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TAKING BULLS BY THE HORNS Execution woes and injuries hurting UB

It is midterm for the University at Buffalo football team. If grades were based upon records, the 2-4 Bulls would not receive acceptable marks.

They are a Hail Mary pass against Temple from being 1-5. But if A.J. Principe's field goal against Central Michigan is 6 inches to the left and the defense makes two stops in the last five minutes against Western Michigan, the Bulls would be 4-2 with the two losses against nationally ranked Pittsburgh and Missouri.

The Bulls can look back at their last two games, hard-fought contests against Central Michigan and Western Michigan, and wonder if things would be different if they had executed better. If they had, they would be in first place in the Mid-American Conference's East Division rather than in a three-way tie for second place. The Bulls entered the season with high expectations even though they were breaking in three new linebackers. Coach Turner Gill knew there would be some growing pains.

Along the way they lost starting right tackle Jordan Jerrold for the season, and tailback James Starks, defensive tackle Ron Hilaire and cornerback Kendric Hawkins have all missed games because of injuries.

With six games to go, there is plenty of room for improvement, and the East Division is up for grabs. After Saturday's game against Army, five league games remain -- all against East opponents -- who have a combined record of 10-23.

>Offense

Starks is averaging 103.0 yards a game, 11.1 yards more than he averaged during his sophomore season, so to blame the running game on him would be ludicrous. Yet overall, the rushing offense ranks ninth in the MAC at 127.0 yards a game and 83rd nationally. If the Bulls want to reach their goal of the postseason, these numbers have to improve.

The problem is the offensive line isn't creating enough room up front for Starks to operate, and it misses the presence and leadership of center Jamey Richard, now with the Indianapolis Colts. It's difficult for programs like Buffalo to lose an NFL starter like Richard and not expect some kind of drop in production.

Also, the running game might be better served giving Starks 20-30 carries a game instead of sharing the load with Brandon Thermilus and Mario Henry. There was an indication that Gill, who also serves as the team's offensive coordinator, is leaning in that direction when Starks received 28 carries against Western Michigan and finished with 125 yards and three touchdowns. Thermilus got four and Henry one.

>Defense

There is no question defensive coordinator Jimmy Williams can be second-guessed for some coaching calls, including playing a base 4-3 against Missouri's vaunted spread offense. But the Bulls' pass defense is suffering because their inexperienced linebackers are poor in pass coverage.

UB starts one true freshman, Scott Pettigrew, and two sophomores -- Raphael Akobundu and Justin Winters -- at linebacker. Pettigrew is a transfer from Iowa Wesleyan and Winters is a walk-on. Backing them up is true freshman Imani Chatman, redshirt freshman John Syty and sophomore Tom Drewes. From that group Drewes, who sat out last season with an injury, has the most experience.

Missing are sophomore Fred Branch, who showed flashes last season as a true freshman but who is out for the season with an injury, and recruit Darius Willis. Willis, who didn't qualify academically, was recruited by every school in the Big 12 as a linebacker and would have likely started immediately. Opponents have gotten fat off the short passing game and the Bulls are last in pass defense in the MAC at 276.8 yards a game and 115th nationally. Against Western Michigan, Williams went with a nickel package in the second half and Broncos quarterback Tim Hiller still ended up completing 42 passes.

Some of the problems with the pass defense start up front. With the losses of defensive end Trevor Scott and linebacker Larry Hutchinson, who combined for 15 1/2 of the Bulls' 23 sacks a year ago, the Bulls aren't getting much of a pass rush, which puts pressure on the secondary. UB's six sacks is tied for last with Miami (Ohio) in the MAC and tied with nine others -- including Syracuse -- for 106th in the country. Again, you don't lose an NFL-caliber player, in this case Scott, and not expect a decline.

Also, the Bulls aren't getting off the field on third down, which can tire out a defense that is already lacking in depth. Opponents are converting 50 percent on third down, which ranks 112th nationally.

>Special teams

Kickoff coverage is an area in which Gill has talked seriously about making personnel changes. The start of crucial touchdown drives against Central Michigan and Western Michigan can be traced to poor kickoff coverage, which placed enormous pressure on the defense.

Late in the third quarter, the Chippewas had one touchdown drive start from the UB 48 following a kickoff and another from midfield that led to a field goal in the fourth quarter. Western Michigan jump-started its fourth-quarter comeback with a kickoff return to the Bulls' 40. In the third quarter the Broncos also had a kickoff return to the Bulls' 47 that led to a field goal.

In a season filled with failed expectations, Gill hasn't lost his head yet. But he's also feeling the heat for the first time as a head coach from football fans who are scrutinizing and skewering a team that held so much promise during the preseason.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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MIDSEASON ANALYSIS:

Sorting out the Bulls' problems

1. Running game

James Starks' numbers are good, but the Bulls still rank near the bottom of the Mid-American Conference in rushing offense. If UB wants to advance to the postseason, it has to improve its running game.

2. Pass defense

The corners rarely get beaten deep, but opponents are able to move the ball by using short passes while taking advantage of the Bulls' inexperience at linebacker. Playing more nickel, or even dime, may be the cure.

3. Kickoff coverage

Breakdowns late against Central Michigan and Western Michigan placed pressure on the defense and led to key scoring drives. Gill hinted that personnel changes are coming.

4. Third-down defense

The quickest way to tire out a defense already lacking in depth is to convert on third down and opponents have a 50 percent success rate against the Bulls. Getting off the field on third down was an emphasis during the bye week.

5. Pass rush

The Bulls aren't getting much pressure on the quarterback and have only six sacks on the season, two by their starting defensive ends. If the Bulls get more pressure up front, their pass defense will improve as well.

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