For the second straight year, the University at Buffalo's secondary has been dominant.
After finishing last year No. 1 in the MAC in passing defense, the Bulls are ranked 20th in Division I and second in the MAC in that category this season, allowing 182.1 yards per game. The stat is slightly skewed by playing Army, a military school famous for its option attack, but it also factors in the yardage compiled in a seven-overtime game against Western Michigan.
Most members of the secondary are Bulls veterans at this point. The top two corners, Cam Lewis and Brandon Williams, are juniors. The safeties, Tim Roberts and Ryan Williamson, are seniors. Both Lewis and head coach Lance Leipold said the familiarity with each other and Leipold's system, now in its third season, is contributing to the group's success.
"A lot of us have been in the program for two or three years," Lewis said. "It's really been clicking, learning it all."
"Our improvement defensively is very noticeable," Leipold said. "Our understanding of scheme and getting guys in position to understand, make plays, rally around the ball and do those things has been a big positive for us."
One factor in the Bulls' defense's success is the lack of big plays. UB is 10th in D-I in passing yards per completion, giving up just 15.40 yards per catch.
"We pride ourselves on not giving up big plays and touchdowns," Lewis said.
The way the season has gone, the Bulls needed to limit yardage allowed to stay in games. UB has the fewest interceptions of any team in the MAC, picking off opponents only five times in seven games. The rush defense has struggled, as the Bulls rank 11th out of 12 teams in their conference.
The schedule lines up for the secondary's success to continue. The Bulls, ranked second in passing offense in the MAC, don't play the other teams in the top four: Toledo, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan. The highest-ranked passing offense left on the schedule comes Saturday in Miami (OH), slotted fourth in the conference with 241.6 yards passing per game.
The Bulls catch a break with the RedHawks too, as starting QB Gus Ragland hasn't played since suffering an injury against Bowling Green two weeks ago. He's expected to miss two to five weeks. Backup Billy Bahl threw for 174 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in Miami's surprising 17-14 loss to Kent State last week.
Bahl started for the RedHawks against UB two seasons ago, going 13 for 36 for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
"This isn't a first-time starter," Leipold said. "Now that he's played a little bit, you can see there's adjustments in their offense in what they're going to do."
The Bulls may need a big day from their defense if the status quo continues at quarterback. True freshman Kyle Vantrease could get his first career start after an injury to Drew Anderson Saturday.
"As a defense, we've got to step up as a whole unit," Lewis said. "Even if we're down to our third quarterback, we've got to stop them as much as we can. You can't allow as many points when you've got a freshman quarterback. ... We've got to help him out."