The game from Joe Licata’s past that suggested he could be UB’s long-term answer at quarterback came last November against today’s UB Stadium opponent, the University of Massachusetts.
The Bulls had won Licata’s first two games as a starter on home turf. It was anticipated the streak would continue with relative ease in Gillette Stadium against a first-year Division I-A program. But late into the third quarter UB trailed, 19-7, and Licata had completed 9 of 18 throws, most of the dink-and-dunk variety.
Running back Branden Oliver was out injured. The offense needed a jump, which seemed a lot to ask of a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first road start.
Maybe Licata channeled the Gillette Stadium karma of the quarterback he most admires, New England’s Tom Brady. Maybe Licata’s competitive instincts were sharpened by the perceived hopelessness of the situation. Whatever the explanation, that’s the day UB’s newest leader was born.
Licata completed 5 of 6 throws for 42 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown pass, on a 79-yard march that closed UB within 19-14. Early in the fourth quarter he put the Bulls ahead by going 3 of 5 for 62 yards on a 77-yard march capped by a 6-yard TD strike. In a matter of 15 game minutes Licata provided affirmative answers to two questions that tag behind every young starting quarterback: Can he win on the road? Does he possess the poise and leadership skills to deal with adversity? That game, those 15 minutes, were just the start.
Said UB quarterbacks coach Don Patterson: “I’m confident in saying this: The quarterback that we have taking snaps this week against UMass is better than the one we had taking snaps a year ago. Joe would tell you the same thing.”
From the standpoint of personal numbers there’s no wow factor in what Licata has brought to the table. He’s completing 58.6 percent of his passes, modest by college standards. He’s averaging just 186.2 passing yards a game, nothing like the record-shattering numbers he put up at Williamsville South. But how about this: UB’s first-team offense has scored on each of its last 10 trips into the red zone. And it’s not just 10 for 10. It’s 10 for 10 with 10 touchdowns. Overall, Licata has thrown for 11 TDs against four interceptions.
“He’s been a real bright spot for us and, as you know, that’s a big reason your offense is putting points on the board because you got a quarterback that can throw the ball, he can hand the ball off, he can make the right calls and checks at the line of scrimmage and he’s managing things quite well for us right now,” Bulls coach Jeff Quinn said.
The underlying story of Licata’s development is in the details. He spends countless hours watching tape of opposing defenses, often with wideouts Alex Neutz or Fred Lee at his side. Heading into last week’s game, Licata noticed Western Michigan’s talented corners play the long ball over the top. They didn’t want anyone getting behind them. The 28-yard sideline TD pass that Licata threw Lee was put on his back (inside) shoulder because Lee could use his body to shield the defender from making a play.
“We knew those corners were pretty aggressive and were going to try to beat us over the top so I told him and Alex before, be ready for the back shoulder because I know those guys are really aggressive and once you go long they’re going to beat you over the top,” Licata said.
“He always talked about that he loved that back-shoulder throw,” Lee said. “I didn’t know he could throw it 39 yards back shoulder.”
Licata’s also had his stumbles. Stony Brook intercepted a forced pass in the fourth overtime at UB Stadium but missed a 37-yard field goal attempt that would have dealt the Bulls a devastating defeat.
“Thankfully it didn’t cost us the game but I think it was a learning experience for him even then,” Patterson said. “He made the comment to the media the same comment I made to him: ‘This is not Will South versus Will North. This is Division I-A football. You can’t get by with some of this stuff you’re doing.’
“The thing I appreciate about Joe is he’s smart, he learns quickly, he’s very coachable,” Patterson said. “He wants to be good. He’s highly motivated. Doesn’t make the same mistake very often, twice.”
Asked how he’d grade his play this year, Licata started with the negatives.
“I’m a competitor and we’ve lost two games this year. That’s two too many for me,” he said. “But I think I’ve done a good job. The guys have really bought into me being their guy, being their quarterback. It’s changed from being the rookie to now being the leader on offense. Guys like Freddie Lee and Alex Neutz and Bo Oliver really believe in me, so that’s huge for this offense.”
“It’s awesome to see Joe developing as a sophomore and I know him and Neutz were joking the other day and saying it’s amazing how much chemistry we’d have if we had more years to play with him,” Lee said. “So the other receivers get an even better Joe in the years to come.”