Discover more from UB In 5
TOLEDO V. BUFFALO: THIS IS A BIG ONE
Both undefeated in MAC play. Both leading their respective divisions. It's been a while since a Bulls game meant this much.
Image from @ubfootball
I can’t get over how much I love the University at Buffalo football team’s throwback helmets, which make their debut today against Toledo (UB Stadium, 1 p.m., ESPN+).
These should be worked into the normal uniform rotation effective immediately. Take the gray uniforms and throw them right in the trash, wear the color-blocked black or all-white uniforms on the road, and break out these beauties at least once a season.
Buffalo has a lot of great helmets—the oversized blue Bulls logo on white,1 the all-matte black helmet, the blue-on-blue version—even the old-school interlocking UB or the cartoonish “angry bull” are nice. This one is special, very on trend, and frankly just cool as hell.
Image from ubbulls.com
Today’s game against Mid-American Conference West Division-leading Toledo (5-2 overall, 3-0 in MAC play) has a throwback feel, Buster the Bull or no Buster the Bull.2 For the first time since last October’s loss to Bowling Green, the Bulls (4-3, 3-0), currently sitting atop the MAC East, are playing in a truly meaningful MAC game. That BGSU game was a desperate attempt for UB to keep its head above water—this is the first time since, what, maybe the Nov. 14, 2019 road trip to Kent State that Buffalo’s been in a legit regular seasons dogfight for the top spot in the division and the conference.3
It’s a tough one. The Bulls, of late, have been on a journey of self-discovery, collecting wins over Eastern Michigan, Miami, Bowling Green, and UMass with a vastly improved defense and a big-play offense still figuring out how to get new stars like Louisville transfer Justin Marshall (pictured above) enough touches.
The Rockets, meanwhile, have been on a revenge tour. After a 77-21 bloodletting versus big brother #2 Ohio State in what was thought to be a chance to shine, and sleepwalking through a 17-14 dud at San Diego State (a “brutal, confounding” loss, wrote David Briggs of The Toledo Blade), UT has exploded.
The Rockets are all alone in first place of the MAC West Division following consecutive decisive victories over Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Kent State by an average of 20.7 points per contest.
Saturday’s 52-31 Rocket victory over the Golden Flashes at the Glass Bowl featured a performance for the ages by sophomore quarterback Dequan Finn. Finn threw a career-best six touchdown passes to rally Toledo from a 21-point deficit. His six TD passes tied a school record. Finn also rushed for a score, which set a Toledo record for seven touchdowns accounted for in one game.
Toledo trailed 21-0 just five minutes into the contest and proceeded to outscore Kent State 52-10 the rest of the way. The 21-point comeback ties for the third-largest comeback in school history.
Toledo’s offense ranks first in the MAC in scoring (38.4), second in rushing (193.3) and passing efficiency (154.55) and fourth in total offense (402.4).
Toledo’s defense ranks second in the MAC in total defense (358.8) and third in points allowed (26.3). The Rockets lead the MAC in passing yards allowed (194.4) and defensive passing efficiency (118.16).
“They’re experienced, they’re athletic, they have playmakers. They’ve won their last three conference games by an average of over 20 points per game. They’re playing very good football right now,” UB head coach Maurice Linguist said in his Tuesday press conference. “They present their own problems. But we’ve got to take care of ourselves, and be us.”
Linguist: “It’s about us and how we play, not who we play”
He’s not the only star on this team. Cornerback Quinyon Mitchell intercepted four passes against Northern Illinois, returning two for touchdowns. Receiver Jerjuan Newton is 15th in the country in yards per reception (20.2). Desjuan Johnson (7.5 tackles for loss this season) and Jamal Hines are on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Lombardi Awards, the Outland Trophy, and the East-West Shrine Bowl and the Senior Bowl. Linebacker Dallas Gant, an Ohio State transfer and former four-star recruit, is in the top 20 nationally in tackles. Receiver Devin Maddox is one of the most versatile weapons in the MAC.
When you think about Toledo, though, it starts with Finn.
“He’s their leading rusher. He’s one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the MAC. The guy can just make plays,” Linguist said. “Guys that make plays with their arms and their legs present their own sets of problems because there’s the scheme, there’s the play, and then there’s the extended play. The extended play portion is about guys who can create, guys who can make things come alive. If you watch the course of what he’s done over the last four or five weeks, you can see that he’s done that. So we have a lot of respect for him.”
More numbers on Finn:
He’s completed 62% of his passes for 1,397 yards and 17 touchdowns, and is second in the MAC in passing efficiency.
He is, as Linguist noted, UT’s top runner with 455 yards and six touchdowns. He also leads the MAC with 6.41 yards per rush. That’s good for second in Division 1 football.
In his last three games—the revenge tour—Finn’s completing 65% of his passes and has a MAC-best passing efficiency of 203.19.
He’s so good, in fact, that there are already rumors he’s out the door. More from David Briggs:
It began during Toledo’s primetime visit to Ohio State last month, when Finn’s playmaking wizardry against one of the top teams in the country seized the imagination of a sold-out crowd and network TV audience.
Next thing you knew, the buzz wasn’t about how good Finn will be for the Rockets this season, but how good he could be for someone else next season.
Cleveland.com sports columnist Doug Lesmerises tweeted: “Vigorous press box discussion about which Big Ten team Dequan Finn will start for next season.”
Another colleague, former ESPN and current Rivals.com reporter Austin Ward, posted: “I will be surprised if Dequan Finn is at Toledo at this time next year. He's going to get some serious looks from quarterback-needy teams.” …
I asked UT coach Jason Candle about the widespread assumption that schools like his will automatically lose talents like Finn.
