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UB turns the corner in routing Connecticut

Recollections of UB’s 2008 Mid-American Conference championship season typically center on the offensive heroics – the passing of Drew Willy, the receiving of Naaman Roosevelt and Brett Hamlin, James Starks on the run through opposing defenses.

What tends to get overlooked is the instrumental role the defense played during the late-season charge that culminated with an upset of 12th-ranked Ball State in the conference title game.

UB’s defense produced more turnovers than Sara Lee that season. It put its stamp on every major victory. It’s worth remembering that it was the defense that got UB over the hump because this year’s unit is exerting the same degree of influence.

Adam Redden set up an early touchdown with a strip-sack, Najja Johnson returned a first-quarter interception for a touchdown and UB steamrolled from there in pounding UConn, 41-12, before 20,952 at UB Stadium. It was the most complete and resounding conquest of an FBS opponent in the tenure of fourth-year coach Jeff Quinn and sends the Bulls (2-2) into next week’s MAC opener against Eastern Michigan riding high.

“It’s huge,” said wideout Alex Neutz, the recipient of one of quarterback Joe Licata’s career-high three touchdown throws. “It’s such a confidence builder. From the second the game opened we dominated them. The defense got out there and forced turnovers, the offense heated up and we didn’t look back from there.”

UB took control of the game from the outset on the strength of its defense and special teams. Get this: the Bulls had one yard of net offense by the end of the first quarter and still led, 14-3.

“It doesn’t matter how many yards you have, it’s how many times you can strike in the end zone,” said Bulls coach Jeff Quinn.

UB’s defensive game plan wasn’t hard to figure. UConn (0-4) has struggled on the offensive line, where it also has injury issues. The running game has been non-existent. UConn’s recourse was to take to the air, but UB brought numbers on the rush to make life uncomfortable for quarterback Chandler Whitmer, a junior with the ability to carve a secondary if given adequate time, and receivers (his main target, Shakim Phillips, was out with a hamstring injury).

Instead, Whitmer spent much of the half on the run or on his back. He completed just 10 of 24 throws, was picked off twice and sacked five times – twice by Redden, twice by defensive end Beau Bachtelle and once by Khalil Mack. UB’s first touchdown, a 5-yard pass from Licata to tight end Mason Schreck, was set up by Redden’s strip-sack and recovery that set up the offense at the 8.

“Honestly, I had a bet with Khalil Mack that I’d have more sacks than him,” said Redden, a senior from St. Francis. “If I lost I had to give him a free haircut. And if he lost he owed us wings. I just came off the edge, the ball just came out and I was hoping to score. But I’ll take the sack-strip and recovery.”

The second TD resulted when senior cornerback Johnson read Whitmer’s eyes, stepped in front of receiver John Green and returned his second interception of the season 33 yards for his first career touchdown. Johnson led the MAC with five picks last year.

“I knew that route was coming so I was sitting waiting on it,” Johnson said. “He threw me the football and I took off running. I trusted my coaches and made the play.’

“It felt great, especially after that first drive and seeing Adam get the strip-sack,” Johnson said. “We were all fired up and we knew from there it was going to be a special day.”

A second Chad Christen field goal brought UConn within 14-6 early in the second quarter but from there UB’s offense got on a roll. Neutz took a quick slant from Licata, burst between defenders and covered 54 yards before Branden Oliver ultimately took it in from the 5 for his second TD of the season and a 21-6 lead. Oliver missed UB’s last start with a sore knee.

The lead continued to grow. Defensive end Colby Way did a perfect Steven Means impression when he blocked Christen’s 48-yard field goal attempt. Johnson returned the block to the UConn 36 and four plays later Licata arched a perfect pass to a streaking Neutz for a 22-yard touchdown and a 28-6 advantage. Licata (10 of 19, 177 yards) connected with Fred Lee on a similar throw for a 36-yard fourth-quarter touchdown.

UConn managed its only TD late in the first half when Lyle McCombs went over from the 2, capping a seven-play, 75-yard march. The Huskies were shut out from there as UB went a second straight game allowing just one TD in regulation. It’s been quite a reversal since that 70-13 loss at Baylor in the second game of the season.

“That speaks volumes of the leadership on that side of the ball,” Quinn said..

And it’s bearing some resemblance to 2008. UB forced 33 turnovers that season and was a plus-19. This season the Bulls have forced nine and have scored 41 points off opponent miscues.

“And it gives your offense confidence because even when your offense is on the sideline you’re not sitting on the sideline,” Neutz said. “You’re up watching your defense because you know any second they’re going to make a big play.”