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2018 MAC Championship: Players to Watch and Matchups

The stars to lock your eyes on when NIU and Buffalo meet in Detroit.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

At 7:00 p.m. ET tonight, the MAC will be in the hands of Huskies and Bulls. Northern Illinois features a bevy of stars on defense including the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, while Buffalo employs several offensive stars including the MAC Offensive Player of the Year.

Here are several key, can’t-miss players to watch for each team:

Tyree Jackson, QB, Buffalo (#3)

Tyree “MACtion” Jackson claimed MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors earlier this week. The 6’7”, 245-pound quarterback will return to his home state in hopes of catapulting Buffalo to its program-record 11th win and first MAC title since 2008. The strong-armed quarterback frequently targets the deep ball, more than any other quarterback in the MAC. A lot of times, these downfield passes turn into touchdowns, and Jackson has thrown for 25 touchdowns this year, while also running for seven.

Sutton Smith, DE, Northern Illinois (#15)

Buffalo’s offensive line didn’t allow a single sack until October, but winning the battle in the trenches will be tough when Sutton Smith is on the opposite side. Smith, now a two-time MAC Defensive Player of the Year, earned the Vern Smith Leadership Award for the best player in the conference. The former All-American followed up his 14-sack, 30-tackles for loss 2017 with 13 sacks and 21 tackles for loss in 2018, along with four forced fumbles. Smith isn’t the largest defensive lineman but his speed around the edge makes him a deadly weapon. He’s used that speed to score two touchdowns this season — one from a blocked punt and the other from a fumble recovery.

Anthony Johnson, WR, Buffalo (#83)

The 6’2” South Carolina native is arguably the best wideout in the MAC. He possesses speed to burn opponents down field and strength to win jump balls over cornerbacks and shed tackles. Injuries slowed down Johnson in 2018 after a breakout 2017 campaign that featured six games of 140+ receiving yards. However, he’s still shown how he can single-handedly change the outcome of a game. On October 30, Johnson’s 238 receiving yards and three touchdowns propelled Buffalo past Miami (OH).

Antonio Jones-Davis, OLB, Northern Illinois (#48)

Jones-Davis landed a spot on the All-MAC First Team earlier this week after breaking through with a team-high 104 tackles this season. Just like Smith, he’s often found in opposing backfields, where he’s registered 11.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Not only is Jones-Davis strong in stopping the run game, but he’s a more-than-capable threat in limiting the opponent’s air attack. This season alone, Jones-Davis holds six pass breakups to his name.

Khalil Hodge, ILB, Buffalo (#4)

The second linebacker named Khalil to come through Buffalo in recent memory is very reminiscent of the first one. Hodge was a surefire First Team All-MAC pick after recording 129 tackles — his third-straight season with over 120. The hard-hitting, run-stopping senior linebacker is 10th in MAC history in total tackles, and he’ll likely get a dozen more in Detroit. Hodge’s duties go beyond his tackling ability. In the past two seasons, he has created six turnovers, split evenly between interceptions and forced fumbles.

Tre Harbison, RB, Northern Illinois (#22)

Harbison has exceeded the 100-yard mark on five occasions in 2018, culminating in a career-high 169 rushing yards against Akron to kick off November. The sophomore running back’s on-field successes directly translate to team success, as Northern Illinois emerged victorious in his four best rushing performances of the season. Harbison’s only scored four touchdowns this year, but some have come at critical moments. His overtime touchdown against Eastern Michigan completed a Huskies comeback over the Eagles, allowing NIU to reach Detroit for the seventh time in nine seasons.

Jaret Patterson, RB, Buffalo (#26)

Buffalo’s greatest surprise this season is its breakout freshman halfback. Jaret, the brother of Buffalo’s starting outside linebacker James Patterson, has made quite a name for himself since receiving more touches. Jaret Patterson has exploded into the end zone 12 times this year to rank second among FBS freshmen. He’s rushed for 874 yards, nearly averaging six yards per carry. His agile feet, quick cutting ability, and refusal to go down make him a dangerous threat in Buffalo’s stacked offense.

Marcus Childers, QB, Northern Illinois (#15)

The second year starter is a rookie to the MAC Championship Game, but it’s a place many NIU quarterbacks have visited in recent memory. Childers isn’t the downfield passer Jackson is, but the sophomore has shown flashes of mobility to add versatility to the Huskies’ offense. In a 24-21 win over Ohio in mid-October, Childers sliced and diced the Bobcats’ defense for 169 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. He’s only thrown for over 200 yards once this season, but if Buffalo’s offense comes out with fire, Childers will be required to match it through the air.

Matchup Edges

Quarterback: EDGE Buffalo, Tyree Jackson may be the best quarterback in the MAC (along with Ohio’s Nathan Rourke). If he can pick apart NIU’s star-studded defense, the Bulls will be impossible to stop.

Running backs: EDGE Draw, Tre Harbison and Jaret Patterson are both capable backs, each among the conference’s statistical leaders in rushing yards. And each team’s secondary backs (Kevin Marks for Buffalo and Marcus Jones for NIU) are some of the best in the conference.

Wide receivers, tight ends: EDGE Buffalo, With Anthony Johnson and K.J. Osborn as Buffalo’s wideouts, you won’t find many MAC teams that have an edge over the electric duo.

Offensive line: EDGE Draw, Buffalo’s offensive line refused to allow sacks for weeks and is stronger five across, but Northern Illinois’ line is equipped with the best offensive tackle in the conference in three-time First Team All-MAC honoree Max Scharping.

Defensive line: EDGE Northern Illinois, Northern Illinois’ defensive line has backfield trespasser Sutton Smith, one of the best defensive ends in football.

Linebackers: EDGE Draw, Khalil Hodge and James Patterson lead the Bulls, Kyle Pugh and Antonio Jones-Davis lead the Huskies. Buffalo may have a slight edge with Hodge on its squad, but NIU is just about neck-and-neck.

Secondary: EDGE Buffalo, The Bulls’ secondary is 16th in the FBS in yards allowed with 13 interceptions. Northern Illinois is 77th with only seven picks.

Kickers and punters: Draw, Neither team’s kicker makes field goals at a 70 percent rate, so there is equivalence there. Both punters average between 40 and 42 yards per boot.