KENT, Ohio — Well, now, we can mark that down as an emphatic statement. A thorough validation. An affirmative answer to the question: Are they as good as they’ve looked?
UB went into Dix Stadium Saturday afternoon and chased the home fans away by the middle of the third quarter with yet another dominating performance, this one against the defending MAC East champion. The Bulls took a punch, laughed it off, and proceeded to bury Kent State, 41-21, in a season that remains history in the making.
At 6-2 overall, UB’s bowl-eligible for the first time since 2008. At 4-0 in conference, the Bulls hold sole possession of the lead in the Mid-American Conference East. Their six-game winning streak is the school’s longest since 1959.
“It really was a full team victory today,” said quarterback Joe Licata, who threw for 285 yards and two touchdowns. “Our defense stepped up, played amazing, our special teams stepped up and played very well and our offense was clicking today.”
UB punished the Golden Flashes (2-7, 1-4) with a ground game that’s in full bloom. Branden Oliver went off for 185 yards and four touchdowns on 31 carries, becoming the first UB back with four rushing TDs since Anthony Swan in 1996. It was Oliver’s fourth straight 100-yard game and the 16th overall, adding to his own school mark.
“It feels great to get the sixth win, six in a row, be bowl-eligible,” Oliver said. “But that’s not the goal. The goal’s the MAC championship. So keep going, one day at a time, do what we’ve been doing for these past six weeks and keep getting better. That’s what we got to do.”
Oliver and linebacker Khalil Mack, best friends, long-time workout partners, factored prominently in the game’s telling sequence. Mack thwarted Kent’s bid for a halftime lead with an interception at the UB 9 that he returned to the Kent 46.
“Khalil seems to make a huge play every game,” Licata said. “He’s obviously our best defensive player and he keeps making those plays and he keeps firing up our offense.”
Four plays later, on third and 10 from the 17, Oliver streaked around left end and headed up field. He met up with cornerback Darius Polk head-on in what looked like two rams engaging in battle. As Polk swayed Oliver retained his balance while flush to the sideline and provided UB a 20-7 lead with eight seconds left in the half.
“It was about a yard away from the sideline and I saw myself about to go out so I said, “Nah, man, I can’t do that. It’s almost halftime,” Oliver said. “So I got to just drop the shoulder.”
While Oliver thrived, UB put Kent’s elusive Dri Archer under wraps. He totaled just 70 yards on eight touches, managed a late-third quarter TD run but saw his streak of four straight games with a receiving TD come to an end.
“That guy, he’s a special player, he’s explosive,” Mack said. “So we had to do everything we could to contain him.”
UB found itself in uncharted territory early in the second quarter when it fell behind in a MAC game for the first time this season. It responded as if insulted. Licata connected long with Neutz for a 49-yard gain that sparked a four-play, 66-yard drive good for a 13-7 advantage. Oliver capped the march with a 5-yard burst up the middle with 13:04 left in the second quarter. Total time UB trailed: 1:23.
The lead expanded on the game’s most pivotal play – an interception and 45-yard return by Mack that set up UB’s final touchdown. Kent was driving and had a first-and-10 on the 14. Quarterback Colin Reardon found a receiver in a seam. Mack saw the same thing, burst into the picture and made a one-handed pick at the 9; he was caught from behind at the Kent 46.
For Kent it was but a temporary reprieve. UB’s march began when Licata hit Devin Campbell on a shallow slant and the sophomore back from nearby Youngstown outran two defenders for a 29-yard gain. Two end zone passes for Neutz fell incomplete so the Bulls went back to Oliver, who responded with one of his best runs as a Bull at Polk’s expense.
UB opened the game with its offense pointed into a 25 mph wind. The results couldn’t have been much better. The Bulls held the ball for almost nine minutes and consumed six minutes on their second possession, a nine-play, 80-yard drive finished off by Licata’s 8-yard TD pass to Neutz. The extra point was blocked. The key play was Licata’s 24-yard completion to Fred Lee on third-and-11 from the UB 19. Without the conversion the Bulls would have been punting into a stiff wind.
“They left the middle open and we had a play call where Fred was going over the middle,” Licata said. “I just threw it up there and Fred’s continued to step up and make big plays.”
Kent answered with Traylon Durham’s 5-yard TD run, gaining the lead for what seemed like a blink.
“Let’s just say this: This is probably the most exciting time to be a UB Bull,” Quinn said. “And I’ll tell you, I couldn’t be more proud the way this football team has responded. We challenged them all week. We knew we had to come on the road against a very good Kent State football team. ... But that team in that locker room, they were not going to be denied today.”