For two games it appeared that the University at Buffalo’s offense had struck the perfect balance. The running game was churning. Quarterback Alex Zordich had completed two-thirds of his passes and was a Perfect 10 (for 10) in the first half against Morgan State. All systems were a go.
Then came the Mid-American Conference opener against Kent State and a humbling 23-7 defeat in which Zordich completed just 4 of 22 throws. The passing game hasn’t been the same since. Zordich ranks 92nd in the nation in pass efficiency. The ratings run 100 players deep and UB’s QB is the only one of the bunch with a completion rate below 50 percent (49.2).
The flip side tells a different story heading into Saturday’s game at defending MAC champ Northern Illinois (5-1, 2-0). Zordich, a junior, has been an integral part of a running game that ranks 23rd in the country at 222.2 yards per game. He carried 19 times for 110 yards Saturday at Ohio, becoming the first Bulls QB in the modern Division I era (1999 and beyond) to reach the century mark. He’s a yard shy of setting the school single-season record for rushing yards by a QB.
Zordich’s effectiveness in the run game has enabled him to retain his starting spot ahead of redshirt freshman backup Joe Licata, a pocket-type passer who lacks Zordich’s rushing skills. And while Licata could continue to see situational action, as he did when the Bulls fell 14 points behind Ohio, head coach Jeff Quinn is giving no consideration to making a full-scale change.
“There is no issue there. Zordich is our starting quarterback,” Quinn said this week. “What a gutsy, tough player he is. … We’ll continue working with Alex [on] his accuracy. He’s improved from that Kent State game and I think that’s one of the reasons he’s the best fit to run our total package. But we also know that late in the game we felt going with Joe was the right move in that situation and you saw some good things out of Joe. That’s a good problem to have.”
While Zordich adds a dimension to the running game, third-down passing plays have been the offense’s demise. Over the last three games he’s attempted 24 third-down passes and completed just eight for all of 36 yards. Zordich converted one third down via pass against UConn and one against Ohio, an improvement over the 0-for-7 against Kent State. And it’s not as if he’s facing a steady stream of impossible situations. Eleven of those 24 attempts have come with UB needing 5 or fewer yards.
Some of the blame undoubtedly rests with a receiving corps that’s missing injured starter Fred Lee and is relatively inexperienced beyond primary target Alex Neutz. The receivers had trouble getting open as far back as training camp, and it hasn’t changed. As a team, the Bulls (1-4, 0-2) rank 83rd nationally in third-down conversions at 37.3 percent. Northern Illinois, by comparison, is first in the Mid-American Conference and 25th nationally at 48.8 percent.
“I think it’s just a function of the way the game gets played,” said quarterbacks coach Don Patterson. “There’s 11 parts to the puzzle on offense and the things we know as coaches, and players for that matter, is all 11 have to be on. If one’s off then the play might be off.
“Sometimes it’s the quarterback’s fault for a ball not thrown exactly where it needs to be thrown and sometimes to the credit of the defense because maybe they have great coverage on that particular play, maybe they guess right with a particular call.”
Quinn also points out that, as a running quarterback, Zordich is taxed more than, say, a pure passer.
“He’s started five games, and when you run a quarterback as much as we’re doing with him, he’s being asked to go back and drop back after getting banged by three or four D-linemen,” Quinn said. “Those are things he’s getting more and more used to and more comfortable doing.”
The rushing numbers continue to weigh in Zordich’s favor. Quinn said before the season that the Bulls would carve out their offensive identity with the running game and that’s certainly been the case.
“Zordich gives us our best chance,” Quinn said.