer. MAC champion Bowling Green had 32 such scoring drives. MAC runner-up Northern Illinois had 36.
UB’s 5-7 record in Leipold’s first year was roughly about what was expected. The team has a good core of complementary players on the roster. It needs some more big-play, difference-makers on both sides of the ball.
Here’s a breakdown of the Bulls’ 2015 season by position, with a look toward what’s coming back next season:
The UB offense ranked eighth in touchdowns and seventh in yards in the MAC. But the Bulls scored 15 fewer offensive TDs and gained 52 fewer yards per game than last year. The No. 1 reason? The schedule was tougher. UB played seven games last season against bad defensive teams (those that allowed 430 yards or more and ranked 90th or worse in the country). This year they played two. The No. 2 reason? The offensive line wasn’t dominant like last season. Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki maintained good balance, running on 48 percent of the plays. Third down wasn’t good enough. UB converted 38.7 percent in MAC games, seventh-best. Kotelnicki used three receivers 60 percent of the plays and used spread formations 65 percent overall. UB used two tight ends on 27 percent of the plays. The UB offense couldn’t play physical and impose its will. On first down, it ran much better out of spread formations (5.0 yards a carry) than out of regular or two-TE formations (3.53 a carry).
Quarterback: Joe Licata ended his career as UB’s all-time leader in yards (9,485), TD passes (76) and wins as a starter (he was 21-19). His TD pass total ranks ninth in MAC history, just behind Ben Roethlisberger. It would have been nice to cap such a fantastic career with a second bowl trip. As a junior, Licata had 29 TD passes and 11 INTs. As a senior, he had 16 TDs and 15 INTs. He was the same guy. The defenses were better, UB’s rushing average dropped by 42 yards a game, and there wasn’t a true deep threat.
Defenses crept in and blitzed without enough fear. Licata was 67 of 110 for 756 yards and only one sack versus the blitz. Good numbers. But defenses didn’t worry about him escaping the pocket. Only three of those plays went for 30-plus yards and seven others went for 20-plus. The two INTs that really hurt were forced third-quarter throws in scoring position against Nevada and Bowling Green. The end-zone INT in the finale vs. UMass was the coaching staff’s fault. Licata compensated for lack of a cannon arm and limited mobility by showing great touch, courage and pocket presence. He’s a big reason UB allowed only seven sacks in MAC games, second best in conference. Licata unofficially was 27 of 40 on boots and rollouts, not his strength.
You get the sense Leipold and Kotelnicki look forward to moving the QB around more next season. The heir apparent is prize freshman Tyree Jackson, who’s 6-5 with a big arm and decent mobility. Jackson red-shirted this year. He will have a serious challenge from 6-2 Chris Merchant, a red-shirt sophomore next season. Merchant has a good arm and even better mobility. Those two give UB good reason to be optimistic about the future at QB.
Running back: Senior Anthone Taylor finished his career sixth on UB’s all-time rushing list. Last season he was the workhorse. This season he was dinged at midseason and got about 100 fewer carries, as he split the load with junior Jordan Johnson. Taylor had 843 yards and 4.5 a carry. Johnson had 851, 4.7 a carry and 12 rushing TDs, tied for third in the MAC. The use of Kendall Patterson at a fullback/H-back position was mostly ditched after the Bowling Green game. The cast looks good for next season. Johnson is a bruising runner. Talented freshman Johnathan Hawkins will be back to provide more speed off tackle. UB needs a change-of-pace speed back. Red-shirt Emmanuel Reed from Florida might be the answer. You can’t have too many backs.
Receivers: Ron Willoughby capped a fine career with his best season, 62 catches for 813 yards. Willoughby, who ranked 10th in the MAC in yards per game, will be missed. Yet the best teams in the MAC had more size and speed at WR than UB. Marcus McGill (50 catches) is tough and can run after the catch. He’s back next season. So are both slot receivers, Collin Lisa (31 catches) and Jacob Martinez (15). Sweet Home product Brandon Smiley showed promise as a true freshman. K.J. Osborn red-shirted. Malcolm Robinson will be a senior. There’s a lot of sorting out to do. At tight end, Matt Weiser graduates after ranking second in the nation in TE catches with 63. Junior Mason Schreck was banged up a bit. He’s starting-caliber. Red-shirt freshman TE Kevin Rogers showed flashes in practice as a receiver.
The pass game was effective out of two tight-end sets. Licata was 61 of 89 (68.5 percent) and averaged 9.0 yards per attempt with two TEs on the field. Why didn’t they use it more? Maybe because the run game wasn’t as effective. It averaged 3.74 yards a carry out of two-TE sets, and 45 percent of the 141 runs with two TEs (not counting goal-line plays) went for 2 yards or worse. Not good enough.
