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UB defense seeks step up against UCF

The University at Buffalo has dropped hints that it can blossom into a formidable defensive unit, but so far it hasn't happened on a consistent basis.

Despite an underwhelming start to the season -- UB ranks 81st in the country in total defense after two games, having surrendered an average of 376.5 yards a game -- the Bulls are making their best effort to remain sanguine as they face a Central Florida team that has struggled thus far offensively. One week after being besieged by Pittsburgh, UB (1-1) comes up against a team still trying to find its offensive identity when it plays at UCF (1-1) at 7:30 tonight.

"I anticipate they will play at a higher level," UB coach Turner Gill said about UCF. "George O'Leary is an outstanding coach and they are a very good program. They are finding out what they need to get done and we have to prepare for the best."

In its first two games, UCF hasn't displayed much pop offensively but that was before O'Leary finally settled on one quarterback. Senior Brett Hodges was named the starter after the Knights' 26-19 loss to Southern Mississippi last Saturday. Hodges was sharing the position with sophomore Rob Calabrese but after Hodges completed 15 of 26 passes for 158 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions he was given the nod. Tonight will be his first start at UCF.
"I thought we made too many mistakes with Rob at quarterback and I thought [Hodges] came in and managed the game fairly well," O'Leary said. "I said I would play two until one distanced himself and I think Brett has distanced himself."

Whoever is behind center has speedy receivers capable of making plays. Senior Rocky Ross, who has 10 receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown, is the main threat along with junior Kamar Aiken, who has six catches for 95 yards and a touchdown.

"Ross is pretty talented and does some good things," Gill said.

UCF's offensive scheme is similar to Pitt's multiple offense but not as sophisticated. O'Leary's conservative approach consists of two tight end sets where the quarterback only needs to manage the game, not go out and win it.

Nevertheless, there may be more of an onus on Hodges to produce tonight because the Knights aren't running the ball well. Tailback Brynn Harvey is averaging only 3.3 yards a carry and UCF is tied with Central Michigan for 107th nationally in rushing offense at 70 yards a game.

"Things are correctable and it's just a matter of consistency in some of those areas," O'Leary said.

For UB, the Knights are a particular concern not only because they're playing at home but also because the Bulls have yet to muzzle opposing offenses this year. Gill believes in first-year coordinator Fred Reed's attack-minded, NFL-style scheme but the players have to be more disciplined within the system.

Gill points to the second half of the Pitt game as evidence that the Bulls' defense is coming around. The Bulls yielded just 119 yards, 85 on one pulsating run by tailback Dion Lewis.

"It's two ball games and those things are going to happen early in the year and you are going to have some ups and downs," Gill said. "I feel good about where we are at, I feel good about the adjustment that was being made. I would have more concern if we didn't play better in the second half."

Basic tackling is an issue, but some of the problems come down to experience. There are only five seniors on the defensive two deep and only two are starters, free safety Mike Newton, a four-year starter, and tackle Kevin Johnson, who is in his first season as a starter. Four of the Bulls' front seven are first-year starters and the other three are in their second year. Back in the lineup after a two-game suspension is senior tackle Dane Robinson, who started six games last season.

While Gill still has confidence in his unit, it ranks 81st or worse (out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams) in five different defensive categories.

"I think our major problem was executing where we're supposed to be and be in our gaps," junior strong safety Davonte Shannon said. "Most importantly, we had to wrap up and make the tackle. Those are the things we have to work on."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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>UB VS. CENTRAL FLORIDA:

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.

Bright House Networks Stadium

TV: TWC13

Radio: 1230 AM

Latest Line: Buffalo ( 4 1/2 )