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What Do We Know About The Bulls?
MAC play starts Saturday. Let's review what we've seen after four non-conference games.
Sept. 30: Catching Up With The Bulls
Image from UBBulls.com
Three interesting stats from UBBulls.com: 1.) UB's Quian Williams (above) leads the MAC in receiving with 24 catches for 346 yards; 2.) Buffalo is one of only two teams in the country to not allow a sack this season (SMU is the other); and 3.) Kevin Marks is 125 yards shy of becoming just the sixth player in program history to rush for 3,000 career yards.
If you want to relive Saturday night’s dramatic 35-34 road win over Old Dominion, check out Hunter Skoczylas and Brenden Wold’s writeup for The UB Spectrum; Tim Riordan’s gamer on what he describes as “one of the most crazy games I’ve seen in a long time” for Bull Run; or Rachel Lenzi’s Buffalo News piece that encapsulates the leadership qualities of LB James Patterson: after Old Dominion’s TD with 19 seconds in the gamr to cut the Bulls’ lead to a single point, his reaction was “...it’s a next-play mentality, get ready to block that field goal, because we still had a lot of time left.’”
Lenzi also reports that DE Taylor Riggins—who, when last we saw him, was putting together a MAC East Defensive Player of the Week performance against Coastal Carolina—will be back for the MAC opener on Saturday against Western Michigan. Injured WR Jovanny Ruiz is not expected to play, marking his third consecutive missed game.
Super senior OL Jack Klenk is a semifinalist for William V. Campbell Trophy, an award recognizing “the absolute best football scholar-athlete in the nation.” According to UBBulls.com, the two-time All-Academic MAC selection and current grad student “graduated summa cum laude with a degrees in communication and social science interdisciplinary in February while carrying a grade point average of 3.82.”
Saturday’s MAC opener against Western Michigan is also the centerpiece of UB’s Homecoming and Family Weekend. Kickoff is noon at UB Stadium and the pre-game tailgate begins at 9 a.m. The noon game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.
Four Games In: 5 Things I Think I Think About Buffalo
Image from UBBulls.com
Yes, I am stealing Peter King’s old MMQB bit. This is total hack territory, I know.
Regardless, after four games, we’ve seen enough of the 2021 Buffalo Bulls to allow some opinions to crystalize.
Kyle Vantrease is the right QB for this team… The third-year starter isn’t spectacular, but he’s the calm, experienced game manager Buffalo needed after the chaotic offseason—coaching upheaval, star RB Jaret Patterson leveling up to the NFL, and critical losses to the offensive line in particular via the transfer portal. Despite the noise, Vantrease successfully transitioned Eastern Michigan transfer WR Quian Williams into the MAC’s leading receiver while remaining among the MAC’s top five QBs in completion percentage (5th, 62.6%), yards (4th, 792), and sacks (1st, 0). He’s thrown one interception and been a rock of stability. I will qualify this thought, however, by adding…
...as long as the running game clicks. Love the guy, but Kyle’s limitations are glaring if the running game doesn’t go. Let’s look at the game-by-game rushing results: Wagner (56 attempts, 312 yards, 5.6 yards per carry); Nebraska (33/135/4.1); Coastal Carolina (47/262/5.6); Old Dominion (36/106/2.8). Toss out Wagner, one of the worst FCS teams in the country. The Cornhuskers and Monarchs each give up, on average, 139 rush yards per game, while the Chanticleers allow nearly 172—all three teams are in the lower tier of rush defenses in FBS, and the results have been mixed. RB Kevin Marks is on the precipice of joining the Bulls’ exclusive 3,000-Yard Club but averages less than four yards per carry this season. Ron Cook, Jr. had monster games against Wagner and Coastal Carolina (20 total carries, 179 combined yards), but was essentially invisible in the Nebraska and ODU contests (nine total carries, 15 yards). Dylan McDuffie went from nine carries in the first two games to 31 over the past two, and punched in four TDs while averaging 5.5 yards per carry—and Head Coach Maurice Linguist trusted him, not Marks, who’d previously fumbled, with the ball from the Bulls’ own three-yard line against ODU. Vantrease isn’t going to wow anyone with his arm, especially with WR Jovanny Ruiz out for at least one more week, and Buffalo’s inability to get any traction in the run game contributed mightily to the near-catastrophe against Old Dominion. The Monarchs did a nice job of filling gaps fast on Saturday night, and Western Michigan’s run defense is currently second in the MAC at 129 yards per game. It’ll be a critical test for an o-line that’s still settling in and a trio of backs who don’t quite seem comfortable with the rotation.
The linebackers are the stars of the defense… James Patterson punched a fumble loose on the goal line at the 4:07 mark of the fourth quarter in the ODU win that prevented the Monarchs from tying the game. Given the momentum behind Old Dominion’s comeback, he probably saved the day. It was his second takeaway of the night. Kadofi Wright knocked loose the fumble late in the first half that led to fellow LB Tim Terry’s 67-yard TD burst. Patterson is third in the MAC in tackles (34). Wright is the Bulls’ second-leading tackler (24) and has 4.5 tackles for a loss. This trio, Patterson and Wright in particular, change games.
