I didn’t even feature Buffalo in my season-opening MAC previews. While I lauded coach Lance Leipold for reaching 6-6 in 2017 and cooling his formerly warm seat, I didn’t think the Vegas win-total line of (6 ½) was anything but generous. “A little more pass rush would be grand,” I snarked when discussing the Bulls.
Boy, did the 10-win Buffalo Bulls manufacture a healthy pass rush in 2018. A 36-29 win over Temple and a 2-TD victory over Toledo are just 2 high spots in a campaign in which the Bulls went 7-1 in MAC games and won the league’s East Division.
Meanwhile, a more-familiar MAC powerhouse won the West Division and will meet Buffalo at Ford Field for all the marbles this Friday evening. But the Northern Illinois Huskies have struggled to score points, only finished with a 7-5 overall record, and are 4-point consensus underdogs at CFB betting sites as championship weekend approaches.
Who: Northern Illinois Huskies vs Buffalo Bulls
When: Friday, November 30th, 7 PM EST
Where: Ford Field, Detroit, MI
Lines: NIU (+4) vs Buffalo (-4)
The Huskies have backed into Friday’s MAC Championship Game. Rod Carey’s squad lost its final 2 regular season scrums to Miami (OH) and Western Michigan – not terrible opponents by any stretch, but schools that you would expect any conference title winner to handle in ’18.
Without an above-average QB at the helm, could the Huskies win a conference title game by just handing the ball off and playing good defense? Maybe. NIU is 3-3 in MAC Championship scrums, but their last league title came in a high-scoring blow-out of Bowling Green 4 years ago. Northern Illinois looked like a dual-threat QB factory back then, with Jordan Lynch understudy Drew Hare passing for 18 touchdowns and just 2 picks in the 2014 campaign.
No disrespect to Childers, but he doesn’t appear to have half of the natural ability or mental acumen of either of those guys – and he’s up against a whale of a front-7 this weekend.
By hook or crook, NIU was able to rack-up a 6-game winning streak in mid-autumn. Childers – to use the phrase of an ESPN carnival-barker who I’m not fond enough of to mention by name – resembled an FBS quarterback in a crucial win over Ohio. The sophomore did not throw a touchdown pass but kept the sticks moving with short throws. More importantly, he rushed for 169 yards against the sturdy Bobcats in the 24-21 triumph.
But the NIU defense had its proudest moment the following week during a trip to visit the BYU Cougars. The Huskies were out-gained on the day, and only scored on a 1-yard run by Childers following a methodical 10-play drive in the 3rd quarter. But the Husky defense frustrated the Brigham Young offense for 4 quarters, forcing punt after punt in the 2nd half and intercepting Zach Wilson to seal the deal in the final moments.
Sutton Smith is the marquee edge-rusher for the Huskies, a frightening combination of power and quickness who has brought-down QBs 27 times over the last 2 seasons.
Perhaps the bookies setting such a tight spread for this Friday are looking at the Bulls’ floor instead of their ceiling. Buffalo gave up 42 points to the Black Knights in a 29-point loss. Drawn into tighter and tighter defensive alignments as Jeff Monken’s team rushed for 1st downs all day, the Bulls eventually gave up 4 crucial pass completions for almost 20 yards each. Tyree Jackson went just 10-of-24 through the air as Buffalo struggled to get going on the ground.
Jackson had his worst day in a visit to Athens (Ohio, not GA). The towering 6’7” junior connected on only 9 passes and was intercepted twice despite a healthy rushing attack. Bobcat senior A.J. Ouellette ran for 196 yards and 2 touchdowns as Ohio won 52-17.
Those 2 results seem detached from the rest of the Bulls’ season. The Buffalo ground game clicked in the win over Temple, with talented frosh RB Kevin Marks galloping for 138 yards and 2 touchdowns. Much later in autumn, Jackson passed for 358 yards and racked up 6 total TDs as the Bulls ran away from the Miami RedHawks 51-42.
Defensive ends Chuck Taylor and Taylor Riggins have combined for 11 sacks in 2018. But it was senior LB Khalil Hodge’s time to shine when the Bulls visited Toledo in October and escaped with a 31-17 win. Hodge gobbled-up 13 total tackles in the triumph.
I’m not convinced that the Huskies can jump out to a 10-0 lead at Ford Field, at least not in 4+ simulated tries out of 10. It’s much, much easier to imagine Buffalo taking a 2-touchdown advantage into the 2nd or 3rd quarter.
In Buffalo’s 2 losses, the common thread is opposing ball control. Jackson is a quarterback who flourishes with a lot of snaps in good field position. But his Bulls only had the ball for about 22 minutes in the loss to Army, and an even-more dire 16:00 against Ohio.
The Northern Illinois’ rush offense is pretty good, but not elite, with no world-class rusher to run through the holes made by NFL prospect Max Scharping and other blockers.
Unless the Huskies can come up with a ground game at Ford Field that resembles the powerful Flexbone attack of an upperclassman-studded Army team, you can expect the Bulls’ far-superior passing game to excel in an indoor environment. If Rod Carey’s idea is to stuff the Buffalo running game and create lots of good field position for his stuttering offense, Jackson’s eyes will light up with looks at 1-on-1 coverage against terrific receivers Anthony Johnson and K.J. Osborn.
Finally, while Smith is undoubtedly an A #1 pass-rusher on the Group-of-5 level, the collective pursuit of the Buffalo front-7 could prove just as deadly, especially against a QB who pales in comparison to anyone who has ever led his team to a MAC Championship at NIU.
No, the Bulls wouldn’t beat BYU 7 to 6 if they played them – but a high-octane Buffalo offense would probably out-score any mid-tier contender if allowed any comparable number of snaps. That goes for the Huskies too.
Take the Buffalo Bulls to cover (-4) in Detroit.