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The University at Buffalo Bulls gave up enough cheap pass plays to flirt with disaster Saturday night.

However, they may have found a new receiving star in rallying to defeat Duquesne, 38-28.

Ron Willoughby, a 6-foot-4 junior from Ohio who bears similarities to graduated star Alex Neutz, caught two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to key the UB victory.

“It’s certainly not what I expected in terms of the overall performance,” said UB coach Jeff Quinn. “But there were moments in that game where I saw our kids really dig deep and come up big, especially late in the game.”

The Bulls took a 21-0 first-half lead against a team that was playing its first-ever game against a top-level college football team. Duquesne’s first six drives produced five punts and a fumble.

Set win No. 1 on cruise control, right?

Not so fast. Duquesne produced four TDs in its next five possessions to take a 28-24 lead early in the fourth quarter.

The Bulls gave Duquesne an easy score with a muffed punt in its own territory. Then UB’s unproven defensive backfield, which lost three starters from last year’s club, gave up some long pass plays.

A 41-yard reception set up the second Duquesne TD. Then UB cornerback Dwellie Striggles got beat for an 88-yard touchdown pass for the third Duquesne score. Then one of the UB linebackers appeared to blow a coverage to allow a tight end to get wide open on a 45-yard pass that set up the fourth TD.

“Playing the ball in the air is something we’ve got to get better at,” said Quinn.

Fortunately for UB, junior quarterback Joe Licata was outstanding.

He completed 25 of 36 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns.

His touch on sideline throws was phenomenal, especially when he targeted Willoughby, who caught 10 passes for 132 yards.

UB took back control of the game early in the fourth quarter with a 97-yard touchdown drive.

Licata hit Willoughby on a 46-yard post pattern to the Duquesne 37.

“It was a deep post,” Licata said. “We knew that they were going to bite on the play action because they were playing the run because our offensive line was pushing them around. They had to respect that aspect of it. Ron beat the corner over the top and the safety bit down on the play action. It was a little bit behind him, and he made a great play.”

Four plays later Licata found Willoughby with a perfect throw down the left sideline into the end zone. The 24-yard TD put UB ahead, 31-28, with 9:50 to go.

“Coach Quinn wanted to take a shot in the end zone,” Licata said. “The corner bailed. Like any quarterback knows, you’re really not supposed to throw a go-route into a corner bailing. But I had a lot of faith in Ron to make the play. I knew if I threw it high to him, he’s a big 6-4 guy, he’d go get it.”

The UB defense came up with a big three-and-out on the ensuing series, thanks in part to a 9-yard sack by safety Adam Redden.

Then Licata drove the Bulls 75 yards in 16 plays to a clinching touchdown. It came on an 11-yard pass to Willoughby in the left corner of the end zone with 1:32 to go. The officials initially ruled Willoughby did not get a foot down in the back of the end zone, but the play was ruled a TD after replay review.

“It was just a go route,” Willoughby said. “I felt like my foot wasn’t in. I thought my heel was out of bounds, so it was awesome to see it was a touchdown.”

Neutz, who caught a team-high 61 passes last season, is 6-3, 214.

Willoughby is a tad taller and weighs 199. He had an outstanding preseason camp to push himself into the starting lineup, opposite sophomore receiver Boise Ross.

“It was an awesome experience, and it’s great to get a win,” Willoughby said. “I was very upset with the lead that we blew. But we’ll work on that. Joe threw some great passes. It looks hard, but it’s pretty easy when Joe’s putting the ball right there.”

The paid attendance was 20,329, but the actual number in the house might have been half that, especially after the game was halted by a lightning storm in the first quarter.

There was a brief torrential downpour, and the game was delayed for 44 minutes due to the weather.

UB outgained Duquesne, 472-373.

The Bulls outrushed their Pittsburgh opponent, 174-51.

UB got 117 rushing yards on 30 carries from junior Anthone Taylor. Sophomore Jordan Johnson added 38 yards on nine carries, and junior Devin Campbell had 37 on six carries.

Duquesne sophomore quarterback Dillon Buechel completed 18 of 37 passes for 322 yards. His main target, 6-1 Chris King, had eight catches for 199 yards.

“Competing for the ball in the air when we’re on defense, that was something that obviously I wasn’t pleased with,” Quinn said. “Our secondary, they need to get in there and watch more film and understand how they’re playing their plays and where they were on their technique. And I know that they’ll improve on that, too. That’s really what I told them. You’ve got to live and learn from these situations.”

UB visits Army on Saturday.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com