The University at Buffalo defense was doing just fine Saturday until the Ball State Cardinals made one critical strategic change: They stopped passing the ball.
Ball State committed to the ground game after intermission and ran all over the Bulls in a 31-21 decision at UB Stadium.
Ball State rushed for 356 yards on 59 carries, and 258 yards came after intermission. Ball State running back James Gilbert carried 34 times for 264 yards –- 221 of them in the second half.
UB’s 14-7 halftime lead was trampled in an old-school stampede.
“I think they established and dominated the line of scrimmage the second half,” said UB coach Lance Leipold. “It became pretty evident they went in at halftime and saw something they thought they could expose and they were going to run the ball at us.”
The loss dropped UB to 1-5. Ball State improved to 4-3.
Ball State passed 17 times in the first half and made three turnovers – two interceptions and a fumble on a sack. The Cardinals passed only five times in the second half.
Big gainers have become a giant problem for the UB run defense.
A week ago Kent State gashed UB with four runs of 40 or more yards. Kent State rolled up 341 rushing yards.
Gilbert ripped off two long runs that turned the game around in the third quarter. The first was a 50-yarder down to the UB 2 to set up a TD that tied the game, 14-14. UB looked like it had the play stopped but didn’t gang tackle and Gilbert squirted out of a pack to break away.
On the next series, Gilbert ran 80 yards down the right sideline to a TD that put Ball State ahead for good, 28-14.
“I think we just gotta keep better gap integrity on those zone stretch plays,” said UB defensive end Demone Harris. “It wasn’t nothing they did that was super special. It’s more about us.”
Gilbert ran off right tackle on the 80-yard run, and Harris got pushed back from his end position. Receiver KeVonn Mabon put a good block on cornerback Boise Ross. There was only one safety on the back line to beat, because safety Ryan Wiliamson was on the other side of the field covering a tight end.
“It was a single safety high, and I was in the box down on the receiver,” Williamson said. “They sealed the edges and had everybody blocked and found a crease and went up there.”
UB had done a good job stopping the run between the tackles in the first half. Ball State continually was able to get wide on the Bulls in the second.
“They got good blocks on us,” Williamson said. “They could have called some holding calls, but they were sealing our edges.”
“We knew he was an elusive back coming in to the game and that he liked to jump cut and cut across the formation,” Harris said. “It’s something we should have adjusted better to.”
The discouraging aspect for the Bulls is the defense was supposed to be a relative strength this season.
"Our offensive line did a fantastic job in the second half," said Ball State coach Mike Neu. "Obviously we were run heavy in the second half. Everyone knew it was gonna come."
“It just seemed they did a nice job of recognizing a few times when we were in man coverage” against two-tight end sets, Leipold said. “The corner’s covering the tight end, collapsing down and creating a little seam, and the backer wasn’t getting over the top on some of that. That was one we never had an answer for.”