Offensive line: UB graduates outstanding senior left tackle John Kling and Bob Blodgett, who opened at right tackle but spent a lot of time at left guard the second half of the season. Neither allowed a sack in MAC games, and UB ran behind them a lot. Center James O’Hagan is a talented athlete who started as a red-shirt freshman. He should only get stronger and better. Guard was an issue from a health and quickness standpoint. Senior Dillon Guy hurt a knee. Sophomore Brandon Manosalvas was dinged up a lot. Junior Roubbbens Joseph and red-shirt freshman Andy Fidler filled in. Tyler O’Henly, a 6-7 sophomore, was thrown into the fire at right tackle the last four games. He has the length but needs to improve. Only one OL freshman, West Seneca’s Evin Ksiezarczyk, was recruited last year. Kling is a huge loss. There’s a lot of uncertainty on the O-line.
The defense played a huge role in three wins (Florida Atlantic, Kent State and Ohio) and produced a school-record seven return touchdowns (five by INT, two on fumbles). Coordinator Brian Borland’s unit also kept the team in the game against Nevada and Bowling Green. That’s the good news. The bad news is the overall numbers were nowhere close to bowl-worthiness. UB allowed the fifth most yards in its 17-year history. In MAC play, UB ranked 11th in yards allowed and 11th in points allowed. The Bulls were 10th in the MAC in plays of 20-plus yards allowed. Borland tried to make offenses work for scores. He blitzed on 25 percent of pass plays (the NFL average is 29 percent), and QBs completed 50 percent on those plays. It was obvious when Leipold took over the defense was a rebuilding project, and it was not going to get fixed in one year.
Defensive line: No one graduates from a young cast play that had to learn a new scheme. Lack of edge-rush pressure hurt UB against good passing teams. The Bulls ranked seventh in the MAC in sacks with 22, but only 10 came without the blitz. Junior Brandon Crawford switched from DT to DE early on to toughen the run front. The DT corps might look better if he can go back inside and join junior Max Perisse, big sophomore Chris Ford and freshmen Justin Brandon and Gusty Schwartzmeier. Brandon, from Indianapolis, looks like a prize. If sophomore Demone Harris (Timon-St. Jude) can keep improving, he has the frame to become an upper-tier MAC end. Ends Charles Harris and Randy Anyanwu have potential. Torey Hendrick, who sat out this year, could be the star edge rusher UB needs next season. The young talent on board needs to have a good offseason of development.
Here was the playing time for the D-line, by percentage and (snaps per game): Max Perisse 62.3 (45), Demone Harris 59.0 (43), Brandon Crawford 58.6 (43), Chris Ford 50.6 (37), Solomon Jackson 38.0 (28), Justin Brandon 28.8 (29), Gusty Schwartzmeier 26.7 (19.5), Charles Harris 20.1 (15), Randy Anyanwu 19.4 (14), Kyril Threats 8.9 (6.5), Duke Hwang 5.6 (4), Jake Khoury 4.4 (3).
Linebacker: The Bulls graduate middle linebacker Nick Gilbo, outside linebacker Okezie Alozie and Gilbo’s backup, Travis Pitzonka. That leaves Brandon Berry, who made third-team all-MAC, and Jarrett Franklin, who sat out with a back injury. Berry was a revelation as a downhill play-maker. Borland used him well on blitzes. Franklin is starting caliber if healthy. Gilbo and Alozie are big losses. The run defense would look stouter with a quality starter in the 235-pound range. The Bulls have a lot of recruiting to do on this unit.
Defensive backs: The Bulls fielded a good cornerback tandem in Marqus Baker and Boise Ross. Baker graduates. Ross tied for fifth in the nation in passes defensed with 20. UB is in good shape at corner, because Cam Lewis had a good freshman season as the No. 3 man. There’s promising youth behind him, too. The new sophomore safety tandem, Andrews Dadeboe and Ryan Williamson, was a work in progress. There were too many coverage busts in MAC games, which is what you get when you play so much youth. The safeties should be better next year, and freshman backup Brandon Stanback got a lot of playing time at safety, too.
Freshman place-kicker Adam Mitcheson was 13 of 19 on field-goal tries and 31 of 36 on extra points. He made 10 of his first 13 then closed 3 of 6. He was solid enough to expect he will become an asset. Outstanding punter Tyler Grassman graduates. His backup, Conor Clarke, has a strong leg and improved a lot in practice from the spring to the fall. Lisa was a reliable punt returner.
Outlook: Leipold’s game management was outstanding, and he has a staff of assistants with good credentials. The big question marks are at linebacker and O-line. Another impact athlete on offense would be nice. Even though there will be a new QB, UB could be better next season.