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Five Things Learned: Buffalo 40, Ball State 24

Remember when Ball State was 2-1? Time flies.

Buffalo v Miami Ohio Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The game had absolutely no impact on the race to the MAC Championship Game, but Ball State and Buffalo delivered us a nice shootout on Thursday night, in one of just two college football games scheduled in the time slot.

Buffalo improved to 5-6 and took home a 40-24 victory at Ball State, a team that has dropped eight straight contests to fall to 2-9. Here is what he learned from the Bulls' 16-point victory:

Lance Leipold has a great problem on his hands

As a coach, nothing is worse than not owning a competent quarterback on the roster. But sometimes, coaches can struggle deciding between two solid quarterbacks when one suffers an injury and the other exceeds expectations when picking up relief duties. We saw Tom Brady replace Drew Bledsoe, Kurt Warner replace Trent Green, Brett Favre replace Don Majkowski, and so on.

Earlier this season, I thought Buffalo found its quarterback for the future (the next 1.5 years) when junior Drew Anderson filled in for the injured Tyree Jackson. And before Anderson injured his shoulder in a one-point loss to Northern Illinois, he was playing out of his mind. He threw for 597 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception in the seven overtime loss to Western Michigan — setting multiple records in the process. In his other three games, he threw three touchdowns and just one pick. Overall, Anderson completed passes at a 62.3% rate this season.

Tyree Jackson, a sophomore, served as the primary starter for Buffalo's forgettable 2016 campaign. But in the last three weeks after returning from an early-season knee injury, Jackson has played at unforeseen levels. He's thrown for 1,069 yards and seven touchdowns in his last three outings combined. Against Ball State, he fired away for 350 and one score. Jackson's cut down on his running game and focused on pocket passing, a decision which has paid off for Buffalo's breakthrough offense.

In the four games where Jackson rushed for positive yards this season, his highest passing output was 211. On the three other occasions, Jackson was held under zero rushing yards but posted impressive numbers through the air (minimum passing yard total of 313).

Lance Leipold will have a tough decision next year on kickoff weekend when both Anderson and Jackson are healthy and ready to lead the Bulls. Given Jackson's larger sample size and experience, he'll likely be rewarded with the starting gig, but Buffalo can't forget it also holds one of the best quarterbacks in the conference in Drew Anderson.

How did Ball State beat UAB?

No, seriously. The Ball State Cardinals defeated the UAB Blazers (as 14-point favorites) by a score of 51-31 in Week 2 of the 2017 season. UAB is 7-3 and has a legitimate shot to beat Florida this Saturday. Ball State is 2-9, battling Kent State and Texas State for the worst team in the country with multiple victories.

Quarterback Riley Neal was healthy for the UAB game and having an experienced starter face an up-start program definitely played in the Cardinals' favor. Caleb Huntley and Justin Hall also performed spectacularly on offense, lifting the Cardinals to a season-high 51 points in Muncie against the Blazers. But looking at that Week 2 result, it's just shocking in retrospect because Ball State has looked like a "Welcome to an Easy Victory" doormat since entering conference play (-272 point differential, -38.9 per game).

This is a team that suffered three straight weeks without scoring a touchdown and allowed 56 points in four consecutive matchups. Luckily for the Cardinals, they held Buffalo to just 40 on Thursday night. The 16-point loss was actually their closest game in conference play, so that's a plus.

There are hardly any positives to talk about regarding this Ball State team, but reflecting on an unlikely victory is definitely one good memory Cardinal faithful can take away from this 2017 season.

The Johnson vs. Johnson battle for best WR in the MAC is getting interesting

Buffalo's Anthony Johnson and Toledo's Diontae Johnson are the only two wide receivers in the conference to surpass 1,000 yards this season. Both are undoubtedly talented and phenomenal receivers, creating plenty of highlights each week during midweek #MACtion.

On Thursday night, Anthony Johnson stated his case for the top dog in the conference. He caught seven passes for 153 yards, and FOUR TOUCHDOWNS. It was his third multi-score game of 2017 but he had never scored four times in a single contest until this visit to Ball State. Now with 12 receiving touchdowns, Anthony Johnson only trails West Virginia's David Sills V (18) in the category.

Anthony Johnson probably locked up a First Team All-MAC bid on Thursday night, and he'll likely be joined by Diontae Johnson. The Johnsons are both outstanding wideouts, and here are their stat-lines after 11 weeks of action:

  • Anthony: 70 REC, 1201 YDS, 12 TD, and 5 140+ YD Games
  • Diontae: 58 REC, 1078 YDS, 10 TD, and 4 140+ YD Games

Khalil Hodge and Anthony Winbush have potential NFL careers

It's time to give the defenses some love, because both of these teams possess a star upperclassman in their lineups.

Buffalo's Khalil Hodge, a junior inside linebacker, registered 12 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble in Thursday night's victory. Although he jumped out to a head start due to a Thursday night game, Hodge now sits second in the country behind San Jose State's Frank Ginda for most total tackles in the FBS this year with 141. He's a hard hitter, has a knack for stopping the run, and he succeeds in blitz packages too — as evident by his three sacks on the year.

Ball State's Anthony Winbush is another defender in the conference feared by quarterbacks and linemen alike. Winbush recorded one sack in the game, totaling 11.5 this season, and only trailing Northern Illinois' Sutton Smith. But Winbush's five forced fumbles lead the nation and he's additionally written 15.5 tackles for loss on his impressive résumé. The 6-1, 240-pound defender has just one game in his college career remaining, but judging solely by his on-field play, it's obvious that Ball State's most dominant player deserves a shot at the next level.

Buffalo can make a bowl, and not just mathematically

Buffalo is 5-6 and sits one win away from its first bowl game since the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl appearance in 2013. The Branden Oliver-Khalil Mack era was an exciting time for Bulls' fans, and the 2017 Bulls team has a shot to return to the postseason for the first time since that star-studded team completed the task.

One problem: Buffalo's final matchup of the season will be against the 8-3 Ohio Bobcats. But after watching Akron's offense destroy Frank Solich's defense, a Buffalo upset is not out of the question, especially given the way Tyree Jackson has been running the offense as of late. Theo Anderson and Emmanuel Reed are sparking the run game too, keeping Lance Leipold's offense at a healthy balance.

Although Bowling Green and Ball State don't possess great defenses, Buffalo's offense definitely has the potential to perform in the same manner Akron did against Ohio this Wednesday. The game will kickoff at UB Stadium too, providing one more slight advantage to the blue and white. Considering the Ohio defense yielded 443 yards to Akron and 50 points to UMass this season, Buffalo is gifted with a perfect opportunity to continue its win streak and exploit the Bobcats' defense. Don't chalk it up as a win for the Bulls, but never count out a 5-6 team yearning for bowl eligibility, especially when the senior class hasn't yet achieved the feat.