“Well, I think we live in a different era of college football,” he said. “There are reasons why people come to school here. ... All I know is we’re here right now together, we’re here in this moment, and our guys are doing a really good job of living in the moment. They have to continue to do that if we're going to have the success that they want to have and we want to have.
“We're seven games into the season, not 14 games in. So there’s a lot of football left to be played in the next seven weeks. [Buffalo] is a really good opponent this week. That mess and all that other stuff down the road, what that looks like, I'm not paying any attention to that right now.”
Neither, for the record, is Finn, who told us of all the attention: “I'm not really worried about that. I’m just trying to focus on the season. I'm here at Toledo. That's what I'm focused on: the Toledo Rockets.”
Not exactly shutting the talk down, Dequan!
Linguist, for his part, is most concerned about his team’s preparation and performance and less so about the hype.
“It’s about us, and how we play,” he said, “not who we play.”
Keys to a UB Victory?
Image from ubbulls.com
How does Buffalo—a team that’s had trouble (less so lately, admittedly) stopping running quarterbacks and explosive plays—handle this wrecking crew on offense?
Let’s ask Coach Mo:
From a schematic standpoint, they make you defend every blade of grass. (But) you’ve seen us throughout the season. We’re so process-oriented. You have an end result, and then you look at yourself through a lot of different lenses. How do we continue to move the needle and improve?
You’ve seen us from Holy Cross to Coastal, we didn’t finish in the fourth quarter—going into the fourth quarter, it was 19-17 (against Coastal Carolina), and the score that put them up was on special teams, not on defense—so there was a lot of confidence gained from that game. A lot of new people have now played together, consecutively, for several games in a row, and guys are stepping up individually.
You move from Coastal, to Eastern Michigan, where we were able to get third- and fourth-down stops in the really critical moments, and then we moved that into Miami, where we really played our best game up into that point, and that really set the tone for us over these last few weeks.
There’s a confidence. The team, not just the defense, is energized. Every single week is about growth, energy, and maturity, and we’ve just got to continue to do things the right way.”
Here’s what we see as the most important keys to victory today:
The Best Defense is a Good Offense. By and large, the UB offense has been fine this season. Quarterback Cole Snyder—61% completion rate, 11 passing touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns, 1,995 total yards on offense through seven games—we’ll take it. Justin Marshall, Quian Williams, Jamari Gassett, and the rest of the receiving crew—keep doing what you’re doing. The run game has broken off massive touchdown runs in each of the past two games. Love it. Kicker Alex McNulty has turned into a valuable insurance policy, too. The issue, however, is the fits and starts—poorly-timed turnovers (is there ever a good time?). Mystifying quarters when the machine grinds to a halt. A rushing attack capable of springing 92-yard touchdown runs, but maddeningly inconsistent. Buffalo can play great defense today and still need 40 points to win. After seven weeks, there’s a lot of tape on the Bulls attack—offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery must show he’s not polishing doorknobs with barbarians at the gate.
Another Big Test for the Secondary. The safety combination of Jahmin Muse and Marcus Fuqua is responsible for five turnovers (three INTs, two fumble recoveries). Explosive plays, as noted last week, are down (the uptick against UMass in a game that was essentially a glorified scrimmage notwithstanding). Elijah Blades is ranked among the top 10% of all cornerbacks in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. Keyshawn Cobb is one of the nation’s top run defenders from his hybrid corner-safety-linebacker role. The big question mark is cornerback Caleb Offord, who saw his snap count increase dramatically against Bowling Green, and he held his own against the 6’7 Tyrone Broden —but he also seems to be targeted every time he’s on the field. The outcome may hinge on the Notre Dame transfer’s ability to hang with Maddox, Newton, and the fiery Rockets receiving corps. Obviously, the other stars on the defense will need to shine—the Bash Brothers, as Linguist referred to linebackers Shaun Dolac and James Patterson; the increasingly terrifying Daymond Williams in the middle of the line; and edge rushers like Ibrahim Kante, C.J. Bazile, and Max Michel need to keep Finn honest, as well. The secondary, however, will be what keeps this game close.
Cover the Damn Kicks. Buffalo is currently 116th in kick coverage, allowing over 24 yards per return, and 119th in punt coverage (14.12 yards per return). Every time kickoff that does not go into the end zone dangerous. We’ve celebrated the punting of Anthony Venneri, but allowing Maddox to find space on a return is an excellent recipe for disaster. Nothing for free today.
And that’s the preview, gang. Keep an eye on the Northern Illinois-Ohio game, as we have the Bobcats coming to town next week in a true must-win game. Central Michigan could do UB a real favor with a win over visiting Bowling Green, too.
There’s a world in which the Bulls end today with a two-game lead in the MAC heading into November.
Let’s do this. Horns up.
Thanks for reading UB In 5! Subscribe for free to receive new posts first.
Standing offer to buy one of these, which I really want for my office bookshelf.
Great note from Rachel Lenzi’s Buffalo News story on the logo development: “The newest – or renewed – UB Bull logo, though, is still in search of its roots. According to university archives, the logo could be based on the design for “Buster the Bull” created in 1954 by Stuart Hample, a 1950 UB graduate who became a renowned children’s author, cartoonist and humorist.” Stuart Hample, as it turns out, was a very interesting character in his own right, an absolutely classic version of the mid-century-modern ad man/artist/New Yorker. He’s like a lovable secondary character from a Nora Ephron movie. Bet you weren’t expecting a Nora Ephron reference in this weekend’s UB football newsletter.
Obviously, the MAC championship game in 2020 fits the bill, as well, albeit in the postseason. Everything about 2020 was strange.
Shared the video above in the last newsletter, too. It’s not a mistake! Watch this man throw.