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A Wagner Win, and Lincoln Dreams
Everything that could go right did go right for Buffalo last night. Could the same happen against Nebraska?
Image from @bullsfb
Doing What Needed to be Done
Buffalo’s 69-7 victory over FCS doormat Wagner is fine and good. As mentioned in the halftime newsletter, the true value of the win is not the gaudy score but rather the fact that UB did exactly what it was supposed to do: completely dominate a significantly less-talented team.
If the Bulls took a bunch of dumb penalties, or turned the ball over because of bad decisions or poor execution, or had a hard time getting the ball to its receivers, or let the Seahawks pick up enough first downs to make you wonder if there were some real issues with the defense—that would be worrisome, even if they ultimately won by 50. You don’t want to walk away from your home opener against a team that’s won one of its last 14 games with any lingering doubts.
Quickly, the gruesome details:
Buffalo outgained Wagner 564 yards to 97. The Seahawks averaged 0.5 yards per rush. The Bulls, conversely, ran for 312 yards at a 5.6 yards-per-rush clip.
RBs Kevin Marks and Dylan McDuffie each ran for a pair of TDs. Kyle Vantrease and Matt Myers each threw TD passes to Jovany Ruiz and Marlyn Johnson, respectively. Jake Molinich (1-yard rushing TD), Ron Cook, Jr. (6-yard rushing TD), and Tajay Ahmed (6-yard rushing TD) all reached the end zone. Alex McNulty and Jackson Baltar each kicked FGs.
Although he did not catch a TD, WR Quian Williams looked very good tonight and appears to immediately have a repertoire with Vantrease. Safety Marcus Fuqua laid out a handful of delightfully violent hits.
Wagner was 2-for-13 on third down, and five total sacks. Bulls DE Taylor Riggins had a pair himself.
And Now, Nebraska
Image from Huskers.com
While we enjoy the sweet taste of victory—or, in my case, find my pleasure at the Bulls covering a 43.5-point spread tempered by Tennessee's inability to score points on Bowling Green’s junior varsity defense—it’s not too early to think of how tonight’s game translates into next week’s visit to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Here are some of the key matchups to start pondering while Scott Frost and the Cornhuskers, currently national punchlines, try to get right against FCS Fordham this Saturday:
Buffalo’s O-Line vs. Nebraska Front 7
The Bulls’ line looked great tonight, as mentioned in the halftime newsletter; we expect that kind of performance from the LT and LG Jake Fuzak and Jake Klenk, a pair of fifth-year seniors.
We don’t necessarily expect it from C Bence Polgar, RG Alain Schaerer, and RT Gabe Wallace, a trio that combined to play in 13 games in 2020. They had little trouble clearing massive lanes for UB’s backs and giving Vantrease and backup QB Myers plenty of time to pick and choose downfield targets.
So what do the Cornhuskers have to offer up front?
Robin Washut of HuskerOnline.com graded the d-line’s performance after its heartbreaking 30-22 season-opening road loss against Big 10 rival Illinois:
“Nebraska pretty much leaned on a four-man rotation up front with (redshirt freshman Ty) Robinson, (senior Ben) Stille, (junior Damion) Daniels, and (senior Deontre) Thomas, and it got mixed production out of that group across the board. Robinson led the d-line in snaps and posted the unit's second-highest tackling grade, but he struggled in his pass rush and run defense to record the lowest grade of the group. Stille's 48.5 tackling grade also jumps out, but he was only listed with one missed tackle in the game. It was interesting that Daniels had the position's highest pass-rushing grade as a nose tackle. He was credited with two quarterback hurries and a batted pass.”
Washut was tougher on the Huskers’ LB corps, noting “it was an overall tough day for the group.”
Redshirt freshman Nick Heinrich was a tackling machine, but couldn’t pressure Illlini QBs Brandon Peters or Art Sitkowski.
Junior Pheldarius Payne was abysmal against the run.
JoJo Domann, a fifth-year senior and the heart of the defense, had the highest overall defensive grade, but played just the fifth-most snaps among the Nebraska linebackers.
