Prove-it time starts Saturday for the University at Buffalo offense.
Does the Bulls attack have any particular strength? Is its unproven receiving corps ready for prime time? Can it create any big plays?
Each of those questions is a mystery after four non-conference games.
Answers are forthcoming when the Bulls open their Mid-American Conference schedule against Kent State at 3:30 p.m. on Homecoming Day at UB Stadium.
“This week’s sort of a fresh start for everybody,” said UB center James O’Hagan. “We’re 0-0 right now, and we’re looking to get 1-0.”
It’s no surprise that UB’s offense has endured growing pains the first month of the season, since only four starters are back from last year and a red-shirt freshman has taken over for the program’s all-time passing leader.
The Bulls are averaging just 14 points and 274 yards a game. Last year they averaged 26.7 points and 386 yards a game.
Now, however, the playing field is level. The Bulls were outclassed last week by Boston College, the No. 1-ranked defense in the nation. UB won’t see another defense this season remotely resembling the speed and athleticism of Boston College.
“We shifted our focus to Kent State as fast as we could,” said UB offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki.
Kent State’s defense is good – somewhere in the top half of the MAC. But the Golden Flashes (1-4) were picked for last in the MAC East. UB (1-3) was picked fourth out of six. Kent State is a 1.5-point favorite.
What is Kotelnicki looking for Saturday?
“I want to see physicality,” he said. “I want to see execution. I want to see us hit some explosive plays that we’ve been starving for.”
UB thinks it has a quality one-two running back combination in senior Jordan Johnson and sophomore Johnathan Hawkins. They showed promise the first two games. Last year at Kent State, UB’s backs ran 30 times for 124 yards. It wasn’t easy sledding, but the Bulls stuck with the run.
“Jordan’s a guy who’s going to need to get more touches,” Kotelnicki said. “We feel he’s a good, dynamic player. He’s a between-the-tackles guy for us. Johnathan’s more of a perimeter guy. . . . Whatever we need to do to run the ball, that’s what we’re going to do.”
In the passing game, UB tight end Mason Schreck is off to a good start. But the Bulls are missing graduated No. 1 wideout Ron Willoughby. Marcus McGill has 10 catches, Kamathi Holsey seven and Malcolm Robinson just four.
“We want a good balance, get the run game going, get some rhythm throws to get our receivers some touches,” Kotelnicki said.
UB has 13 plays of 20 or more yards through four games, an average of 3.25 a game. Last year the Bulls averaged 3.5 20-plus plays a game, which was third worst in the MAC.
Kent State held the Bulls to just two 20-plus plays in last year’s game, an 18-17 UB win. But UB quarterback Joe Licata kept the chains moving on three scoring drives by going 8 of 9 against the blitz.
If UB gets in unfavorable third-down situations, look for the Golden Flashes to pressure QB Tyree Jackson.
Safety Nate Holley is the do-it-all defensive playmaker for Kent.
“He’s probably their version of Ed Reed,” Kotelnicki said. “They’ll put him in coverage against the best guy, he blitzes, you see him in the box. He’s all over the field. He’s a heckuva player. He’s got twice as many tackles as anybody else on their team.”