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BUFFALO & WMU: WHO WINS?
Previewing all of today's MAC games as we celebrate UB Homecoming and the start of conference play.
After Toledo and Ball State’s MAC West appetizer last weekend (the Rockets took out the Cardinals, 22-12), we finally get a full MAC slate today. It’s also Homecoming 2021 at UB—welcome back, everyone. How I miss you, Red Jacket!
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Enough with the shameless self-promotion. Let’s start close to home.
Western Michigan (-6.5) at Buffalo, 12 p.m., CBSSN
Image from @UBFootball
Buffalo plays Homecoming host to MAC West rival Western Michigan (3-1), whose 2021 accomplishments include a signature win over a Pittsburgh squad currently ranked 15th on ESPN’s RPI.
The Broncos, as noted in our newsletter earlier this week, have one of the conference’s most dangerous passers in QB Kaleb Eleby (144.9 rating, 902 yards, seven TDs), a redshirt sophomore widely seen as an early- to mid-round NFL draft pick in 2022.
He’s complemented by a fine WR in Corey Crooms (334 receiving yards), a pair of tough rushers in Sean Tyler (282 rushing yards) and Michigan State product La’Darius Jefferson (274 rushing yards, six TDs), and the number-two defense in the MAC.
The Bulls (2-2) are coming off a 35-34 road win over Old Dominion in which they surrendered 27 unanswered points during an absolutely brutal second half featuring as many turnovers on offense (one) as first downs.
UB’s run game, its blueprint in season past, was held to 106 yards by a below-average defense after ripping off 262 yards in a 28-25 home loss to #16 Coastal Carolina.
Toss aside its season-opening win over Wagner, a hapless FCS squad, and the Chanticleers game becomes Buffalo’s signature performance on the season.
That’s a little troubling, considering the Bulls were a boneheaded fourth quarter Grayson McCall INT away from a double-digit loss in that game.
But optimism abounds! WMU’s potent offense faces a UB defense that has shown flashes of brilliance over the past three weeks. The Bulls had 10.5 tackles for loss against ODU, and the Monarchs needed magic tricks from rangy QB D.J. Mack, Jr. to sneak back into the game.
Edge rusher Taylor Riggins, out against ODU, should be back. The former First-Team All-MAC selection has four sacks this season and was a one-man wrecking crew against Coastal’s explosive, sleight-of-hand offense.
If the Riggins and the Bulls pressure Eleby—WMU allowed seven sacks in its last two games—and the secondary eliminates the big plays that have been Buffalo’s downfall this season, Buffalo has a real shot.
The concerns, however, keep sneaking back.
Western Michigan choked out the San Jose State University offense in its 23-3 win last week, holding the unit to under 120 (!) total yards.
That’s a little frightening. Even in debatably “good” losses to Nebraska and Coastal Carolina, UB’s struggled on offense. Statistically among the MAC leaders—69 points and 569 total yards on Wagner helps—Buffalo scored just 63 points in its three games against FBS competition. Fourteen of those points came from defensive or special teams plays.
Penalties have been absolute killers, too.
The Bulls took 10 penalties for 88 yards against the Cornhuskers, stunting three drives that reached the Nebraska 20-yard line—and another that was making genuine progress.
After just three flags for 15 yards in the CCU loss, Buffalo blundered into nine penalties for 110 yards against Old Dominion. You can’t just give away that many yards and expect to beat a bottom-of-the-pack Conference USA team, much less a tougher MAC opponent.
So, friends, it is with a heavy heart that I must pick Western Michigan to win and cover in this game.
I want to be wrong! Here’s how Buffalo wins:
Balance leads to big plays. Rachel Lenzi of The Buffalo News wrote an interesting piece about greater balance in the UB offense this week. The increased equilibrium, she notes, is the result of an RB trifecta (Marks, McDuffie, and Ron Cook), QB Kyle Vantrease’s connection with WR Quian Williams (the MAC leader in receiving yards with 336), and a conscious choice by the coaching staff to emphasize “balance” after years as a run-oriented team. Let’s take that at face value and ignore the fact that three-star offensive linemen Michael Ford, Jr. and Mike Novitsky followed former head coach Lance Leipold to Kansas in the offseason, hampering the running game. If the line holds (metaphorically), Vantrease consistently gets Williams and 6’5, 214-lb WR Dominic Johnson involved in the offense, and McDuffie continues his ascent (151 rushing yards, 2 TDs in the past two games), maybe the Bulls start ripping off big plays of their own.
Riggins makes an improving defense better. Before the ODU defensive meltdown, (partially due to the second-half disappearance of the offense), the unit allowed 28 points to a decent Big 10 squad (Nebraska) and one of the most prolific scoring offenses in the country (Coastal). Not terrible! In fact, if the LB Tim Terry doesn’t run back a 67-yard fumble return for a TD against Old Dominion, the Bulls flat-out lose. If the defense checks Eleby, Jefferson, et al. the way they did Coastal Carolina’s stars, UB Homecoming levels up to a victory celebration.
