For three weeks in a row, University at Buffalo offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki has walked off the field at the end of the Bulls’ game, turned to his graduate assistant in charge of advance scouting and asked: How good is their front?
Meaning: How good is the defensive line of next week’s opponent?
For three weeks in a row, the answer has been the same: Pretty darn good.
UB’s offense faces another line-of-scrimmage challenge Saturday when the University of Nevada visits UB Stadium.
“Their front four is very good, and they’ve got an outside backer who’s very good,” Kotelnicki said. “They’ve got some athletic guys who are returning who are pretty impressive. It’ll be a challenge for us to continue to handle an aggressive, big, physical front four.”
Nevada is not as good as Penn State, UB’s opponent of two weeks ago. The Nittany Lions arguably have one of the top 10 defensive lines in the nation and predictably gave UB fits in a 27-13 defeat.
But Nevada’s front four is better than Florida Atlantic, which has a quality D-line that gave UB trouble last week. The Bulls won, 33-15, but the offense managed just 13 first downs.
Nevada boasts two of the top five returning sackers in the Mountain West Conference in defensive ends Ian Seau (nephew of NFL legend Junior Seau) and Lenny Jones. Nevada’s best defensive tackle, Rykeem Yates, is a quick penetrator who disrupts the backfield.
If UB aims to rebound from last week’s poor offensive showing, it must contain the Nevada pass rush.
Kotelnicki says the focus for his offense this week has been third downs.
UB failed to convert on each of its first 10 third-down situations last week, and eight of them were third-and-6 or shorter.
“We made that a big emphasis this week,” Kotelnicki said. “We evaluated what we’re doing in those situations. I feel better about our practice this week.”
“We have to be able to sustain drives if we’re going to have a chance to win this game,” said UB coach Lance Leipold.
One way to manage the rush is to run the ball. How good is Nevada against the run? Hard to say. The Wolf Pack allowed 534 yards and 6.4 yards a carry the past two weeks. But that came against two top-20 teams, Arizona and Texas A&M. Last season, Nevada was fifth best in the 12-team Mountain West against the run.
The other way to manage the rush could be called the “Tom Brady method.” Spread the field with receivers and complete quick passes all game long.
UB quarterback Joe Licata can effectively run that kind of an offense. He’s 8 of 11 for 91 yards from an empty backfield set this season. (UB went empty on only 13 plays all last season.) But going empty requires precise execution by all 11 players because there’s no running back to help with pass protection.
UB needs to be more efficient. The Bulls have committed 18 offensive penalties in three games.
Nevada blitzed a decent amount last season. It has not blitzed a lot this year – about 16 percent, Kotelnicki says.
Again, however, that has a lot to do with the opposition. Against elite offenses like Arizona and Texas A&M, defensive coordinators are reluctant to blitz and expose themselves to big plays.
Nevada probably has a better pass-rushing front seven than UB will see in the Mid-American Conference.
“We like that challenge,” Kotelnicki said. “It’s good for our guys up front. Coach Leipold says our goal is to win our side of the MAC. In order for that to happen, we can prepare in our non-conference games, so this is helping us a lot.”