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2016 Week 9 Preview: Akron Zips vs. Buffalo Bulls

Akron’s Woodson looks to take charge of Buffalo’s defense

NCAA Football: Akron at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Mid-week MACtion is almost back.

This Thursday, the Akron Zips (5-3), look to stay atop of the MAC East against the slumping Buffalo Bulls (1-6). The intra-division foes are polarized into opposite sides of the standings. Terry Bowden’s Zips are 3-1 in conference play, while the Bulls continue charging toward their first MAC win.

The Zips breathed a sigh of relief in Muncie, Indiana last Saturday, when quarterback Thomas Woodson returned under center. The redshirt junior guided Akron to a 35-25 victory over Ball State, headlined by a stellar passing performance—338 yards and two scores. Injury kept Woodson sidelined for Akron’s previous three games, but the offensive definitely returned to form the minute he entered the gridiron.

Woodson passed for 330 yards in four of five games in 2016. Against Marshall, he engineered a shootout 65-38 road victory over the Thundering Herd. This offense morphs into a well-oiled machine with the experienced Woodson as the signal-caller. Akron averages 230 passing yards in games without him, compared to Woodson’s 317 yards per outing. The next defense he faces is among the nation’s bottom.

Buffalo is struggling. The Bulls have continued navigating plummeting on the downward spiral since the departures of Branden Oliver and Khalil Mack, and the “New York Bulls” rebranding failure.

Last week, Buffalo failed to improve on a dismal start, falling 44-7 to Northern Illinois (2-6). The Bulls have failed to earn a conference victory after upsetting Army in week four, due to continual offensive and defensive lapses.

The defense allows 289 rushing yards per game. Only Louisiana-Monroe allows more. Last week, Northern Illinois earned 312 yards on the ground, along with four rushing touchdowns to squash the Buffalo defense. Despite the Bulls’ major issues on defense, the one-win team only yields 33.4 points per game.

But they are still getting blown out, due to a lack of offense.

Buffalo scores fewer points than any team in the nation, 14.9 per game. Last week, the Northern Illinois defense limited the Bulls’ output to just seven points. Buffalo struggled posting four interceptions and one third-down conversion last week, crucial aspects of the game that limit offensive production. There is no particular strength in the Bulls’ balanced offensive scheme. Quarterback Tyree Jackson has thrown more touchdowns than picks, but completes slightly better than half of his passes. Senior running back Jordan Johnson has earned a team-high 99 carries on the season, but only two converted into touchdowns.

In order for the Bulls to win at UB Stadium Saturday, pass defense looms large. Buffalo needs to pressure Woodson and start forcing turnovers—another defensive struggle of the Bulls this season. Additionally, the run defense must show improvement, especially against Akron’s below-average ground game.

Although Thursday would be the perfect opportunity to spark the rushing game, the Zips prefer to attack through the air. Woodson owns 15 touchdown passes and only four interceptions this season, playing in only five contests. For Akron to win, Woodson must pick up right where he left at Ball State, maintaining steadiness in the pocket while passing the ball.

Akron is only two weeks removed from a 41-0 home shutout to the nationally-ranked Western Michigan Broncos. The return of Woodson immediately exorcised the demons from the horrid loss, shaping Akron’s offense back into form.

Similarly to Buffalo, Akron’s defense gives up 33.4 points per game. Bowden readily can lead the Zips to victory on Thursday by lighting up the scoreboard offensively to beat a Buffalo, who possesses prolonging scoring issues.

The MACtion can be streamed on ESPN3 this Thursday night. Kickoff commences in Buffalo at 7:30 pm, eastern time.

For Akron, the MAC East lead remains at stake. The Zips seek to emerge as the East favorite while Ohio, tied with Akron for first place, simultaneously faces a tough matchup at Toledo.

For Buffalo, it’s about bringing the fan base a needed victory. Bulls fans have witnessed home losses to an FCS squad and Kent State. A win versus Akron would boost the program’s morale, which it is in dire need of following a nightmare start.