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2016 Week 7 Preview: Buffalo Bulls vs. Ball State Cardinals

The Cardinals try to dig out of recent slump

NCAA Football: Ball State at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Week seven is packed with MAC interdivisional play. Four match-ups feature MAC East-MAC West showdowns, but one stands out in particular—a former MAC Championship game.

Buffalo (1-4) and Ball State (3-3) square off for the 10th time on Saturday, but the most memorable battle transpired in 2008. The 2008 MAC Championship was one of the most meaningful in history, featuring a 12th-ranked undefeated Ball State team destined for a BCS Bowl and a heavy-underdog 7-5 Buffalo Bulls.

Drew Willy and the Bulls roared back in the second half to bust the Cardinals’ BCS hopes with a 42-24 win. Although the most significant meeting between the opponents, this serves as Buffalo’s only win over Ball State in program history.

The odds are stacked against the Bulls, despite owning home-field advantage this Saturday. Despite upsetting the improved Army Black Knights, Buffalo’s 2016 has been nightmarish. A 22-16 loss to the FCS’ Albany on opening weekend set the tone for the season. In the last two weeks, Buffalo has been demolished by Boston College 35-3 and embarrassed at UB Stadium by a lowly Kent State squad.

Buffalo’s offense ranks last in the nation, accumulating 1,468 yards and 76 total points per on the season. Per game, only Rutgers pales in comparison in yardage and only South Carolina in points.

Feature halfback Jordan Johnson has struggled in his senior year. After solid production in 2015, Johnson averages a dreary 3.6 yards per carry this season. Excluding the game against Albany, the number drops to 3.1. For a team that relies heavily on the ground game, this bodes poorly for the Bulls. But it helps explain why Buffalo has failed to surpass scoring 20 points in 2016.

To beat Army, Buffalo relied on defensive execution, winning the turnover battle, and several missed field goals by the Black Knights. With 178 yards through the air, it was the second-best passing performance by the Bulls this season. Army defeated Temple on week one and beat UTEP 66-14, so this was a quality win in terms of Buffalo’s 2016 goals—and suggests a victory over Ball State is feasible.

Last week in Mt. Pleasant, Ball State fell to 3-3 after a tough-fought loss to a quality Central Michigan team. Driving late in the fourth quarter with an opportunity at the upset, quarterback Riley Neal threw an interception to Chippewa cornerback Amari Coleman on an underthrown seam route in the end zone. With over 90 seconds to play and a timeout, the play-call may have been premature or just executed poorly, but the opportunity for the victory was definitely there for Ball State.

In the Cardinals’ two conference losses, they have been competitive, but turnovers remain an issue. Neal threw two crucial interceptions in the loss to Central Michigan. The first was a 33-yard pick six in the fourth quarter to hand the Chippewas a 10-point lead. The latter sealed the game, and moved the Cardinals’ record to .500.

But Saturday is an opportunity for redemption. Ball State’s defensive unit has shown improvement since the 31-24 loss to Northern Illinois, limiting Central Michigan to two offensive touchdowns. In the road loss, the Cardinal defense impressed with five sacks and 11 tackles for loss and matches up favorably against Buffalo’s inadequate offense.

Ball State specializes in confronting opposing quarterbacks—fifth in the nation with 23 sacks.

Defensive end Anthony Winbush continues to lead the charge. A possible selection for the All-MAC team, the junior is eighth in the nation with six sacks. Winbush forced and recovered a fumble in the Cardinals’ win over Georgia State, and has shown promising ability to navigate through offensive lines into the backfield all season.

But Ball State’s offense has proved decent at times too. Running back James Gilbert is 17th in the nation in rushing yards (590) and 9th in touchdowns (8). The sophomore has obtained triple-digit yards three times this season and could be destined for a fourth after facing the Buffalo defense.

Only California and Louisiana-Monroe yield more rushing yards per game than the Bulls’ defense at 271.2. If Gilbert and the Ball State offensive line take advantage, the Cardinals could dominate on both sides of the ball to secure a fourth win, a step closer to bowl eligibility.

The game can be streamed on ESPN3, with kickoff scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET at UB Stadium. Second-year head coach Lance Leipold looks to guide Buffalo to its second victory of the season and in the series, while Ball State attempts to claim a victory before its schedule amplifies.