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2018 Week 8 MAC Preview: Buffalo Bulls @ Toledo Rockets

Is the MAC champion torch being passed at the Glass Bowl?

Buffalo v Rutgers Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

It’s last year’s MAC champion pitted up against this year’s MAC frontrunner.

The Bulls and Rockets seem to be trending in opposite directions at the moment. Buffalo (6-1) is the lone one-loss team in the conference. Buffalo squashed Akron 24-6 and continue to fit the part as the new conference favorites.

Toledo (3-3) has already matched its loss total from a season ago, nearly staging a 25-point comeback in a road loss to Eastern Michigan last week. Jason Candle’s Rockets have suffered at halting the run and that shortcoming has contributed to a .500 at the midway point of the season.

Meet the Bulls

Led by fourth-year head coach Lance Leipold, Buffalo is finally on the upswing. The Bulls have achieved the 6-win mark for the second-straight season, but this time the feat occurs with five games to spare. With a date against Toledo looming, Buffalo is a spotless 3-0 as a visitor this year, gliding past Temple, dismantling Rutgers, and defeating Central Michigan.

Buffalo’s emergence can be attributed to the effectiveness of the new freshman running backs. Kevin Marks and Jaret Patterson give opposing defenses headaches each week, combining to average 131.4 rushing yards per game and over 5.5 yards per carry. Marks has found the end zone seven times in his first year as a Bull, while Patterson contributes five additional touchdowns.

Quarterback Tyree Jackson has managed the offense well in his junior year. The quarterback has recovered nicely from an injury-riddled 2017 with an 18:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season. A pair of stud receivers, K.J. Osborn and Anthony Johnson, add a boost to Jackson’s passing game. Osborn leads the team with 606 yards and six receiving touchdowns, but Johnson has proven before he’s one of the best in the nation. The latter of the two, a probable NFL draft pick this spring, returned against Akron after sitting out of two games with a hamstring injury.

Defensively, the Bulls offer one of the better defensive units in the conference. Aside from a collapse when Army’s triple option attack came to visit, the team has yet to allow 30 points in a game. Senior inside linebacker Khalil Hodge reigns over the defense with 86 total tackles. Hodge sat atop of the conference with 153 a year ago and he’s on similar pace in his final year on campus.

The defensive line is anchored by another senior, defensive end Chuck Harris. Harris has already tallied a personal best in single-season sacks with 6.0. The star pass rusher has blazed through a handful of offensive lines to produce two forced fumbles this season. Buffalo’s (+8) turnover margin ranks ninth in the country, and Harris and the rest of the pass rush are responsible for plenty of them.

With a win on Saturday, the Bulls would achieve the 7-win mark for just the second time since 2009, as the Branden Oliver/Khalil Mack-led Bulls of 2013 finished 8-5. Buffalo has had its fair share of ugly seasons as an FBS program and is seeking its first 7-1 start since making the jump to the highest division in 1999.

Meet the Rockets

It’s been less than an ideal start for Toledo. Although losses to fringe Top 25 teams in Miami (FL) and Fresno State were deemed acceptable, the team absolutely no-showed in the first half in Ypsilanti last Saturday morning.

Eastern Michigan quarterback Mike Glass suffered a game-changing injury in the second quarter, but the damage had already been done. The mobile quarterback sliced Toledo’s defense for 125 yards and two touchdowns, allowing the Eagles to storm to a 28-3 lead.

Toledo’s offense and defense both woke up in the second half, scoring 23 unanswered points to nearly tie the game with 20 seconds left. The Rockets were a 2-point conversion away from forcing overtime, but Mitchell Guadagni’s pass to the back of the end zone fell incomplete.

Despite the .500 record, the Rockets are still a more-than capable contender in the MAC West. Guadagni returned from a concussion last week, and he’s been a bright spot in Toledo’s season. Saturday was his second game of 130 or more rushing yards, and until the Eastern Michigan game, he finished with a completion percentage of 60 or better in each of his outings.

Guadagni leads the team in rushing yards with 387, and second place isn’t close. Toledo’s running backs, along with the run blockers, have struggled in 2018. The Rockets continue to rotate between Shakif Seymour, Bryant Koback, and Art Thompkins in the backfield but none of the three have emerged to become the next Kareem Hunt or Terry Swanson yet, but there’s still time.

Toledo also has a formidable receiving trio of Diontae Johnson, Jon’Vea Johnson, and Cody Thompson, who collectively have scored 15 touchdowns in 2018. The group isn’t receiving the same amount of targets from last year, but the receivers are still capable of threatening opposing secondaries and creating big momentum plays for the Rocket offense.

Last week was a particularly rough week for the trio, as none of the three attained five receptions or 50 receiving yards.

Defensively, the Rockets haven’t lived quite up to standard. The run defense ranks 101st in the country, while the pass defense ranks 103rd in the country. Overall, Toledo’s defense allows 454 yards per game, ranking at the forefront of the worst 20 teams in the country. The offensive firepower has overcome the defensive miscues several times this season, especially in a 63-44 win over Nevada and a 52-36 win over Bowling Green.

With a loss on Saturday, Toledo already ties the worst result of Jason Candle’s short, but successful tenure as head coach. The two-year head man has posted records of 9-4 and 11-3, and this is the most adversity a Candle-led team has faced around midseason. Toledo is on a six-game winning streak of MAC games at home, failing to lose a single one since October 2016 to Ohio. But this 6-1 Buffalo squad is one of the most challenging visitors that has come to the Glass Bowl in years.

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, October 20 — 12 p.m. ET
  • Venue: Glass Bowl — Toledo, OH
  • Network: ESPN+
  • Spread: Buffalo (-1)
  • ESPN FPI Predictor: Toledo has 64.1% chance to win
  • All-time series: Toledo leads 7-3

Buffalo and Toledo have not met since the 2013 season, where the Rockets downed the Bulls in a 51-41 showdown in the Glass City. Toledo currently rides a two-game win streak over its MAC East foe, last falling to the Bulls in 2007.

The first game in the series occurred in 1925, where Buffalo left victorious, 2-0.

Prediction

Toledo’s defense has taken a step back from last season, while the offense continues to show its capable of putting up points. However, Khalil Hodge is out to prove that Buffalo is one of the tougher defenses this Rockets team has faced this year, and Toledo could see similar results from last week on offense this Saturday.

Toledo is best when the team is excelling through the air. The Rockets managed to drop 63 against Nevada this year behind four Guadagni touchdown passes and an efficient day in connecting with his dominant wideouts.

So, Buffalo needs to focus on containing Guadagni’s speed and scrambling ability, and keep him in the pocket. If so, Buffalo’s forced nine interceptions this year and the Bulls’ pass rush should be solid enough to force some mistakes.

Toledo will have its hands full on defense trying to limit the duo of Marks and Patterson. Additionally, Tyree Jackson finally showed some mobility last week while running for 57 yards on seven carries. Buffalo has a plethora of weapons for the Rockets’ defense to focus on, and the path to a 4-3 record suddenly looks difficult for Toledo.

The difficult amplifies for the Bulls since this one is away from home, but Buffalo already proved against Temple that it’s a force to be reckoned with on the road.

Prediction: Buffalo 27, Toledo 21