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WELCOME, TO MIAMI: THE UB HOMECOMING GAME DAY PREVIEW
Can the Bulls keep the victory wagon rolling against the (presumably) Gabbert-less RedHawks?
Image from ubbulls.com
“We don’t expect anything to be easy for us. We don’t expect anybody to feel sorry for us,” University at Buffalo football coach Maurice Linguist earlier this week. “We have to continue to handle the hard the right way. If September has taught us anything about football, it’s that things don’t get easier.”
It’s UB Homecoming Weekend, but Coach Linguist’s Bulls (1-3 overall, 1-0 in Mid-American Conference play) are in no position to tell nostalgic stories of late-night cram sessions and undergrad hijinks with visiting alums after earning their first win of the 2022 season last Saturday. Rather, the 50-31 road win over Eastern Michigan only makes today’s visit by Miami (2-2) for a 3:30 p.m. game (ESPN+) even more critical, especially since the RedHawks are fresh off a (kinda, sorta) 17-14 upset of Northwestern.1
Taking the Measure of Miami
Image from miamiredhawks.com
Earlier this season, this showdown looked a lot scarier. The RedHawks manhandled Buffalo, 45-18, in Oxford last November in what was arguably the most important game of the Bulls’ season.
A win would have bumped UB into second place in the MAC, a game behind Kent State, and given Buffalo a significantly better shot at a bowl game berth and a chance to defend its 2020 MAC title. The loss effectively ended both.
We saw Miami stunt on Buffalo from the jump, completing a 58-yard flea flicker for a touchdown on its first offensive play of the game.
We saw sophomore QB Brett Gabbert slice up the defensive backfield for 351 yards and four touchdowns.
We saw two RedHawks receivers—Jalen Walker and Jack Sorenson—combine to catch 12 balls for 248 yards. Fellow wideout Mac Hippenhammer, a former Penn State receiver, added four more catches for 63 yards.
What A Difference A Year Makes
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Sorenson’s gone. Gabbert is not expected to play on Saturday, on the shelf after sustaining an injury during the fourth quarter in Miami’s season-opening loss to #7 Kentucky.
Without Gabbert, Walker—a 5’9, 183-pound fifth year receiver—has just nine catches for 68 yards this season. Hippenhammer has 17 receptions for 219 yards (and four touchdowns), and his 12.9 yards per catch average is the lowest of his career.
The RedHawks rely on sophomore quarterback Aveon Smith, who’s getting a head-scratching amount of praise despite completing under 50 percent of his passes and averaging 5.3 yards per completion.
He’s collects just 1.7 yards per rushing attempt, and has been sacked eight times. Smith’s most effective game came in a 31-14 win over FCS Robert Morris, where he collected 155 of his 346 passing yards on the season.
“Big-time win for them last week, going into a Big 10 opponent’s house and getting that win on the road, and (they have) a quarterback that’s done a really, really good job,” Linguist said. “Takes care of the ball. Smart in what they are asking him to do. They run the ball very efficiently and they have really good receiving threats, who can take it over the top when necessary.”
OK, you don’t expect Coach Mo to come out and trash the RedHawks’ offense, but you’re not going to be worried about Aveon Smith beating you. Hippenhammer, for example, is on pace for three more catches this season than last, but for 129 fewer yards.
‘Hawks Toting the Pill
Image from miamiredhawks.com
And as for the efficient running game—sophomore Keyon Mozee (pictured above) ran for 171 yards last week against Northwestern (the 90th-ranked rush defense in Division 1 football), accounting for 70 percent of his total rushing production this season.
Miami is 77th in the country rushing yards per game, averaging 152.5 yards—the caveat being that 445 of the total yards came against a bad Wildcats team and FCS Robert Morris. Against top tier competition, the wheels completely came off; UM posted 67 rushing yards in a loss to Cincinnati, and 111 against Kentucky.
Which is not to say the ‘Hawks secretly can’t run the ball—as with last season, Miami has a stable of backs that include Mozee, Kevin Davis, Kenny Tracy, Jordan Brunson, and Jaylon Bester, any of whom can be the featured runner on a given day. It’s just worthy of noting they have yet to do so against a quality run defense.
With That In Mind…
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Does Buffalo have a quality run defense? Until roughly the 10-minute mark of the third quarter last Saturday, you’d have to say no.
The Bulls have had good moments against the run, but they’ve still allowed 61 plays of 10+ yards this season—many of which have come on the ground against opponents like Coastal Carolina (27th rush offense in D1), Maryland (#58 in rushing), and Holy Cross (#16 in rushing in the FCS).
