Throughout the first half of the season the importance of special teams was drilled into the UB consciousness with jackhammer force.
A 100-yard kickoff return by Georgia’s Todd Gurley broke an early 7-7 tie in the season opener. Another 100-yarder by Ohio’s Daz’mond Patterson ripped away the momentum of UB’s early 14-0 lead. Against Pitt, the Bulls realized on average a 10-yard decline in field position on each exchange of punts. Somehow, someway, UB consistently was coming out on the short end of the special teams battle and it was costing them dearly.
What’s the importance of special teams? Last week Western Michigan put away Central Michigan when it recovered a fumble on the kickoff following a touchdown and went on to score again. Ohio had two punts blocked and couldn’t get two others off in Wednesday’s loss to Bowling Green. And let’s not forget last Saturday at UB Stadium, when Devin Campbell’s long kickoff return set up Patrick Clarke’s walk-off field goal after the Bulls had yielded the tying touchdown with 23 seconds left.
UB coach Jeff Quinn and his staff always have stressed special teams but the emphasis seems to have grown the last couple of weeks. On Thursday, while questions lingered about his starting quarterback, Quinn said he expects special teams will be the determining factor in this afternoon’s Senior Day game against Western Michigan (4-6, 2-4). Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. (Radio 1230 AM).
UB’s special teams scored some subtle victories before last week. The Bulls neutralized UConn’s dangerous returner, Nick Williams. They took Toledo’s explosive Bernard Reedy out of the game. The win over Miami last Saturday was, particularly from a special teams perspective, a long time in the making and reinforced the team’s commitment.
“Very proud,” said linebacker Willie Moseley. “That’s what we harp, we harp every day in practice and in meetings, special teams, special teams, special teams. To see it all come together and get a W out of it, that’s all we can ask for.”
Western Michigan hits town with a more balanced offense than Miami and with some welcomed uncertainty at quarterback. Senior Alex Carder, out since injuring a finger on his throwing hand on Sept. 22, was cleared to practice this week and figures to see at least some time leading into next week’s career-finale against Eastern Michigan.
There hasn’t been much if any drop off with Carder’s replacement, Tyler Van Tubbergen, a 6-3, 200-pound junior. “TVT” has completed 61 percent of his throws with 15 touchdowns.
The main cog in the running game is the diminutive Dareyon Chance, who’s generously listed at 5-foot-5. He’s averaging 6 yards a carry in MAC games.
“They do a lot with their personnel,” Quinn said. “They have over 10 different personnel groupings that they’ll put on the field. You’ll even see a little swinging gate. Bill Cubit’s an outstanding football coach and they play hard. They’re very multiple but very balanced. They’re a little bit more on the ground (than Miami).”
The Bulls (2-7, 1-4) are gunning to string together consecutive wins for the first time since 2009. As always, getting the running game into gear will be one of the keys.
“We’re very proud of our running backs and our quarterbacks and we want to protect them and get the ground game going, that’s what we take pride in,” said senior offensive tackle Gokhan Ozkan. “It’s a great feeling knowing we have momentum coming into this game. I think there’s an extra chip on my shoulder it just being Senior Day, my last go at UB Stadium.”
Joe Licata filled in for the injured Alex Zordich at quarterback last week and managed the game well. Zordich practiced this week and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both factor into the game plan. The Bulls inserted Tony Daniel, a QB styled like Zordich, on the third series against Miami.
“I feel good about the game plan we had last week and we feel good about where we’re heading with our game plan this week but I think it’s still going to come down to - these kids know this - special teams,” Quinn said. “It really is.”