Bowling Green Falcons (8-3, 6-1 MAC) at Buffalo Bulls (8-3, 6-1 MAC)
Ralph Wilson Stadium -- Orchard Park, N.Y.
Friday, Nov. 29, 2013 -- 1:30 p.m. ET
Television: ESPNU, ESPN3 (streaming)
A season's worth of intensity and ambition comes down to 60 minutes on a cold Black Friday afternoon. The Bowling Green Falcons and Buffalo Bulls meet for the 11th time at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, and at stake is something both of these teams have rarely celebrated -- a division championship.
The winner will improve to 9-3 overall and 7-1 in the MAC. They will guarantee themselves a bowl game, as well as a spot in next Friday's Mid-American Conference Championship Game against undefeated Northern Illinois. The loser will fall to 8-4 and, while still likely to play in a bowl game, will have to sweat out that possibility for another week.
For Buffalo, a win would mean only their second Eastern Division title and their first in five years. They're also seeking their first MAC championship since 2008. Meanwhile, a Bowling Green victory would give the Falcons their first division title in ten years -- so long ago that they were in the Western Division then and played the conference championship game at home instead of Detroit. For the Falcons, it's been 21 years since they last captured the MAC Championship.
So, obviously, the stakes for this game really couldn't be higher. Fortunately for both teams, the weather will be about as good as could possibly be expected for this time of year in Buffalo. It will be mostly cloudy with snow showers early, but the high will be 27 degrees with relatively light wind (5-10 MPH). If this forecast holds, it will help both teams on offense and special teams.
That's good, because both teams will need about as much help on offense as they can get. The Falcons and Bulls rank 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the MAC for total defense and scoring defense. Against the run, they're first and third. The only potential dent in the armor for either team on defense is on Buffalo's side, where the Bulls rank sixth in the MAC against the pass and allow 59 yards per game more than Bowling Green. Knowing this, the Falcons could be expected to throw the ball early in order to set up better running conditions later.
On offense, both teams are in the MAC's top five for each of the four major stat categories, although again, Bowling Green is ahead of Buffalo in each. The primary difference between the two is in total yards per game, where the Falcons gain 45 more than the Bulls. For Buffalo to win, they're likely going to have to do better than their average of 186.2 rushing yards per game, which means feeding Branden Oliver as much as possible.
Oliver is certainly used to a heavy workload. He's averaging 26.4 carries and 137.5 yards per game. He can wear down a defense, which then makes it vulnerable to quarterback Joe Licata and the Bulls' passing game. Licata has 2,407 passing yards and 21 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Alex Neutz is Licata's primary receiver, and although he's not among the MAC leaders in receptions, he makes his catches count. Neutz averages 16.9 yards per reception which gives him 80 yards per game. Of his 52 receptions, 11 have gone for touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, this game is yet another national showcase for Khalil Mack. Mack is the league leader in sacks (12), tackles for loss (16.5) and forced fumbles (5). He's also tied for fourth in the MAC with three interceptions, and he's returned two of those for touchdowns. If he has a big game, Bowling Green will find it very difficult to score.
As noted above, the Falcons may want to come out passing, and they have a quarterback capable of making that plan succeed. Johnson is the MAC's leader in passing efficiency. While his 17 touchdown passes aren't as many as some of his peers, he leads the league with a 65.1 completion percentage and averages 9.05 yards per pass attempt. That latter number borders on exceptional. For comparison, Licata and Jordan Lynch both average under 7.5 yards per attempt. Even Keith Wenning is only an 8.25 average. It's good that Johnson's corps of receivers has been very deep, because injuries have forced the Falcons to use that depth. Chris Gallon and Jared Cohen were both key players who are lost for the season, so now the primary receivers are Shaun Joplin and Heath Jackson. Jackson has 20 catches since just mid-season.
Of course, one of the primary factors allowing for Johnson's success as a first-year starter has been Bowling Green's running game, led by Travis Greene. Greene averages 117.5 yards per game and 6.3 per carry and ranks fourth in the MAC overall. He's nearing a BGSU record for single-season rushing yards and already has more than any Falcon back in the last 35 years. And if Bowling Green gets close to the end zone? Buffalo will have to deal with walk-on William Houston, who has 11 touchdowns this season, almost all of them of the one- or two-yard variety.
The Bowling Green defense doesn't have the gaudy sack or turnover numbers that Buffalo's does, and it's suffered its fair share of injuries to players such as Gabe Martin. However, the defensive line, led by Ted Ouellet, and the defensive backfield, led by Jerry "Boo Boo" Gates, is intact. More than anything else, they play sound, fundamental defense and don't often beat themselves. They're not flashy; they're just always where they need to be.
You could say that Buffalo has the edge here, since they're the home team, even if they're not playing at their home stadium. However, the home team has done rather poorly in this series. In fact, Buffalo hasn't beaten Bowling Green in a "home" game since the two first met in 2000. In any event, this game should be close throughout. All of the units involved here are great, and it doesn't appear that either team has an advantage in any one particular area. Penalties and turnovers are likely to play key parts in this game. While it would probably be wise to expect a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair, a shootout could break out, too.
Regardless of how the game plays out, this is it -- THE game of the year in the MAC. It's a winner-take-all national showcase of #MACtion, and what else could you possibly want to be the main course of your post-holiday football feast?
- Eastern Michigan Got Caught In The Wildcats Claws, Falls To Kentucky 81-63
- Bowling Green Splits Pair in Cancun
- Kent State Continues Hot Start, Outlasts Surging Youngstown State Squad 83-79
- November Follies: The Collapse of Ohio Football In November
- Mid-American Conference Football Week 14 TV Schedule: Gametime, Streaming