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Stopping the run becomes UB's job one

The University at Buffalo's defense has simplified things for opposing offensive coordinators.

There's no need for fancy play calling or trying to make yourself look like Bill Belichick Jr. The game plan is uncomplicated: Run the ball right up the gut.

When they switched to a new defensive scheme last season, the Bulls became respectable against the run, but UB has plunged to the lows of 2002 and '03. The Bulls are next to last in the Mid-American Conference and 114th in the country in run defense, but taking into account their three foes, it isn't surprising.

Syracuse finished second in the Big East in rushing last season, and Connecticut was in the top half. UB faced three of the league's top six rushers from a year ago in Connecticut's Cornell Brockington, Rutgers' Brian Leonard and Syracuse's Damien Rhodes. And UConn welcomed back Terry Caulley, the Huskies' leading rusher two years ago, from a knee injury.

UConn rushed for 290 yards, Syracuse 348 and Rutgers 138, and the Bulls have started the season 0-3 and have been outscored, 86-3.

The list of plausible causes isn't that long. The unit spent a lot of time on the field because the offense -- which still hasn't scored a touchdown -- couldn't sustain drives against UConn and Syracuse. But perhaps at the very top of the list is allowing too many big plays. Against the Orange, Rhodes scored on runs of 27, 50 and 54 yards and finished with 236 yards. A total of seven plays against Syracuse totaled 268 yards. Leonard had 121 yards and his 42-yard run led to Rutgers' first touchdown.

For the season, the Bulls are being gashed for 258.7 yards rushing a game.
"The big plays have hurt," said UB defensive coordinator Tom Jones. "One guy misses his tackle or falls to the ground. The bottom line is we're not in our gap where we're supposed to be and it's out. With as much man coverage as we play at times, when that ball spits out, the running backs are chasing our DBs down the field. If we eliminate big plays, we'll be fine."

The Bulls were expected to have one of the better defenses in the MAC. The front six in their 4-2-5 scheme all returned from last year. There haven't been any major injuries, although they lost projected starting defensive tackle Bill Meholif to a knee injury prior to the season. The loss of Meholif cut into UB's depth; the backup tackles are redshirt freshman Ronald Hilaire and former walk-on Ian Conrad, a sophomore.

The staff also isn't happy with the lack of turnovers, which helped define UB's new-look defense a year ago. Through three games last year, the defense had already scored three touchdowns. This year, it has forced only one fumble -- by senior linebacker Bryan Cummings -- and no fumble recoveries. The Bulls have two interceptions, which occurred at the ends of the halves.

"We need more gang tackling," Jones said. "We need more guys to the ball, more guys trying to get the ball out when they get there and create turnovers."
Buffalo's run defense won't get a break this weekend at Western Michigan (2-2, 0-1). Leading rusher Trovon Riley is averaging 123.5 yards a game and lit up Temple for 91 yards in the Broncos' 19-16 win last week. Western Michigan may lean heavily on the run because starting quarterback Ryan Cubit is out for the year with a broken leg.

But the Bulls are coming off a bye week, and Jones said there's been a renewed commitment to stopping the run.

"They see a sense of urgency, and I think they see an opportunity," he said. "We've played some good football teams, not that we consider ourselves second to these guys, but now we're going to play teams in our league with an opportunity to play towards a championship."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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