Saturday’s matchup between the Central Michigan Chippewas (5-4, 3-1 MAC) and the Buffalo Bulls (3-4, 2-1 MAC) meet at Alumni Stadium in Buffalo, New York, will be a watermark game for both programs, as this cross-division rivalry could potentially determine their MAC divisional fates.
Last season’s game in Mt. Pleasant proved to be the lowest point for CMU in a season full of them, as the Bulls all but assured CMU would be unable to compete for a bowl game down the line. It was a game so frustrating, I can vividly remember radio play-by-play announcer Don Choido lambasting the team’s performance in the post-game commentary with an timbre I’d never heard him reach in nearly seven years of my fandom.
It also largely proved to be the nail in the coffin for Jon Bonamego’s career as a head coach.
For Buffalo, it marked the start of a historic campaign, as they would eventually go 7-1 and reach the MAC Championship Game in Detroit, largely on the performance of future pros Tyree Jackson and Anthony Johnson. Their ability to finish in that game proved their early losses out-of-conference were largely flukes.
As we enter the 2019 season, both teams are in completely different places. CMU is on the rebound looking to secure bowl eligibility, while the Bulls are looking to make way in the MAC East division race, which is once again unpredictable.
What should we expect in Buffalo?
When CMU has the ball
CMU’s ball control offense will be the key to victory for both sides.
Jonathan Ward logged his fifth 100+-yard game of the season last week against Bowling Green, while logging three touchdowns, while Kobe Lewis also contributed with 125 yards and a touchdown. The duo has become one of the best one-two punches in the country, picking up a staggering 1,277 yards on 207 carries for 16 touchdowns and a 6.16 yards per carry average.
CMU’s ability to run the ball down their opponent’s throat has helped them find victory in many of their games; being able to run the ball effectively has given the Chippewas ample opportunity to convert clutch downs. CMU has converted 69 rushing first downs, while they’ve mostly ran on fourth-down conversions, posting a 12-of-18 mark in that statistic.
They’ve even introduced a new sub-package with read-option QB Tommy Lazzaro to chew up clock and give CMU a different look on offense in order to emphasize the importance of the run to the offense.
The plan on offense has a lot to do with the sheer talent in the ground game, but it also has a lot to do with an inconsistent passing attack.
Quinten Dormady has been fairly adequate in terms of box score statistics, going 22-of-36 for 295 yards, one touchdown and one interception in last week’s game vs. Bowling Green. Dormady has been excellent in diagnosing defenses pre-snap and getting players into their assigned roles, but has struggled after the snap to connect with receivers consistently. This is especially evidenced when taking a deep dive into the receivers list. Last week, 107 of Dormady’s 185 yards (along with seven of his completions and his lone touchdown) in the first half went to JaCorey Sullivan. In the game vs. New Mexico State, Dormady relied on Kalil Pimpleton (six receptions, 59 yards, one touchdown) as an outlet at the expense of other receivers, as Dormady averaged 5.58 yards per attempted pass ona 14-of-24 for 134 yard day.
For CMU to be a truly dynamic offense, Dormady will have to fire on all cylinders. But he (along with the rest of the staff) seem content with the game manager role, which is perfectly fine given CMU’s prowess at running the ball.
They’ll have to run the ball without some of their best blockers against Buffalo, as tight end Tony Poljan and fullback Hunter Buczkowski are out with injury, with third-string tight end Joel Wilson questionable. That means backups Bernhard Raimann, Oakley Lavallii and potentially recent QB-to-TE conversion Austin Hergott will have to handle those duties.
Buffalo has one of the more interesting defenses in the MAC, as they’ve allowed exactly as many points as the offense has scored in the year to date so far, averaging 23.6 points per game and 167 overall over seven games.
The Bulls’ bread and butter has been their rushing defense.
They’ve only allowed 45 conversions on rushing plays (compared to 90 scored by their offense,) while allowing only 667 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. That’s a very stout rushing unit, ranking 13th in the NCAA as of publication. They average 95.3 yards per game, with a staggering average of 2.8 yards per carry.
That will be the matchup to watch in this game, as CMU’s unstoppable force meets Buffalo’s immoveable wall.
In the passing game is where Buffalo tends to give up momentum, as they’ve allowed 1,422 yards over seven games (averaging to about 298.4 yards per game,) with a 12:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. They’ve allowed a 60 percent completion rate, with a 12.57 yards per completion average as well.
Malcom Koonce (14 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks), Joey Banks (45 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception, one defensive touchdown) and Ledarius Mack (11 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, four sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recovieries, one defensive touchdown) will be players to watch for if you’re a Chippewa fan.
For Buffalo to win the defensive battle, they’ll have to force Dormady into passing or otherwise force CMU to go three and out and allow the offense to chew up clock.
When Buffalo has the ball
Buffalo, much like CMU, relies on a possession game using the run as a main catalyst.