The RedHawks, however, shouldn’t be able to run like those teams. Smith is not a dynamic rusher like, say, Matthew Sluka of Holy Cross. The UB defense also locked down Eastern Michigan in the second half last week, and held Samson Evans—who ran for 257 yards against Arizona State the previous week—to just 52 yards, including just 17 in he second half, and a forced fumble on the goal line.
Linguist outlined his general perceptions of the UM attack:
When you look over the history, over maybe the last four or five years, Miami has a tradition of having a very efficient throw game and a very complimentary run game. They’ve thrown it around over the last tow or three years very well. Really good receivers. Length, athleticism, speed. Great spacing, and their concepts—they really challenge you from a conceptual standpoint. You saw the offense make a little bit of a shift into a little bit more of a run orientation—there’s a little more run to it—I think the coordinators are doing a really good job of controlling the pace and the tempo of the game from the sideline, and the offensive line to kind of make that transition has done a good job for them. Great movement up front, great in a lot of zone and gap schemes, and a lot of problems in terms of adding the extra gap. (We’ll need to) make sure we know how to fit our gaps and how to plug and fit gaps through post safety spacing and shell coverage. There’s a little bit of a challenge because of the shift in offense, but I really like the plan that we have, and we’re looking forward to putting that plan in place on
Strength on Strength
Image from ubbulls.com
This will be a prime example of winning the battle of good vs. good: Miami’s second-ranked MAC defense against the Bulls’ fourth-ranked MAC offense.
That’s the same offense that scored on its first nine possessions against Eastern Michigan.
Consider these recent UB offensive stats, courtesy of UBBulls.com:
Quarterback Cole Snyder (pictured above) has thrown for 260+ yards in three straight games, becoming the first quarterback to throw for 260+ yards in three consecutive games since Tyree Jackson did it in 2018. Jackson was also the last throw for 260+ yards in four straight games, doing it over the final four games of 2017.
The Bulls have significantly controlled the ball and the clock over the last two games. Against Coastal Carolina, the Bulls ran 93 plays to 53 for Coastal (+40) and had a time of possession of 39:06 compared to 20:54 for the Chanticleers (+18:12). Against Eastern Michigan, the Bulls ran 84 plays to 50 for Eastern (+34) and had a time of possession of 38:37 compared to 21:23 for the Eagles (+17:14). The Bulls lead the MAC and rank ninth in the nation in time of possession (34:34).
Buffalo has taken the long way to the end zone in each of their first four games. The Bulls have scored 12 touchdowns on the season and 11 drives have been 69 yards or longer. UB has had touchdown drives of 92, 85, 81, 75, 75, 75, 75, 75, 71, 70 and 69 yards.
The Bulls feature two of the best wide receivers in the Mid-American Conference in Quian Williams and Justin Marshall. Both players rank in the top 10 in the MAC in receptions and receiving yards. Williams has 25 receptions for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Marshall has 20 receptions for 301 yards and three touchdowns.
Williams is third in the MAC in receptions and sixth in receiving yards while Marshall ranks 10th in the MAC in receptions and fourth in receiving yards.
Williams and Marshall each had eight catches against Coastal Carolina, marking the first time since 2015, two UB players had eight or more receptions in the same game. Matt Weiser, Marcus McGill and Ron Willoughby each had eight catches against Bowling Green on Oct. 3, 2015.
Against Holy Cross, both players (Williams 105/Marshall 116) went over 100 yards receiving in the same game for the first time since Antonio Nunn (182) and Trevor Wilson (118) each had 100-yard games against Ball State in the 2020 MAC Championship Game.
All of which is to say the offense—which operated in fits and starts in the first three games of the season—is pretty good in general and, when clicking, has been virtually unstoppable.
So far this season, the Bulls’ offense was stymied by a virtuoso performance by Maryland cornerback Jakorian Bennett; a UB defense that couldn’t hold a lead against Holy Cross; turnovers versus Coastal Carolina; and, well, nothing in Ypsilanti last weekend.
Image from miamiredhawks.com
But that Miami defense is pretty good, too.
“You look at their defense—big, long, athletic,” Linguist said. “Do a really good job of plugging, penetrating, and playing very firm up front. The (linebackers) do a very good job of flowing over the top. The secondary makes plays over the top, too. Big-time win for them last week, going into a Big 10 opponent’s house and getting that win on the road.”
