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Bulls defense needs to step forward

The University at Buffalo hopes the maturation of its young defense can take a step forward Friday when the Bulls close their regular season against the University of Massachusetts.

The young Bulls defenders were victimized by their own coverage breakdowns in last week’s 42-21 loss at Akron.

UB must beat UMass in the 4:30 p.m. game at UB Stadium to become bowl-eligible.

The one obvious way it can go wrong for UB is on pass defense. UMass (2-9) is staggering to the finish of its last season as a member of the Mid-American Conference. It’s going independent next season.

But the best playmaker on the Minuteman team is a stud. He is senior wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder who is rated as perhaps a third-round NFL draft choice next spring.

Sharpe leads the nation in receptions with 105. He’s eighth in the country in yards per game at 107. UMass has a big-armed senior quarterback, too, in Blake Frohnapfel. And head coach Mark Whipple spent six years as an offensive assistant coach in the NFL. He’s creative in getting the ball to Sharpe.

UB’s defense must limit the passing damage.

“He’s a very athletic receiver, great hands, burst, he’s very versatile,” said UB coach Lance Leipold. “They move him around. And in the backfield. So they line him up in the backfield and motion him out.

“Coach Whipple does an outstanding job,” Leipold said. “In my estimation, you can tell his offensive knowledge and his time in the NFL because he looks for matchups. He looks for ways to get his best player in situations to get the ball. That’s why they have a receiver who leads the nation in receptions and targets.”

UB junior cornerback Boise Ross has had an outstanding season, and senior cornerback Marqus Baker has been mostly solid. But there’s youth across UB’s defensive board. UB has only three senior defensive starters. Only four of UB’s top 22 defensive players are seniors, and only four others are juniors.

The Bulls’ pass defense hasn’t been bad. UB ranks sixth in the MAC in passing yards allowed at 232 a game. But the Bulls must play better than last week.

“Yeah, there’s a play or two that’s been run before maybe out of a little different formation,” Leipold said of the Akron passing game. “But it’s not like a concept we haven’t seen. We’ve got to be able to see and react a little better. Do our assignment. Don’t try to do more than what you’re supposed to do to keep things together.”

UMass ranks fourth in the MAC in passing yards a game with an average of 266.

However, the Minutemen rank 12th out of 13 MAC teams in rushing. They’re 11th in third-down conversions. They’re last in time of possession, holding the ball just 26:56.

UB’s offense can help out its pass defenders by keeping Sharpe & Co. off the field.