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UB run defense out of options, must improve

The University at Buffalo defense gets a big chance for redemption Saturday against Central Michigan.

The Bulls’ run defense was shredded for 337 rushing yards in the loss at Eastern Michigan two weeks ago, a defeat that proved to be the final straw in the career of coach Jeff Quinn. He was fired two days later.

This week the Bulls play host to the fifth-leading rusher in the nation, Thomas Rawls. He has 1,007 rushing yards in just six games, and his 167.8 average per game is best in the Mid-American Conference.

“We’ve just given up too many big plays, more than I’ve had in my career, both in the passing game and in the running game,” said UB defensive coordinator Lou Tepper.

That’s saying a lot, because Tepper has been coaching for 48 years.

“But we haven’t lost faith in our kids or what we’re doing schematically,” Tepper said. “I feel good about our fits.”

UB has allowed 52 plays of 20 or more yards. That’s second worst in the nation, better than only Bowling Green (54). UB has allowed 15 runs of 20-plus yards and a national-worst 37 passes of 20 or more.

The UB players think they are much better than they have performed.

“Our mind-set as a defense is we’ve got to play better to win football games,” said senior linebacker Jake Stockman. “We simply haven’t been as good as we could be, as good as we want to be. It’s frustrating because we have the talent. When we’ve got 11 guys on the same page, it’s scary what we’ve done to teams. That’s our mind-set, get 11 guys on the same page.”

“Everybody just has to play sound, play physical and play fast,” said safety Okezie Alozie.

UB’s defenders were not on the same page against Eastern Michigan. Backup quarterback Reginald Bell killed the Bulls with read-option runs. He had 209 rushing yards, which included TD runs of 71 and 72 yards.

The loss was especially ugly because Eastern Michigan has struggled most of the season. The Eagles were held to just 133 rushing yards in losing to lowly UMass, 36-14, on Saturday.

Bell was too fast for UB, but he wasn’t too fast for UMass.

“I think speed had something to do with it,” Tepper said. “But when they took the first quarterback out, that was the worst thing. The first quarterback did not have much success. The second quarterback ran much more option than we had seen and ran a different scheme than we had seen. So that did hurt us.”

There were times when UB’s defensive ends crashed on the dive up the middle instead of staying home to defend the quarterback run off tackle. There were more times when nobody set the edge against the quarterback’s off-tackle runs.

UB missed starting defensive end Brandon Crawford, who sat out the game due to a blow to the head. His replacement, senior Dalton Barksdale, struggled to make an impact. Crawford might be back Saturday.

Another bit of good news, perhaps, is Central Michigan does not run the read-option. Its quarterback does not run much.

But Rawls figures to be plenty for UB to handle. The past three weeks he rushed for 229 yards on Ohio, 270 on Northern Illinois and 167 on Ball State. Northern Illinois is No. 3 in the MAC against the run and Ohio is No. 4. They’re allowing 141 and 142 yards a game rushing, respectively.

UB is No. 8 in the MAC against the run, allowing 193 yards a game.

“This team is a very physical team,” Tepper said. “They’ve got two premier players, a running back and a wide receiver. They have a quarterback who has been very effective because they’ve been able to run the ball so well. His first and second down passing is exceptional.

“There has been very little option,” Tepper said. “But if they come out and run option, we’ve got to be prepared to defend it.”