In the big picture, 5 yards doesn’t seem like very much – a carry, a block, a forward thrust off the line of scrimmage.
But according to the University at Buffalo players and coaches, the Bulls’ ability to grasp those fundamental principles is the primary reason for an improved running game and corresponding three-game winning streak.
If they can once again establish the run, the Bulls’ game Saturday at Waldo Stadium against Western Michigan (0-6, 0-2 Mid-American Conference) will look similar to last weekend’s 42-14 pounding against Eastern Michigan.
The Broncos are a team that has been gnawed for 271.5 yards a contest, 12th in the Mid-American Conference and 120th out of 123 teams nationally. Massachusetts (273.4), UNLV (285.0) and New Mexico State (340.8) are the only teams that rank lower.
Overall, Buffalo (3-2, 1-0) is averaging 134.0 yards rushing per game and 3.2 yards per carry on 208 attempts, numbers not worthy of celebration. But in its last three contests, UB averaged 171.3 yards a game and 4.1 yards per attempt.
“We’re really just starting to jell,” said Adam Shorter, the Bulls’ offensive line coach and run game coordinator. “Guys up front are feeling more comfortable.”
Two offensive linemen in particular – right guard Robert Blodgett and left tackle John Kling (Depew), a pair of sophomores – have earned more playing time in recent weeks. Blodgett has started the last two weeks while Kling is rotating with junior Andre Davis (Maryvale).
“Both are great players and feeling a bit more of a groove,” Shorter said.
It also helps avoiding teams the caliber of Ohio State and Baylor, who combined held the Bulls to 156 yards rushing. The Buckeyes rank in the top 10 nationally against the run while the Bears are in the top 25 and their speed was overwhelming.
“Obviously those two teams played with a lot of speed, a different caliber,” Shorter said. “It really prepared us to do what we’ve done the last couple of weeks. Seeing that speed, seeing those tough guys is really going to help us as we get into our MAC play.”
Another factor is a healthy Branden Oliver. The senior tailback was limited against Baylor with a knee injury and missed the Stony Brook game but returned the following week against UConn and ran for 90 yards and a touchdown. He enjoyed his best day of the season last weekend against Eastern Michigan when he rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
“We have guys who really understand the importance of superior effort and it comes from your attitude,” UB coach Jeff Quinn said. “When you get a guy like Bo Oliver back there – he’s an explosive player – and those guys love having Bo back there.”
Indeed, having Oliver as the starting tailback alleviates a lot of problems. Opponents can stack eight- or nine-man fronts, which opens up the passing game for quarterback Joe Licata and wideouts Alex Neutz and Fred Lee. Respect for passing creates open space for Oliver.
And Bo knows it starts in the trenches.
“The offensive line – their mind-set and the coaches’ mind-set – is to run the ball,” Oliver said. “When everyone is on the same page – even the receivers block to open up the lanes – that helps with our running game.”
It might be tempting to have Oliver and Co. carry the load, but Quinn wants to maintain the balance that has made the Bulls successful the last two games. The Bulls will start with the run early before transitioning into the pass.
“You don’t want to sit here and say, ‘All we’re going to do is run the ball,’ ” Quinn said. “There’s things we feel good about in our throw game as much as we do about our run game and that’s got to be part of the mind-set.”
Western Michigan’s defense can’t be dismissed easily. It’s as if the Broncos are the Big Ten’s 13th team playing a schedule that includes Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa. They also run an unconventional 5-2-4 defense that relies heavily on gap responsibility.
“They are very effective when they get there but it’s getting those guys in their seams,” Shorter said. “If they don’t get in their gaps, they open up some big seams. But they have some tremendous speed, more than you would think from an 0-6 football team. They don’t play like an 0-6 football team.”