All of which to explain Nebraska’s front seven isn’t exactly an immovable object—the question is whether Buffalo’s MAC talent can go toe-to-toe with legit Big 10 athletes, and give stud runners like Marks and Cook room to operate.
Room for some optimism: ESPN’s FPI ranks Illinois -0.8 (the expected point differential if Illinois played an average FBS team on a neutral field) and #73 nationally; the same formula has Buffalo -1.4 and #74 in the nation (and that does not include the Wagner win). It’s not like the Illini are worlds apart from UB, and they made Nebraska look bad.
Kyle Vantrease vs. the Husker Secondary
Image from UBBulls.com
Vantrease had what should’ve been an absolutely awful INT overturned on an equally awful roughing the passer call tonight. Otherwise, he looked pretty good—but again, he had all of the time in the world, and receivers who were getting wide open against an overmatched Wagner secondary Less likely to be the case in Lincoln. That said, Justin Slepicka of The Daily Nebraskan was not glowing in his C- grade for the Husker pass defense vs Illinois.
“Illinois starting quarterback Brandon Peters was out for the game after suffering an injury early in the first quarter. His backup, sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski, had career stats of eight touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Him facing an experienced Husker secondary could have been a nightmare for Illinois. Instead, Sitkowski had possibly the best day of his career, going 12-for-15 passing for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
One of Sitkowski’s touchdowns was set up by a deep ball where senior safety Marquel Dismuke was beaten by redshirt freshman wide receiver Deuce Spann for a 45-yard gain. Most of Sitkowski’s completions looked easy with open receivers, a tough look for Nebraska’s secondary.
On a positive note, senior safety Deontai Williams had six tackles including a big tackle for loss on a third down in the second quarter. Williams’ six tackles tied him with Dismuke for most tackles from the secondary on Saturday. Freshman safety Myles Farmer also impressed, making a heads-up play late in the first half. Farmer pounced on a forced fumble for the only Husker turnover.”
Adrian Martinez vs. Himself
Image from Huskers.com
It gets dull discussing Nebraska’s lightning-rod QB Adrian Martinez; he shoulders so much blame, and at times, rightfully so (like his murderous strip sack at the end of the first half against Illinois).
But where, for instance, are the Huskers’ much-hyped running backs this season? Its new talent at WR? An o-line thought ready to dominate? Instead, it’s always on Martinez.
As The Athletic’s Mitch Sherman notes, “The Illini sacked Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez five times, applied consistent pressure and held running backs Gabe Ervin, Markese Stepp and Rahmir Johnson to 54 yards on 19 rushing attempts.”
Sherman’s article included a great mini-essay on the seemingly cursed QB:
“The numbers for Martinez looked solid in the opener. He finished 16-of-32 passing for 232 yards and one touchdown without an interception, while rushing for 111 yards on 17 carries with a score. He committed one turnover, a critical fumble late in the first half that Illinois turned into a 41-yard scoop-and-score TD that led to a 28-0 scoring surge.
Anyone who watched Saturday knows that Martinez struggled with consistency in the passing game. It’s a situation similar to last season, when his 71.5 percent completion rate set a Nebraska record but the Huskers scored just 23.1 points per game. He stayed in the pocket too long against Illinois, contributing to the five sacks, and he misfired on several throws — including an end-zone shot to a wide-open Liewer that should have put the Huskers on top by two touchdowns in the second quarter.
This is the conundrum with Martinez. Too much of the offense revolves around him. Nebraska has not fared well at getting its backs and receivers involved since 2018, when Martinez was a freshman. In the Huskers’ past 21 games since the start of the 2019 season, their running backs — not including former receiver-back hybrid Wan’Dale Robinson — have rushed for 85.2 yards per game.
‘He was the only guy that really could beat us, we thought, was (Martinez),’ (Illinois coach Brett) Bielema said after the game.
Ouch. But if Nebraska’s going to continue to feature the QB above all else in this offense, it’s the truth.
Talk about a harsh reality.”
And that’s likely the reality Buffalo will face, too.
Enjoy this Wagner win; and imagine how much sweeter it could be to leave Lincoln 2-0 next weekend.