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UB's season-opening win a tuneup for Penn State test to come

For a season opener, the University at Buffalo team looked capable. Yet the Bulls were hardly in midseason form, and a team that entered the 2019 season with plenty of questions could not expect them all to be answered in the first game.

The run game proved that it hasn't missed a beat in the 38-10 win Thursday against Robert Morris. The Bulls finished with 285 yards and three touchdowns on 47 carries. This was to be expected of a team that returned Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks, its top two rushers from 2018, and lost its top five receivers.

The running backs were reliable. Patterson ran for 90 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, while Marks ran for 75 yards on 13 carries. Matt Myers, a redshirt freshman quarterback from West Seneca West, also turned on the wheels for the Bulls in his first college start, rushing for 47 yards and a touchdown on four carries.

But there were a few glaring areas of concern for the Bulls, who will get their first test a week from Saturday at Penn State.

The Bulls will need to find their timing with Myers at the helm of the offense. Myers was 5 for 10 passing for 69 yards and two touchdowns. The bulk of his production came in the first half, when he went 5-for-7 passing for 69 yards and two touchdowns.

"I felt great," Myers said. "There were a little bit of butterflies at the start, but as the game went on, the first snap, it was more of just playing football."

But Myers’ options at receiver remain limited, as expected.

The tight ends became Myers’ best choices with an inexperienced and sparse group of receivers – in particular,  junior tight end Zac Lefebvre, whose two touchdowns helped the Bulls take a 28-10 lead at the half.

Lefebvre, freshman Marlyn Johnson and Patterson caught passes for positive yardage (Marks caught one pass for minus-four yards late in the second quarter), but Myers was 0 for 3 passing in the third quarter and was relieved by Kyle Vantrease about 90 seconds into the fourth.

"Field position changed there, in the third quarter," coach Lance Leipold said. "We were kind of backed up there, so it didn't really give ourselves an opportunity to throw it, maybe as much as we'd hoped in the third quarter."

Special teams also is part of UB's concerns, and Leipold knew this entering the game.

University at Buffalo quarterback Matt Myers throws against Robert Morris during second half action. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Kicking wasn’t an issue. Alex McNulty made a 40-yard field goal less than six minutes into the third quarter to give the Bulls a 31-10 lead. Instead, the Bulls need to firm up their return game.

With a 7-0 lead about five minutes into the game, the Bulls were poised to down a punt just before midfield, but the ball bounced off Theo Anderson’s helmet and was recovered by Robert Morris, reviving a possession for the Colonials. UB’s defense limited Robert Morris to one yard on the next three plays, but when the Colonials punted again, the Bulls turned to Tito Overton to field the punt. Overton played it safe, caught the ball and took a knee at the Bulls' 18.

But at the end of Robert Morris’ next possession, linebacker Matt Otwinowski, playing on punt coverage, took a holding penalty that pushed the Bulls back 10 yards to their own 21. The infraction was UB’s only penalty of the first half; the Bulls finished with four penalties for 35 yards.

Leipold, however, wouldn't let Anderson's return gaffe spoil the unit's effort. He pointed out Anderson's blocked punt earlier in the game, which helped set up UB's first touchdown, a 3-yard run by Myers at 3:16 of the first quarter.

Myers also is easing his way into the offense that was run-heavy against the Colonials. The Bulls had 22 carries for 178 yards in the first half, including a 10-play, 82-yard drive in the first quarter that was punctuated by Myers’ 34-yard run and capped off by Patterson’s 4-yard touchdown.

"I don't think it's any secret that, where our experience lies, we're going to try to establish a run game," fifth-year coach Lance Leipold said. "I thought we ran the ball extremely well, and until they slowed us down, there wasn't a need to throw it. We got a few throws, and then the game was dictating itself that way."

The Bulls can savor this win, but the jubilation period will be short. An FCS opponent  is a far cry from UB’s next opponent, and the Bulls' season opener was a test run for the first major challenge on their schedule, a nonconference game at Penn State in front of an anticipated crowd of more than 106,000 fans at Beaver Stadium.

UB’s rushers – Patterson, Marks, Dylan McDuffie and Ron Cook Jr. – proved they can run against a team that went 2-9 last season and couldn’t do much on defense, allowing the Bulls 354 yards on 57 plays. Next week, the Bulls have to prove the same against one of the Big Ten’s top defenses.

Penn State is No. 15 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll, and while it's a team in transition, in search of its new starting quarterback, it returns a veteran defense that includes linebacker Micah Parsons (83 tackles, five quarterback hurries in 2018) and allowed 169 rushing yards a game in 2018 – and that defense will be hungry to prove itself.

Penn State won’t be overwhelmed as Robert Morris was. Against a Power Five opponent, UB can’t be overwhelmed.

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