Joe Licata had envisioned the scene thousands of times when making imaginary plays for his imaginary team while playing in his backyard in Williamsville. He would throw perfect passes and march the offense down the field. He would lead his team to victory and fall into the arms of his family after the game.
Such is the boyhood fantasy of many, and that’s where it ends for most. Careers usually stall long before high school. Only a few have an opportunity to put their dreams into action, as Joe Licata did Saturday after throwing two second-half touchdowns and guiding UB to a dramatic 27-24 victory over Miami.
Licata was jogging off the field at UB Stadium when he spotted his father, Gil, standing behind a railing beyond the corner of the end zone. A day earlier, he made the four-minute drive from his dorm to his home to wish his father a happy birthday and tell him face-to-face that he was a Division I starting quarterback.
Gil was his mentor, his hero, the man behind the boy who became the best passer in Western New York history. Licata pulled off his helmet, revealing the same ear-to-ear smile that for years melted his parents, and hugged his father. His mother and three sisters were a few feet away with arms open wide.
“My family is my biggest supporters, my biggest fans,” Licata said. “That’s the main reason I chose to stay home, to play in front of them. When I come off the field, win or lose, they’re always there for me. It was a great feeling today to be able to hug all of them after a big win.”
If there’s anything strange about Licata realizing his dream Saturday, it was the redshirt freshman couldn’t sleep the previous night. At Williamsville South, his custom on the eve of a game was watching “Remember the Titans” and drifting off. He planned to crash about 10 p.m. Friday but couldn’t catch a wink.
He watched the Washington-Cal game past midnight but couldn’t recall any details Saturday and wasn’t certain which team won (Washington, 21-13). He was in another world, concentrating on Miami. He was reviewing the game plan against the RedHawks and visualizing various plays.
“I was very tired,” he said. “Ten o’clock came around, and I wasn’t asleep. Eleven o’clock came around, and I wasn’t asleep. Midnight came around ... I fell asleep about 12:30. I woke up at 2, 4 and 7 and, finally, at 7:30. I was a little nervous, but I was more excited. I was so excited about today.”
Patrick Clarke was mauled by his teammates after winning the game on a 47-yard field goal on the final snap. Devin Campbell set up the kick when he returned a kickoff 47 yards to the Miami 35-yard line with 14 seconds remaining. Running back Branden Oliver gained 199 yards rushing.
All played significant roles Saturday for UB, which has had another rough season under Coach Jeff Quinn. Licata had spent most of the year riding the bench behind junior Alex Zordich, who plays a style suited for a running offense. UB’s attack will revolve around Oliver until further notice or it finds a quarterback who can make a difference.
Licata didn’t play a perfect game Saturday. He completed 13 of 24 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He overthrew two receivers that would have beefed up his yardage. He was victimized by a few drops. Overall, despite the pedestrian numbers, he managed the game and didn’t make any glaring mistakes.
He has a stronger, more accurate arm than Zordich, which gives UB a missing dimension in its offense. The Bulls are particularly beatable when reduced to one threat, Oliver. Their defense played better Saturday against NFL prospect Zac Dysert playing quarterback for Miami, which was coming off a big win over Ohio.
UB coach Jeff Quinn wasn’t sure what he had in Licata until he gave the quarterback an opportunity with Zordich nursing sore ribs. Licata certainly made a case for another start after he threw for two touchdowns in a victory. We’ll see what Quinn decides when UB plays Western Michigan next week at home.
“We know what we can expect from Joe,” Quinn said. “It’s only going to get better.”
It was already pretty good.
Licata’s first touchdown pass came on a slant that hit Alex Neutz between the 1 and the 9, allowing the receiver to run full speed through an open field. Licata knew Neutz had capable hands from their high school days. Neutz was a senior playing safety for Grand Island when he intercepted Licata, a sophomore at South.
“We had some chemistry before I got here,” Licata joked. “He’s a great player, and he gets open. He put a little move on [Dayonne Nunley], caught it and took off and scored. I was joking with him that I didn’t know he was that fast. It was a great play by him.”
Licata threaded a 21-yard pass between two defenders to Fred Lee to give UB a 24-17 lead with 5:36 remaining in the fourth quarter. Miami marched down the field and scored before Campbell’s long return on the ensuing kickoff. The win wasn’t exactly what Licata had drawn up all those years ago, but it was close enough.
Most important to him, other than the win, was the group behind him. He had about 100 family and friends at the game when all the grandparents, aunts and uncles were added up. They were there to see him earn his first win as a starting Division I quarterback, and they were waiting for him after the game.
Yes, that’s why he chose UB. His backyard these days is much bigger, and the stakes are considerably higher. But the joy that comes from winning, with his family in the stands, never changed. In fact, now, it’s even better.
“I imagined big wins and coming off the field and hugging my parents and my sisters, and that’s what happened today,” Licata said. “It was an amazing feeling. I’ve thought about that a lot. And it was awesome.”