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Game Week: Scouting Buffalo

(Branden Oliver is the top offensive weapon for Buffalo. He is day-to-day with an ankle injury/buffalobulls.com)

Buffalo may have found its quarterback of the future in redshirt freshman Joe Licata.

After Bulls starter Alex Zordich went down with a rib injury at Toledo on Oct. 27, Licata stepped in and immediately changed the offense’s pace and strategy. He led Buffalo to a seven-play, 73-yard touchdown drive against the Rockets, in a case of too-little-too-late. Over the next two weekends, Licata and the Bulls took down Miami (OH) and Western Michigan – their first MAC wins of the season.

In the two victories, Licata went 34 of 57 for 412 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception.

While Zordich is a dual-threat quarterback adept at running a read option, Licata is more comfortable in the pocket. As such, Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn has switched up the playbook a bit and now has the Bulls running a pro style attack that focuses on short passes and an up-the-gut run game.

Leading the charge for Buffalo’s potent rushing attack is Branden (“Bo”) Oliver, a 5’9, 202-pound junior who might be the most NFL-ready back in the MAC. In seven games, Oliver has more than 800 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Last year, Oliver re-wrote the Buffalo record books with 1,395 rushing yards to go along with 14 touchdowns. Nearly every preseason magazine pegged him as the best running back in the conference.

Oliver has OK speed, but makes up for it with patience and quickness. His first-half highlights against Kent State (he was injured for the second half) show his running style and some of Buffalo’s pro style sets:

The Buffalo News is reporting that Oliver (ankle) might not be 100 percent for the game this weekend. He and and backup Devin Campbell “are day-to-day but both are practicing.” In the unlikely event that neither Oliver or Campbell play, the Bulls will start junior Brandon Murie. Murie has played in eight games this year and has 125 yards rushing.

If the running game can’t get anything going, Buffalo also has a top-flight receiver in Alex Neutz. The 6’3, 200-pound junior has 847 yards and 10 touchdowns this season and has pretty much been the only statistical contributor at wideout. Neutz was on track to surpass 1,000 yards receiving last year, but suffered a season-ending injury with three games left.

Buffalo’s offensive line is anchored by senior right tackle Gokhan Ozkan, a 6’7, 330-pound Staten Island product. The line has been adequate so far, allowing about two sacks per game.

On defense, the Bulls – who run a 3-4 – are led by a linebacking corps that may be tops in the MAC.

Leading the way is outside linebacker Khalil Mack, a 6’3, 245-pound Florida native who has 65 tackles, 20.5 of which are for loss.  Mack was named first-team All-MAC linebacker last season. Sports Illustrated called Mack a “Future Game Changer.” Apparently his number is 46 because that’s what EA Sports ranked him his freshman year.

Lee Skinner, a redshirt sophomore, has stepped up for Buffalo at inside linebacker and has 72 tackles, 7.5 for loss. As a redshirt freshman, Skinner had 80 tackles and was Phil Steele had him on his second team All-Freshman team.

Defensive ends Colby Way and Steven Means have done a good job getting penetration out of the three-man front, despite frequently dealing with multiple blockers. The two have combined for more than 100 tackles this season.

UMass coach Charley Molnar told MassLive’s Harry Plumer that Buffalo safety Derek Brim is “the best safety UMass has seen all year.” Brim is a converted wide receiver and has 35 tackles so far.

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