Steve Helwick of Hustle Belt broke down that defense, a question mark heading into the season, in his game preview:
Defense is what won the game for the RedHawks against Northwestern. Miami only allowed two touchdowns, and forcing two fumbles against the Wildcats ultimately proved to be the difference. The RedHawks feature a slew of hard hitters on this side of the ball, including leading tacklers Ryan McWood and Matthew Salopek. Serving as the heart of the defense, McWood is on his way to stellar numbers this season. The inside linebacker ranks second in the MAC in tackles by averaging over 10 per game and his non-conference résumé includes two takeaways. Those stats translate into team success as Miami fields the 11th ranked rushing defense in the FBS, holding opponents below 82 yards per game.
Takeaways have been an integral part of the defense this year, which is refreshing for the RedHawks because forcing turnovers was not one of the team’s recent fortes. Miami recovered four fumbles and intercepted four passes in the first four weeks. Safety Eli Blakey and cornerback John Saunders Jr. have done a tremendous job in anchoring the pass defense, combining for two interceptions and nine pass breakups. After the 50-point outing Buffalo posted at Eastern Michigan without committing a turnover, Miami hopes its disruptive defense carries over into Upstate New York as the team begins its journey through MAC play.
The balance for Buffalo could simply come down to avoiding mistakes. Linguist noted, with pride, that his team was currently the least-penalized in the MAC. At the same time, the Bulls gave up a kick return touchdown last week, and had a punt blocked for a touchdown the week before. The margin for turnovers or ill-timed holding penalties will be much tighter this week, a game in which UB is favored by 1.5 points and could—should—have serious repercussions regarding contenders and pretenders for the MAC East crown.
Buffalo’s next three MAC contests are against Bowling Green, Toledo (home), and Ohio. Beat Miami, and all of those games feel winnable.
The RedHawks’ next three MAC games are Kent State, Bowling Green, and Western Michigan. Lose to Buffalo, and UM’s margin for error not just for the divisional title but potentially a bowl berth gets razor-thin.
The Bulls just need to win.
“Now, it’s time we go on a run,” UB running back Mike Washington told The Buffalo News. “That’s how we’ve been moving, and that’s how we’ve been thinking.”
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The BFU (Bulls Football Universe): In the News
Image from nytimes.com
For your Saturday perusing:
The Buffalo News went all in on the Bulls this week: Rachel Lenzi has a game day preview, an interesting piece on hometown quarterbacks Cole Snyder and Matt Myers’ impact on the Western New York high school football scene, and the renaming of North Campus’ Porter Quad for UB football—and Buffalo, in general—icon Willie Evans (pictured above).
New home for a local stalwart: Looks like longtime journalistic hired gun Jonah Bronstein has taken his talents to North Buffalo, covering sports for WIVB.com. He’s got a piece on the mental health of UB athletes.
On the subject of mental health: UB Concussion Management Clinic Director Dr. John Leddy is at the center of WIVB.com story on Tua Tagovailoa’s terrifying head and neck injuries Thursday night.
Also on WIVB.com: Venerable crank Jerry Sullivan has a nice, long-form column on Cole Snyder, his family’s football legacy, and what brought the young QB home.2
Internet spotlight: Hustle Belt has Buffalo ranked seventh in the MAC, and is calling for a big Bulls win today. No jinxes! The Bulls are currently #100 in the ESPN FPI, with a chance to break out of triple-digits for the first time since the start of the season. Snyder is currently 39th in the country in passing yards (1,026) while the scoring offense in 81st (tied with Marshall at 29.2 points per game). UB is 34th in fewest penalties per game (4.5). The kick return defense, unsurprisingly, is second-to-last in the country, allowing 37.6( !) yards per return. Kick it through the end zone, McNulty!
Even more McNulty: Speaking of kicker Alex McNulty—he’s a William V. Campbell Award semifinalist, which recognizes “an individual as the absolute best football scholar-athlete in the nation for his combined academic success, football performance and exemplary leadership.” In addition to winning the MAC East Special Teams Player of the Week award two weeks running (and being one of the top kickers in school history), he has a 3.8 GPA while double-majoring in biology for pre-veterinary science and physics. The guy could literally study pigs in space.
If you’re into this kind of stuff: The UB players made public their preferred superpowers (hypothetically).
Week 5 in the MAC: True #MACtion Begins
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Here we go: five MAC-on-MAC games, with the only outliers being Western Michigan facing New Hampshire (weird combo) and Eastern Michigan getting right against the ghost ship that is the UMass football program. Almost feel like the MAC should pick up UMass and UConn out of sympathy at this point (although apparently UMass recently had its sites set on Group of Five junk store Conference USA—yikes—and UConn thinks its a Power 5 school).
