Joe Licata was 2½ months old on that January day in 1993 when the Buffalo Bills made NFL history with a playoff comeback for the ages. But the University at Buffalo quarterback can recollect the wild about-face that took place as well as pretty much anyone.
He knows how the Bills erased a 35-3 deficit to win in overtime. He knows that the architect of that comeback, quarterback Frank Reich, had done pretty much the same thing in college, guiding Maryland from 31 points down to an improbable victory over unbeaten Miami.
UB trailed Toledo, 31-0, at the half Tuesday. It was 38-0 before the Bulls got their first second-half possession. And yet it never entered Licata’s mind that he was facing an insurmountable deficit. He was convinced the Bulls would fight their way back, one play at a time, because he had seen it done before.
“I was thinking of the Comeback Game, Frank Reich doing it, I’ve watched that game 100 times and that’s what I was thinking about,” Licata said Thursday. “Crazier things have happened. The Bills did it and I really thought we had it, honestly.”
UB couldn’t quite pull it off falling 51-41, but not before Licata rewrote the UB record book.
Toledo took nothing for granted after halftime. The Rockets’ defensive starters remained on the field. And they knew UB had to throw. Yet in the second half alone Licata pierced the secondary for 382 yards and four touchdowns, completing 24 of 36 passes (at least two were intentionally thrown away). For the game he was 36 of 58 for a UB record 497 yards. The yardage total ranks seventh all-time in the history of the MAC, a conference that has turned out the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.
Don Patterson, UB’s quarterbacks coach, talked to Licata at halftime about how the Bulls would go about getting back into the game. First off, Patterson reminded his quarterback not to get greedy. “The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time,” he said.
First get a touchdown. Then go for two. Be aggressive but not reckless because turnovers would magnify the challenge.
“The thing I was reminding Joe is, ‘OK, we’re going to have to open up the offense. We’re going to have to throw the ball more. But this will never change: We still have to protect the ball,’ ” Patterson said. “One of the things I’m proudest of is, it’s nice to have all those yards, but we threw the ball all those times and they never got one. And that’s what a good quarterback does. He protects the ball even if it’s obvious or almost obvious passing situations. We got that done. They didn’t have any great opportunities to even intercept a pass.
“One of the other things he did well, better than he’s done in the past, he did a good job buying time in the pocket but he didn’t break contain with the idea he had to run the ball, he broke contain with the idea he’s still got to find somebody to throw it to. And that’s just playing to his strengths.”
Licata took big bites out of the defense when opportunity allowed, smaller ones when the choices were limited. He completed passes to nine receivers: 22 to wideouts, seven to tight ends and seven to running backs. While the situation demanded urgency he still managed to minimize the risks.
“They’re trained that way,” Patterson said. “You got to keep the pressure on the defense and that means you don’t throw it into coverage. Desperate situation, if you have to dump the ball you dump the ball. Let’s face it, dumping the ball to Bo Oliver’s not a bad choice because sometimes those short dumps turn into longer gains. And the same thing with tight ends or receivers.”
The Toledo game marked the first time in his 14 career starts that the Bulls shifted the offensive burden onto the shoulders of their sophomore quarterback. His effectiveness until then had been measured in subtle but effective numbers – a 16-to-5 TD-to-interception ratio, a 60 percent completion rate, a career-single game high of 285 yards. His second-half performance Tuesday in the Glass Bowl was off the charts and could prove meaningful as the Bulls move forward.
UB has two games remaining, Tuesday at Miami and Black Friday against Bowling Green in Ralph Wilson Stadium. Win those two and the Bulls move onto the MAC title game and a likely a game with either 15th-ranked Northern Illinois or a rematch with Toledo (NIU plays at Toledo on Wednesday).
No matter who the Bulls might face out of the West, the trends point to a high-scoring game. While UB’s 41 points against Toledo were not a season high, it marked the first time the Bulls have put up a big number without turnover or scoring help from the defense.
“We know we’re going to have to score points but at the same time we have a lot of faith in our defense,” Licata said. “If we have to win a game 3-0 we can do it because I have faith our defense can shut any team out. But if we have to win a 56-50 game, I have no problem scoring 56 points either.”