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UB run defense searching for big-play antidote

DEKALB, Ill. -- Big run plays are killing the University at Buffalo defense.

Big pass plays are killing the Northern Illinois defense.

One or both of those weaknesses are likely to be exposed Saturday when the Bulls visit Northern Illinois in a Mid-American Conference football game.

The Bulls rank last in the nation in run defense, allowing 285 yards a game. It’s not so much a case of death by 1,000 cuts. It’s giant gashes that are killing the Bulls.

UB has allowed eight runs of 40 or more yards, tied with Purdue for second most in the nation.

The problem is surprising because UB returned a defensive line with a lot of experience.

“I’ve been surprised all year,” said UB defensive coordinator Brain Borland. “But I think we’ve had some consistent issues crop up. For a lot of the game we do really well. We play the way we’re supposed to, we fit the way we’re supposed to, we limit damage. And then we’ve just been victimized by three, four, five plays a game that just get away from us. On those plays there’s always something you can point to. The things we normally do correctly and well, we don’t do on those plays.”

In the past two weeks alone, UB has given up runs of 80, 67, 65 and 50 yards. When a team gives up those kind of runs, the second- and third-level defenders are out of position.

UB has young safeties, and they’ve been caught overcommitting.

On Ball State’s 80-yard TD run last week, true freshman free safety Dev Lamour crashed toward the line of scrimmage and was out of place when the James Gilbert cut back to the middle of the field. What could have been a 10- or 15-yard run turned into a touchdown. Ditto for Gilbert’s 50-yard run. On a 44-yard receiver screen, young safety Ryan Williamson missed a tackle near the line of scrimmage. On Kent State’s 67-yard TD run two weeks ago, middle linebacker Khalil Hodge missed a tackle and safety Tim Roberts got outrun.

“A problem up front becomes a problem on the back end because we don’t always corral those runs when they get through there,” Borland acknowledged. “That’s something we’re working on.”

It’s not all the back-line’s fault, of course. The Bulls aren’t getting enough occasional dominant plays in the front seven that get the defense off the field.

“We’ve got good kids who work hard,” Borland said. “I feel like we’re coaching guys right. I feel like we’re doing things schematically right, as evidenced by the fact most of the time it’s happening well.”

“But we don’t have just guys that are going to fix somebody else’s problems,” Borland said. “There’s two guys doing something wrong, but there’s the other guy just whooping tail and making a play – so that those mistakes don’t matter. We don’t quite have that yet.”

UB great Khalil Mack was the prime example of player who covered up others’ mistakes. Yet it doesn’t take a Mack to make a good MAC defense. It’s not too much to ask four different players to make one more run-stuffing play a quarter. There are many other small factors. A tad more speed would help. And UB lost some linebacker depth when No. 3 outside man Brandon Berry quit the team. Outside starters Jarrett Franklin and Ishmael Hargrove are playing more snaps than planned.

Borland won’t blame youth. But senior defensive end Joe Keels, a transfer from Nebraska, sees some youthful mistakes.

“It’s a young defense,” he said. “Those big plays come with trying to make a play. I can attest to it. I remember my first snap at Nebraska. I had the B gap. But I saw the A gap open wide, and I thought I can get him for an easy tackle for loss. I can be the man on this play. I got there and clipped his ankle, and he ended up breaking it for 30 yards. I got ripped when I got to the sidelines. It was my first snap.”

“I feel like we’ve got a lot of youth,” Keels said. “They want to make big plays instead of just making a little play that may not get a lot of noise but it works.”

Borland says everyone needs to do their assignment a tad better.

“I think it’s very rarely that we’ve been just beaten, where we’re doing it right but they’re just beating us,” he said. “I don’t think that at all. We’ve just got to become more consistent players within the scheme that we’re using.”

Northern Illinois’s defense ranks second last in the nation (127th) in plays of 20-plus yards allowed with 45. A lot of those (28) have come via the pass.

Email: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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