...but the defensive line is showing flashes of brilliance. Lost (fairly) in the headline that the Bulls gave up 27 unanswered points in the ODU win was the fact that the d-line, even without star DE Taylor Riggins, made some huge plays. Max Michel was in on 10 tackles and recorded 1.5 sacks. C.J. Bazile blocked a kick and returned that block for a TD, but also added nine total tackles. Kyler Laing, in extended playing time with Riggins out, had three tackles for losses. George Wolo and Daymond Williams have shown signs of dominance from the tackle positions. Add Riggins back into this mix, and the Bulls’ defense—sixth in the MAC in average yards allowed per play (375.3), fourth in rushing yards allowed (167.5), and fourth in points allowed per game (24.3)—may surprise some MAC opponents.
With that in mind, the big plays need to go (and get going). The Bulls do not have an explosive offense. Throw away the Wagner game, and Buffalo has six plays in three games of 20 yards or more (this does not include Brazile’s 90-yard FG block-and-score or Terry’s 67-yard scoop-and-score this past weekend). Conversely, they’ve allowed 16—Nebraska had more (7) than the Bulls posted against the Huskers, CCU, or ODU combined. The chunk plays were absolute murder against the Monarchs this past Saturday, when, in the second half alone, Old Dominion cashed in a 42-yard TD run, a 29-yard completion on second-and-22, a 31-yard run with a 15-yard personal foul tacked onto the end, and—this doesn’t even make the list—a 19-yard TD pass on fourth-and-11 that should’ve sent the game to overtime. If Buffalo’s going to struggle putting fast points on the board (let’s assume they won’t normally score two TDs per game off blocked kicks and fumbles) then they absolutely need to stymy their opponents’ quick strikes, too.
Image from WMUBroncos.com
Early Test: Western Michigan At A Glance
MAC play starts in Buffalo on Saturday, and there’s no fooling around: Western Michigan, 6.5-point favorites, will be a tough out.
The Broncos (3-1) started the season with a loss, a 47-14 blowout at Michigan.
Since then, WMU—picked to finish third in the MAC West in the preseason media poll in what was expected to be a dogfight with a pair of confounding teams, Toledo (1-0 MAC) and Ball State (0-1 MAC)—rolled off three consecutive wins against FCS Illinois State (28-0), at Pittsburgh (44-41), and San Jose State University (23-3).
Western Michigan leads the MAC in total defense (308.8 yards allowed per game) and is fourth in total offense (397).
There’s a pair of tough runners in the backfield—Sean Tyler (282 rush yards and La’Darius Jefferson (274 rush yards, 6 TDs), currently the third- and fourth-ranked rushers in the MAC.
WR Corey Crooms’ 334 receiving yards are only two behind Buffalo’s Quian Willams for the MAC lead.
LB Corey Moment has 22 total tackles to lead the team, and DL Ali Fayad Ralph Holley have combined for 7.5 sacks.
The star of the show, however, is sophomore QB Kaleb Eleby.
After a slow start against the Wolverines, Eleby has returned to anticipated form, highlighted by his 23-for-34, 337-yard, 3 TD performance in a 44-41 road upset of Pitt.
He took an IV at halftime to fight off cramps, according to ESPN.com.
Eleby leads the MAC with 902 passing yards and seven TDs. He’s second in both completions (75) and attempts (120), behind only Matt McDonald of Bowling Green (and the Falcons never run). He’s third in QB rating (144.9).
The 2020 COVID-affected football season posed problems to college athletes around the country. That said, Kaleb Eleby thrived in the face of that adversity. A breakout star last year, the Western Michigan signal-caller was productive but efficient.
The intriguing passer boasts a thick, well-built frame. Eleby has shown he can work through route concepts and basic progressions. He plays with anticipation to attack windows and hit his receivers on their breaks. What’s more, he checks down when necessary.
Additionally, Eleby has sufficient arm strength to attack the short and intermediate levels. He zips passes into tight windows over the middle. Similarly, he can push the ball downfield on deep shots. Moreover, the Broncos’ star exhibits a natural feel for touch. He regularly layers the ball between levels of the defense. Likewise, Eleby displays impressive accuracy and the ability to lead his receivers on short, intermediate and deep passes.
When throwing on-platform, Broncos’ passer steps into his passes and transfers his weight properly. That said, the Western Michigan product is reliable throwing off of an unstable base. With the ball, Eleby has sufficient movement skills to escape the pocket. He generally keeps his eyes downfield while scrambling to find passing lanes.
As a ballcarrier, the Missouri native flashes craftiness to compensate for limited agility; he also finishes his runs with power.
USA Today says Eleby “has one of the strongest arms in the nation” and he’s been taggd, along with Emory Jones of Florida and Connor Bazelak of Missouri, as a potential “breakout prospect” in the 2022 NFL Draft.
As a redshirt freshman, Eleby helped throw former WMU receiver D’Wayne Eskridge into the NFL—he’s with Seattle—after a 660-yard, seven-TD performance in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
“He’s talented,” Linguist said in his Tuesday press conference. “Western Michigan has a very talented and efficient quarterback. I mean, seven touchdowns, zero interceptions, throwing, I think, for 225 (yards) per game, throwing for a 63% completion percentage. They do a great job in the RPO of giving him clean reads and clear reads and where the ball is going to go. So we’re dissecting the film, and really know we have a big challenge ahead, stopping them.”