Back in mid-September, in the Mid-American Conference opener, the University at Buffalo was left searching after star running back Branden Oliver went down with a knee injury. There was no proven replacement at the position, no strong passing attack to pick up the slack. The Bulls were crushed by Kent State, the first of six consecutive defeats.
UB faced similar circumstances against Western Michigan Saturday afternoon in the home finale at UB Stadium. Only this time a seasoned, adversity-tested team had answers to the pressing questions. The running game delivered in the first half even after an injury to Oliver.
Quarterback Joe Licata, making his second start, had the passing game humming after intermission. And an underrated defense stymied yet another offense as the Bulls scored a 29-24 victory for their first two-game winning streak under third-year coach Jeff Quinn.
UB (3-7, 2-4) shot out to a 17-0 lead, trailed by 24-23 early in the fourth quarter and went ahead to stay on a 30-yard touchdown hook-up between Licata and Alex Neutz with 10:53 to play. The advantage stood up thanks to a defense that produced two of its five takeaways inside the final four minutes. The last of them came with 1:12 remaining on cornerback Cortney Lester’s Division I school-record third interception of the game, a feat he’d never managed before, even in high school.
“First time,” Lester said. “All the credit really has to go to Coach (Lou) Tepper and the coaches because they put us in position to take away what they do.”
Western Michigan (4-7, 2-5) took away UB’s running game in the second half, holding the Bulls to a scant 19 yards and both Oliver and backup Devin Campbell left with injuries. Oliver hurt an ankle late in the first quarter and Campbell appeared to be knocked unconscious midway in the fourth quarter. So it was up to Licata to get the offense moving. And he did.
The former Williamsville South star completed 21 of 33 for 285 yards and a TD in his second college start and sizzled in the second half, going 11 of 14 for 136. The TD throw to Neutz found him in stride down the left sideline after the junior wideout threw a double move on the defense.
“We knew we had a good shot at it and Joe threw a perfect ball,” Neutz said. “It was almost too easy.”
The Broncos rallied behind senior quarterback Alex Carder, who was making his first start since a Sept. 22 finger injury. WMU was on the UB 24 with inside four minutes left when linebacker Jake Stockman swept wide on the rush and forced a Carder fumble recovered by defensive end Colby Way.
“All week it worked pretty well because I have Khalil Mack coming off the same edge I’m coming off of,” Stockman said. “Usually people watch him a lot, so it works out for me. I’m the beneficiary. It just so happened Mack’s man did his job blocking down, then I was able to bend around the last blocker.”
UB appeared to have this one well in hand as halftime neared with the Bulls holding a 17-0 advantage. And then, in a flash, the Broncos mounted consecutive touchdown drives of 57 and 58 yards inside the final three minutes and hit the locker room riding a wave of momentum, their deficit down to a field goal.
An 18-yard, tightrope-the-sideline touchdown run by Oliver gave UB a 7-0 advantage less than 5 minutes in. Tight end Alex Dennison had one of the key blocks as Oliver slipped down the right side and barely remained inbounds before finding the end zone for his fifth rushing touchdown of the season. The 60-yard drive included a 23-yard connection between Licata and Neutz, who finished with nine catches for 140 yards.
Campbell replaced the injured Oliver and made a rapid impact. A shanked punt provided the Bulls a drive start at the Broncos 45 and, on the very next play, Campbell scooted untouched down the right side for his longest run of the season and a 14-0 lead. He went over 100 yards for the third time, finishing with 107 on 22 carries.
Patrick Clarke’s 30-yard field with less than four minutes remaining in the second quarter further improved UB’s advantage. The defense was sizzling. And then Carder began to find his rhythm. He found Eric Monette from 17 yards out to cap the one march and from 27 yards to finish the second 18 seconds before halftime.
WMU took the second half kickoff and set off on a drive that ended with a 8-yard pass from Carder to Kendrick Roberts. In less than 6 minutes of game time the Broncos turned a 17-0 deficit into a 21-17 lead.
UB moved back ahead on a pair of Clarke field goals, from 35 and 38 yards. The latter was set up by Lester’s second interception of the day and a 36-yard return to the Broncos 25. WMU took their final lead on a 28-yard Andrew Haldeman field goal with 13:26 left in the fourth quarter.