FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – If Joe Licata goes on to have a solid career quarterbacking the University at Buffalo, let Saturday, on the home turf of his football idol Tom Brady, be remembered as the day he came of age.
Playing without their top running backs, the Bulls spent the first half wandering around in an offensive daze. They were being humbled by Massachusetts, a first-year FBS program. Their road losing streak was sliding deeper into the depths, toward 14 games.
That all changed dramatically under the leadership of a red-shirt freshman making his third career start and his first away from the comfort of home. Licata completed 9-of-15 second-half throws for 139 yards and two TDs, erasing a 13-point halftime deficit en route to a 29-19 victory over the Minutemen at Gillette Stadium.
UB’s first road win since Oct. 2, 2010 formed its first three-game winning streak since the 2008 MAC championship season and came on the strength of three second-half scoring drives of 77 yards or longer. Plenty of players factored in this one, from running backs Brandon Murie and Rashad Jean to the offensive line to a defense that produced eight sacks and allowed just 98 second-half yards. Licata, however, was front and center as the Bulls rebounded from a scoreless first half.
“That’s what we recruited him to do and now he’s got an opportunity to build on that,” coach Jeff Quinn said. “Each week he’s grown a lot more in terms of the system, managing it and taking that lead. I think everybody just kind of rallies behind Joe.”
Licata showed great poise under pressure on the 6-yard touchdown pass to Alex Neutz that put UB ahead to stay at 22-19 early in the fourth quarter. A rollout to the right availed Licata nothing. With a defender bearing down, he glanced left and found Neutz, who made a difficult catch of a throw below his knees.
“They covered both of our guys out there so I just looked back and when you got a player who’s as smart and as great as Alex Neutz is you know he’s going to be coming,” Licata said.”
“That was an awesome play by Joe,” Neutz said. “It was a rollout play so his 1, 2 and 3 looks are to the front side. I was the last resort option and he looked back, found me and threw a great ball where only I could get it.”
A 44-yard strike to Fred Lee on a deep slant accounted for a large chunk of the 77-yard, nine-play march. The two also connected for a 34-yard gain on UB’s second TD drive.
“We talked all week about the post over the top,” Lee said. “We had to get the run game going so it was tough in the beginning. I had a big role blocking. I was patient in the first half waiting for our running game to get going and when they called my number, the ‘O’ line blocked good and Joe put the ball out there beautifully.”
The Bulls added a final touchdown on a 12-yard Brandon Murie run with two minutes remaining. Murie carried 16 times for 94 yards and Jean 17 times for 73 yards as the Bulls were without the top two running backs on the depth chart, Branden Oliver and Devin Campbell.
Special teams provided UB an early second-half lift. Adam Redden broke through to block a Colter Johnson punt, the ball bounding forward into the hands of Kyndal Minniefield.
Minniefield, a redshirt freshman defensive back, bolted 33 yards untouched down the left sideline and UB was within 13-7.
“The blocked punt really sparked us,” said Quinn. “We were flat offensively.”
UMass got the TD – but not the conversion kick – back later in the quarter. A replay review played a major role in the three-play, 41-yard drive. A first-down pass from quarterback Mike Wegzyn to Deion Walker to the UB 3 was ruled incomplete because Walker had stepped out of bounds.
Upon review it was determined Walker had been forced out by Cortney Lester and then re-established himself in the field of play. The decision gave the Minutemen a first and goal at the 3, from where Michael Cox scored around end two plays later.
UB responded with by far its most impressive drive of the game to that point. Licata led them 79 yards in 11 plays in a march that culminated with a 3-yard TD thrown to tight end Jimmy Gordon. A 34-yard over-the-middle strike to Lee set up the score that pulled the Bulls within 19-14.
Offense was nowhere to be found in the first half. The Bulls hit the locker room trailing, 13-0, and it could have been worse. UB came up with a goal-line stand on the first UMass possession, sending the Minutemen away without any points. The Minutemen got their touchdown with 56 seconds left and broke for intermission with thoughts of a second straight victory dancing in their heads.
But that’s not the way it came off as a dominant defense afforded Licata the opportunity to notch a fourth-quarter comeback victory. On the road.