UMass at Eastern Michigan (-20). The over/under is 57, which means Vegas thinks the Eagles (2-2) are going to win 54-3. The Minutemen (1-3) are led by QB Gino Campiotti, who’s thrown for 165 yards, a touchdown, and four interceptions this season. He’s also the team’s top rusher with 242 yards on 54 carries.
Northern Illinois at Ball State (+4.5). An early-season contender or pretender matchup! The Cardinals (1-3, 0-1) already have a MAC loss to WMU, 37-30 on Sept. 10, and blew a potential home win against Georgia Southern last week. NIU (1-3)—the defending MAC champ—has lost the 2021 miracle magic so far, losing by three points on the road against Tulsa, coughing up a two-touchdown lead to Vanderbilt, and coming one tough third quarter from a major upset of #7 Kentucky last weekend.
Central Michigan at Toledo (-7). The Rockets (2-2) had that thousand-yard stare last week, falling to seven-point underdog San Diego State, 17-14, just seven days after #3 Ohio State planted an embarrassing 77-21 haymaker on the MAC West contenders. “The Rockets had four turnovers, including two in San Diego State territory. They missed a field goal. The offensive line was iffy. And the defense crumbled in the final minutes,” wrote Kyle Rowland of The Toledo Blade. “This is the seventh time since 2018 that Toledo has lost consecutive games. And this loss came on a day when the only thing more constant than San Diego State’s punts (nine) was the home fans booing the Aztecs’ inept offense.” QB Dequan Finn also had ankle issues in this game. Did I just talk myself into laying a little scratch on CMU? Perhaps.
Bowling Green at Akron (+9). This could secretly be one of the most entertaining games of the day. Both teams have D1-worst defenses (Akron #125, BGSU #128). Both teams also have compelling quarterbacks: The Falcons (1-3) boast Matt McDonald, a former Boston College transfer who is 19th in D1 with 10 touchdown passes, and the Zips (1-3) roll out D.J. Irons, who’s 59th nationally in passing yards (919). Good measuring stick game for both teams, and could be the end of the line for head coach Scot Loeffler—who missed last week’s game at Mississippi State after throwing up blood at 4 a.m.—if Bowling Green fumbles the bag.
Ohio at Kent State (-11.5). In case you missed it, Bud Elliott of the Cover 3 podcast shared a great interview with head coach Sean Lewis and his coordinators earlier this week. This will be KSU’s (1-3) first game this season against an FBS opponent not currently in the AP Top 25, so it will be nice to see what the Golden Flashes—who gave #1 Georgia its best game in a calendar year last weekend—actually look like against a peer.
New Hampshire at Western Michigan (-16). The Broncos (1-3) have had a rough go of it this season: the 105th-ranked defense, the 120th-ranked offense, and—last week—“(the) worst passing performance since head coach Tim Lester’s first season,” as a pair of backups, playing in lieu of injured freshman QB Jack Salopek, combined for 71 yards and an interception in a 34-6 loss to San Jose State. Salopek, who’s struggled mightily himself this season, should be back today in what WMU hopes is a get-right game against the 3-1 FCS Wildcats.
Alright: see you on the other side, everyone. Horns up.
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Miami was a 7.5-point road underdog to Northwestern. That said, the Wildcats (1-3) are not good. Yes, they’re a Big 10 team, but their lone win on the season was against crumbling Nebraska in Dublin (where beer was free!) and has losses against historically terrible Duke (#69 in the ESPN Football Power Index), FCS Southern Illinois (currently ranked #26th nationally), and the RedHawks (#105 in the FPI). Arguably, Buffalo’s 31-10 loss to Maryland (#24 in the FPI)—which was a fairly competitive game, despite the score—is more impressive than Miami’s win over the worst team in the Big 10.
Say this for Snyder—coming back to Buffalo was a savvy move in a number of ways. He’s showing what he can do as the leader of a skilled offense, and he’s getting more ink than he ever would’ve at Rutgers. Terrific brand move. Great quote from Snyder’s former coach/fellow Section VI HS legend, Jehuu Caulcrick, in the Sullivan piece: “He and I had a chat and I told him, ‘If you want to just be on a team and say you played in the Big Ten, then stick with what you’re doing. But if your goal is to play college football at the Division I level, you have to figure it out.’”