The top-ranked defense in the Mid-American Conference took away the best strength of the University at Buffalo offense Saturday.
Central Michigan held UB running back Anthone Taylor to just 25 yards on 14 carries. UB, averaging 185 rushing yards a game, netted just 38 yards on the ground.
That was the biggest factor in UB’s 20-14 loss before a crowd of 18,052 at UB Stadium.
The defeat was UB’s third straight. The Bulls (3-5) would have to win all four of their remaining games to be bowl eligible and even then would be a long shot to get a bowl bid.
“They rendered us really offensively to be one-dimensional,” said UB interim head coach Alex Wood. “When that happens, it’s tough to win.”
UB played a spirited game against a Central team (5-4) that appears headed for a bowl appearance. Playing 13 days after the firing of head coach Jeff Quinn, UB showed resilience, rallying from a 14-0 deficit to tie the game. UB also turned in an improved defensive effort, holding the Chippewas to 341 yards, 100 fewer than UB opponents had averaged this year.
But Central Michigan had more talent, its defense was too good, and it overcame the loss of star running back Thomas Rawls to a knee injury in the first quarter.
“Our defensive line was I thought very disruptive,” said Central coach Dan Enos, in his fifth year at the helm. “I thought our D-line and linebackers did a really good job, and I thought our coaches had a good game plan.”
The game turned on two possessions late in the third quarter and early in the fourth.
With the game tied at 14, UB quarterback Joe Licata drove the Bulls to the Central 34. But on a second-and-9 play, Licata threw an interception on a pass deep down the left sideline for Devon Hughes. Central cornerback Brandon Greer made a leaping catch at the 2.
“I actually missed the fullback in the flat on that one,” Licata said. “But it was a good matchup we had talked about on the sideline, and that’s why I threw it.
“We didn’t win the one-on-one battle, and I left the ball short and inside. So you combine all those things, that’s a turnover.”
Central then drove 98 yards in 16 plays to the decisive score.
Central’s star receiver, 6-foot-2 senior Titus Davis, was the best player on the field and the difference-maker on the drive.
Davis caught a 17-yard pass on a third-and-6 play from the 6. He caught a 28-yarder to move the ball to the UB 39. And he caught a 7-yard TD pass on a third-down fade route in the corner of the end zone. UB cornerback Cortney Lester prevented Davis from getting inside on the play and had tight coverage, but Davis made the contested catch.
Davis, a first-team all-Mid-American Conference pick last year, finished with six catches for 100 yards.
“What it comes down to is we’ve got to get off the field on third down,” said UB safety Adam Redden.
“I thought Coach Tepper called a great game,” said UB defensive lineman Kristjan Sokoli of defensive coordinator Lou Tepper. “I promise you we’ll go back and see plenty of defensive players that could have made a play to stop that last drive.”
UB had two more possessions to try to answer. Licata showed great pocket presence to beat a Central blitz for a 32-yard gain to Marcus McGill to the Central 32 with 6:40 left. But the drive stalled. Then Central blitzed on all six plays of UB’s final drive and forced a turnover on downs.
Central’s defense boasts one of the best defensive linemen in the conference in 6-5, 300-pound senior Leterrius Walton. The Chippewas slanted their defensive line a lot to get penetration in the backfield, and their safeties did a great job closing off weak-side cutbacks that Taylor runs effectively.
“Their safeties did a nice job of coming down on the run and hitting it,” Wood said.
When Central blitzed, which was often, UB could not make it pay. Central’s cornerbacks did a good job in man-to-man coverage.
“They blitzed seven plays in a row at one point, and we had protections to address it but it’s about execution,” Wood said. “It wasn’t a surprise but you’ve got to execute the calls.
“They started with a different type of pressure in the first half, edge pressure, but in the second half they went back to what they do,” Wood said. “They blitzed their inside linebackers a lot.”
“We had answers for it on paper, but we just didn’t make the plays,” Licata said. “Some of those I missed checks that I’ve got to make as a junior and a captain on this team.”
UB dropped to 1-3 in the MAC. The Bulls are off until Nov. 5, when they visit Ohio.
“I don’t think anybody on this team expected to be in the scenario we’re in right now,” Sales said. “Our backs are against the wall, and we know that as a team.
“But we’re not going to go hide in the corner and cry about it. I’ve got four games left in my life to play. That’s not just my mindset. That’s a bunch of guys’ mindset.
“We’re gonna come out swinging and we’re going to finish this thing out strong and we’re going to make some plays, and it’s going to be fun to watch. So stay tuned.”