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Temple lineman looms large

A supermarket aisle turns into a one-way street when Matt Bacoulis is strolling down it. He's 6-foot-3, goes 318 pounds, with Wide World of Sports shoulders. The kind that span the globe.

Yet despite his hulking presence, Bacoulis will be in for a formidable challenge when the University at Buffalo visits Temple this weekend. More times than not UB's senior center will snap the ball and deal with Andre Neblett, the Owls' nose guard. And while Neblett might stand a mere 6-2, weigh a pedestrian 300 pounds, here's all you need to know: He was placed on the preseason watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy that goes to the nation's top defensive player, as well as the list for the Outland Trophy awarded the nation's best interior lineman.

"He's a very good player," Bacoulis said. "He's very strong. He's very quick off the ball. All around he's very good at what he does and we look forward to getting the opportunity to block him and really show what we can do."

"I've faced him the last two years, so I'm a little familiar with what he does, but it's going to be a good battle up in the middle," said junior left guard Peter Bittner, a Williamsville North graduate. "I'm looking forward to it."

Like many nose tackles, Neblett's value can't be measured by statistics. He managed one tackle for a loss and two assists as Temple dropped its first two games, against Football Championship Subdivision member Villanova and Penn State. Instead, he's a disruptive force who attracts the kind of constant attention that frees teammates to make plays.

"I'd have to say [his strength is] his ability to get off the ball and put his hands on an offensive lineman," Bacoulis said. "He's been an All-MAC performer, but we know what we need to do to get our job done."

Establishing a consistent running game would go a long way toward getting UB out of Philadelphia with a much-needed victory. Junior Brandon Thermilus, promoted to starter following the season-ending injury to James Starks, has averaged just 3.2 yards a carry. The team's only run of longer than 20 yards belongs to backup Ike Nduka.

"It hasn't been explosive but we're working on it," Bacoulis said. "We're doing good things out there, and we really believe in it. So we're just trying and believing in what we're doing, and really showing what's asked of us and really want to grind the ball out this week."

"We're real close," Bittner said. "Every play is just one block away here, one block away there. So we get all that corrected then we're going to start seeing bigger gains and bigger production."

Understandably, pass protection became the priority heading into the season as sophomore Zach Maynard acclimated to his new starting role. In that regard, the Bulls have been solid, with Maynard finding a comfort zone and throwing for 743 yards in three games while completing 65.2 percent of his throws.

"I have to say that our pass protection we've worked on really hard considering we have a new quarterback in Zach," Bacoulis said. "We wanted to make sure that he could trust us, trust the front five, and he's going to be protected. And so now, with our run game, we want to make sure we're keeping that equally as important as the pass game."

Now it's time to strike a balance. UB faced a season-high 16 third downs last Saturday at Central Florida, and has yet to encounter fewer than 12. Coach Turner Gill said this week he'd like to see that number reduced to six or seven. For that to happen, the running game must kick into gear.

"It's huge," Bittner said. "It takes pressure off us for pass protecting when we get the ball going on the ground. So it's huge to chew up the clock and keep the defense off the field."

And that all begins with getting a handle on Neblett.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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