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Bulls have shortcomings on third-and-short plays

The University at Buffalo passing offense has a confounding third-and-short problem.

The Bulls have converted only 1 of 10 pass plays on situations of third and 4 or fewer. On third and 5 or fewer, they’ve converted only 4 of 20 pass plays, a lowly 20 percent.

UB is doing pretty well running the ball on third-and-manageable situations. The Bulls have converted 14 of 22 run plays on third and 4 or fewer. But the pass plays are lacking. Last season, UB converted 48.5 percent of its pass plays on third and 5 or fewer.

UB coaches recognize it’s an issue, but solutions have been elusive.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” UB coach Lance Leipold said. “It’s not where it needs to be. It’s a matter of handling what we’re seeing. I don’t think we’ve been fully in rhythm to keep people off balance. We’re a little off.”

Third down figures to be big Saturday when Ohio University visits UB Stadium. Ohio’s defense ranks No. 2 in the Mid-American Conference and No. 30 in the country on third downs, holding foes to 32.6 percent conversions. UB’s offense is converting 35 percent of third downs overall, which is 10th in the MAC.

UB did a good job on third downs against Bowling Green three weeks ago. But in last week’s 51-14 loss at Central Michigan, the Bulls converted just 3 of 13 third-down situations.

The third-and-short pass failures are peculiar because quarterback Joe Licata is an accurate passer, hitting 61.6 percent of his throws overall. Furthermore, UB is making good use of its tight ends, who are reliable possession-pass targets. Matt Weiser is on a record pace for tight-end catches with 29 through six games.

However, UB has not hurt defenses with the tight end on third down. Weiser has eight third-down catches but only two of them are for first downs.

UB’s slot receivers – Collin Lisa and Jacob Martinez – haven’t been effective on third down, either. Both are in the Julian Edelman, possession-receiver mold. But Lisa only has three third-down conversion catches and Martinez has two.

“The slot position can be difficult because it’s probably one of the easier positions to find a way to get two guys on them,” UB offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki said. “If you’ve got a really big outside backer who’s putting their hands on your guys and really getting physical, smaller guys can have a tougher time. The flip side is those guys could get quick separation. It’s something we’re always looking at.”

From a game-planning perspective, football coaches have packages of third-down plays broken down into categories – third and one, third and 2 to 3, third and 4 to 7, third and 8 to 12. (UB has converted a respectable 9 of 14 on third and 1.)

“When you game plan, you assess what is the defense doing? How does our personnel match up?” Kotelnicki said. “To sit there and run the ball on third and 2 or 3 every time would be great, but sometimes that matchup’s not as favorable as you want it to be.”

While last week’s loss was a blowout, UB’s other three defeats have been close games. A few more third-down conversions would give the attack some much-needed rhythm.

“We’re a little off,” Leipold said. “If you correct that little bit, now guys get more confidence.”

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UB running back Anthone Taylor practiced on a limited basis Thursday. Leipold said he remains questionable for Saturday and will be a game-time decision.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com