The secondary steps up. They must. Nebraska’s Samori Toure had two catches against the Bulls, both 68-yard TDs. Both had all the rough contact of a Sunday stroll. Coastal’s Javon Haleigh and Kameron Brown combined for 170 receiving yards on seven catches, including 36- and 58-yard gains, respectively. ODU TE Zack Kurtz—a beast of a man at 6’8, 245, to be sure—basically caught an uncontested 19-yard TD pass over Buffalo safety Cory Gross at the most critical moment of the game while two of his teammates watched. Barring a cringe-inducing Old Dominion unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, that catch should have led to an XP kick and a tie with seconds left in the contest, or, worse, a shot at a two-point conversion and a Monarchs win. And it’s not just the passing game—when a rusher escapes the backfield, the damage must be limited to six or seven yards, not 40 or 60. There are proud veterans in this secondary like Aapri Washington, Marcus Fuqua, Dylan Powell, Ja’Marcus Ingram, and Isaiah King. They must be better.
Prove me wrong, Bulls! Prove me wrong.
Pick’ Em: The Rest of the Week 5 MACtion
Image from @KentStFootball
Toledo (-27) at UMass, 12 p.m., FloFootball/NESN. UMass (0-4) may be the worst team in the country. Toledo (2-2) may win the MAC. I’m taking the Rockets to cover and win in what will likely be a non-conference laugher.
Eastern Michigan at Northern Illinois (-1.5), 2:30 p.m., ESPN+. Eastern Michigan (3-1) is tough to read because its three wins came over FCS St. Francis (Pa.), the aforementioned Minutemen, and Texas State, currently ranked 115th in ESPN’s FPI. NIU, on the other hand, can play with decent teams, beating Georgia Tech in its season opener and losing by a TD in a 93-point shootout against Wyoming. While EMU leads the conference in points per game (35.8) and NIU is last in points allowed per game (37), it’s an illusion: the Huskies’ defensive numbers are skewed by bizarre losses to the Cowboys (50 points allowed) and Michigan (63), and have shown a proclivity to run the ball (240 yards per game) despite playing three legit FBS teams. The Eagles have a good punter and beat up on three chumps. I’m taking NIU to win and cover.
Bowling Green at Kent State (-16.5), 3:30 p.m., ESPN+. No respect! The Falcons (2-2) beat Minnesota on the road last week. Giant killers! They now face a Kent State squad (1-3) that’s been properly tenderized by the likes of Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland and are still a massive underdog. BGSU can’t run the ball at all (45.3 yards per game) and are relying on QB Matt McDonald for virtually of its offense against the ball-hawking Golden Flashes defense (nine INTs, three forced fumbles). What could go wrong? In fairness, the Falcons are good against the pass (148 passing yards allowed per game, second in the MAC) and allow the second-fewest yards per game in the conference (322)—that’s probably enough to keep the game fairly close in a #FlashFAST victory. Kent State wins, BGSU covers.
Central Michigan at Miami (Ohio) (-1), 3:30 p.m., ESPN+. This line surprised me: the RedHawks (2-2) were not competitive in losses to #7 Cincinnati and Army, and gave Minnesota—a team that ultimately lost to BGSU—a hard time before, well, losing. No moral victories! Miami’s lone win came over a tepid FCS opponent, Long Island. Can the RedHawks strength (a MAC-leading 146 passing yards per game allowed) neutralize the Chips’ strength (288.5 passing yards per game)? Maybe the oddsmakers were spooked by CMU’s failure to cover a double-digit spread over a weak Florida International squad last week. The boys from Mount Pleasant needed a 21-0 fourth quarter and an interception in the end zone as time expired to pull out a 31-27 home win. I’m not buying it, though. CMU rolls in this one, winning outright.
Ohio (-9.5) at Akron, 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. The disrespect continues! What has Ohio (0-4) done to be favored over anyone? The Bobcats lost to freakin’ Duquesne. Akron (1-3) hasn’t been much better, allowing Ohio State to cover a 48.5-point spread last week, and lost by 50 to Auburn to start the season. But that’s Ohio State! That’s Auburn! Both Akron and Ohio rank in the MAC’s bottom tier in offense and defense. Based on ESPN’s FPI, it’s a matchup of two of the saddest teams in the country. Ohio, however, was expected to compete for the MAC title, and instead allows an awful 283 rushing yards per game. The Bobcats have lost by an average of 28 points to the three teams not named Duquesne on their schedule—and they lost to the Dukes, too. I’m taking Akron with the points at home and, frankly, to win.
Army (-9) at Ball State, 5 p.m., ESPN+. I’ll keep this short: Ball State (1-3) has been a massive disappointment and have lost three straight. Army (4-0)’s covered the spread in two of its four wins and came thisclose to covering a 34.5 handicap in a 52-21 win over (admittedly bad) UConn. The Cardinals allow nearly 190 rush yards per game against a Black Knights outfit that rushes for 344.5 yards per game and allows just 58.5 rushing yards, on average. Army wins and covers.
Enjoy the games, everyone. Go Bulls!