Much of the offense flows through Jaret Patterson (131 carries, 686 yards, four touchdowns in 2019) and Kevin Marks (128 yards, 603 yards, three touchdowns) being able to run the ball and chew up clock. As a unit, the two average 4.97 yards per carry, helping the rushing attack pick up 90 (!!!) first downs via the run. The threat of a running game has certianly helped them convert on third downs, as the Bulls have converted on 42.99 percent of their attempts (46-of-107) and have held on to the ball for an average of 33:03, as compared to a 26:33 average for opponents. That’s nearly seven minutes more on average.
Kyle Vantrease will be the starting quarterback over the rest of the season, now that Matt Myers has been declared out for the rest of the season by head coach Lance Leipold.
Vantrease, much like Dormady, is the definition of a game managing quarterback. He’s thrown 51 attempts over seven games, completing 33 of those passes (64.71 percent) for 292 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His job has been primarily to limit mistakes and have safe exchanges with the running game, a job he’s been pretty good at filling so far. That said, averaging only 41 passing yards per game could be a great impediment to Buffalo moving the ball down the field through the air when the situation calls for it.
Antonio Nunn is by far the offense’s leading receiver, with 21 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns. No other primary receiver has more than nine receptions (Carlton Todd, Zac Lefebvre) or 104 yards (Todd.)
The CMU defense will have a pretty good chance to shine against a Buffalo offense which has failed to score more than 21 points since the start of the conference season. It’s rare to see a team regress as the season goes on, but the loss of Myers’ dynamism on offense cannot be overstated.
There are a handful of key injuries to know about on the defensive side for CMU, as D’Andre Dill and Kyron McKinnie-Harper will both be out for the Chippewas. The loss of McKinnie-Harper is especially notable, as he’s been an emerging talent at the cornerback position for the Chippewas, who initially struggled to establish the outside boundaries.
That means more work for Jacques Bristol at the nose tackle and Brandon Brown, who will once again get a chance to prove he can be a difference-maker at the corner spot, who has been relegated to rotational duty in recent weeks after being a Week 1 starter.
The Chippewas, much like the Bulls, also make their bread-and-butter on the ground defensively. They’ve given up 887 total yards and 12 touchdowns over seven games this season, for an average of 110.9 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. They’ve also forced eight fumbles, recovering five.
The defense has given up an average of 253.88 yards per game in 2019, with an average of 7.36 yards per attempt and 15 touchdowns. But in recent weeks, the Chippewas have shut down passing attacks in conference games, giving up only 373 yards and two touchdowns, with four interceptions against EMU and BGSU.
They’ve also been prone to big plays in the passing game, as NMSU’s Josh Atkins passed for 263 yards and three touchdowns on the CMU defense two weeks ago. That includes a 37-yard bomb to Jason Huntley, a 34-yard TD pass to Jared Wyatt and two redzone scores to pull the game within one score late in the second half.
As a unit, CMU has picked seven interceptions and five fumbles, while also collecting 56 tackles-for-loss and 22 sacks so far this season. Sean Adesanya has especially been a force, with 21 tackles, nine tackles for loss, six sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
Da’Quaun Jamison and Troy Brown lead the Chippewas in interceptions with two apiece, all four of which have come in the last three games, and have also proven to be two of the defense’s best players. Jamison (42 tackes, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one pass break-up, one forced fumble) and Brown (54 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, one sack, one fumble recovery) help to pace a Chippewas offense which has been amongst the best at creating havoc plays.
- Where/When: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Alumni Stadium in Buffalo, New York, at 3:00 p.m. EST.
- Weather: 54 degrees and partly cloudy skies expected at kickoff, with a light breeze and no chance at precipitation, per Weather.com.
- TV/streaming: The game will be broadcast exclusively on ESPN+. ESPN+ is a separate subscription service from WatchESPN, costing $5/month. As such, a valid subscription is required.
- Radio: For a CMU-centric broadcast, tune in to 98.5 WUPS-FM. For a Buffalo-centric broadcast, tune in to ESPN 1520 AM.
- Odds: Buffalo is a 2.5-point favorite, with an over/under of 47.5, per OddsShark.com. CMU is 5-1-1 against the spread, while Buffalo is 3-4.
These teams are extremely similar, mirroring each other in many ways, right down to their philosophies on offense and defense.
When that’s the case, the matchup will usually come down to who ultimately has more talent and has proven over and over the ability to execute the gameplan. Right now, CMU is more healthy and more talented, especially on the offensive side of the game.
Buffalo, in order to be able to stay in the game, will have to have some semblence of a passing game, something they haven’t been able to get together since Vantrease took over as the starter. It’s a surprise, frankly, Buffalo is a favorite by oddsmakers in this game, given their record against the spread and struggles in scoring in recent weeks in comparison to Central, who has seemingly scored at will. But that’s probably more of an indication of respect for a stifling rush defense, which matches well with CMU’s rushing defense on paper.
Even putting aside my obvious biases, at the end of the day, I have more faith in CMU to take away a victory and attain bowl eligibility.