In case you thought you knew something about the MAC in 2019, the game between Buffalo (4-4, 2-2 MAC) and Central Michigan (5-4, 3-2), certainly did a lot to dispel any allusions (illusions, maybe?) you may have had about what’s what in the MAC.
Buffalo was dominant from start to finish on the day against a resurgent CMU program which was seeking its sixth victory for that all-important bowl eligibility. Maybe the lone indication we had that this game would be “Bulls on Parade” was a result against common opponent Akron; CMU played Akron in Week 3 while the Zips were still realtively healthy, allowing a 45-24 final back when Akron still had some hope, while Buffalo shut out the helpless Zips 21-0 just last week.
Regardless, it was yet another strange result in conference play which only further muddied the water surrounding the division races, and we’ll break down what exactly to take away from the proceedings.
Quinten Dormady struggled to push the offense in key situations
I’ve probably been a bit more skeptical about Dormady this season than most other evaluators throughout the season, which I feel fairly badly about.
I want to see Dormady succeed in a sport he loves to play, and he seems to be a very popular guy in the locker room. As a fan (to put my beat reporter hat aside for a moment,) I held a quiet faith the former four-star starting SEC quarterback could bring a new dimension to the CMU offense, even if the stats didn’t quite bear fruit.
The reality is, Dormady has struggled in key situations for the Chippewas this season, and it’s no coincidence the offense has looked very out of sync when they have to depend on Dormady too much.
More simply put: Dormady hasn’t played to the lofty expectations which were set upon him in the preseason.
Dormady finished Saturday’s game 25-of-37 for 272 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions (one pick-six) and a lost fumble on a rushing attempt, with much of the damage done late when CMU was already down by double-digits.
Dormady fell into a lot of his worst habits against a stout Buffalo defense, honing in on a single read and launching several times, even if the receiver was double-teamed. This was especailly evident in the second quarter, where Dormady targetted Tyrone Scott on two different drives an incredible six times, completing two passes.
The Buffalo defense made Dormady pay for it late, tipping a JaCorey Sullivan target in double coverage and taking it back for a 40-yard pick-six by Kadofi Wright late in the fourth quarter.
That wasn’t the first time, either.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Dormady targetted Sullivan on a seam route down the middle, even despite heavy one-on-one coverage. The pass was tipped and ulitmately intercepted. Replays showed Dormady never looked at any other receiver on the play, and the defense read it well, with Joey Banks eventually making the grab.
Dormady once again relied on Sullivan and Kalil Pimpleton for the majority of his yards on crossing routes or screen looks, with the two bringing down 14 receptions for 196 yards and both touchdowns. Running back Jonathan Ward had five receptions for 39 yards, with no other receiver gaining more than three receptions or 25 yards (Scott.)
With the Moore suspension still under appeal, Dormady will more or less be the guy moving forward, so CMU fans will have to simply hope he an limit his mistakes moving forward. But Buffalo showed the rest of the MAC how to slow down a dynamic CMU offense, and that could present a problem moving forward.
CMU clearly affected by injuries on the defensive side
CMU had to go into the game agaisnt Buffalo without three of their starters on defense, and it showed that there was a lack of depth, especially in the first half, when Buffalo did most of their damage.
Without freshman phenom Kyron McKinnie-Harper, the Bulls targetted Darius Bracy and Montrae Braswell in coverage early and often, with Braswell especially getting badly beaten on Antonio Nunn’s first touchdown, an endzone fade route to the left of the field.
CMU also entered the game without Andrew Ward, starting middle linebacker, who suffered an as-of-yet-unknown career-ending injury in practice this week. That put George Douglas in the starting position, and he was merely decent, with four tackles.
D’Andre Dill, a starting defensive tackle, was also out, forcing LaQuan Johnson to play both end and tackle, while also introducing new Texas A&M transfer Mohammed Diallo into the rotation. (Diallo finished with no stats recorded.) CMU also had to give offensive lineman Eric Ditshazy a defensive number so he could be eligbile to play both sides of the ball, showing there were concerns about depth going into Saturday.
Going into Saturday, I talked about how CMU had been prone to lapses in pass coverage, allowing about 253 yards per game on average and 15 touchdowns on the season. This was especially a concern after the game against winless New Mexico State, where the Chippewas gave up 260 yards, three touchdowns and several big plays to QB Josh Adkins.
The Chips would give up two passing touchdowns in the first half and allow Vantrease to log one of the best games of his career through the air. This CMU defense will look a lot different when it’s healthy, as they were simply worn down thanks to the offense’s struggles to hold on to the ball. They wound up giving up 376 yards on 80 plays, with an average of 4.7 yards per play.
One hopes with McKinnie-Harper and Dill going back into the lineup and Douglas adjusting to his new duties later in the season, that CMU’s defense will get back into playing shape. The post-NIU BYE week can’t come soon enough for CMU.
Buffalo’s offense fired on all cylinders
It was evident from the start that Buffalo did not respect CMU’s ability to stop the pass, and this ultimately proved to be the right strategy for the Bulls.
Kyle Vantrease, who had only averaged 41.7 yards per game in the air coming in to the game, exploded in the first half, going 10-of-16 for 158 yards and two touchdowns to Antonio Nunn, with no interceptions. Vantrease finished 16-of-25 for 179 yards, but by that point, the damage was done thanks to a 27-point second quarter.
Both of the TD’s came on the left side of the endzone, with action towards the back corner to take adantage of injuries to the secondary and the middle of the defense.
The ability to pass the ball effectively allowed many more opportunities to run the ball in the first half, which is precisely what Buffalo did, with Kevin Marks and Jaret Patterson both finding paydirt in the second quarter to help continue an unbelivable offensive performance.
For the game, Buffalo had 51 carries for 197 yards and two touchdowns, with Patterson (28 carries, 149 yards) and Marks (21 carries, 53 yards) especially shining. Even Vantrease found some space, losing zero yards on a three carry, 16 yard stat line.
The second half was dominated by the running game, as Buffalo kept hold of the ball for 34:12 overall, thanks in part to converting 8-of-13 third downs and a 34:12 time of possession advantage.
Against CMU, Buffalo showed exactly the type of game it wants to employ against its opponents this season, after losing most of their offensive playmakers to the pro draft or transfer. With CMU being one of the better defenses in the MAC, even despite the injuries, that could spell some trouble for the rest of their conference opponents. The Bulls find themselves in a bit of a good streak, and sometimes beig hot can be better than being good.
The Buffalo defense is legitimately one of the best in the country
The Bulls came into the game with one of the top 25 run defenses in the country, ranking 13th, and they paid that off in a big way against one of the most explosive tandems in the MAC.
The Bulls keyed in on the run game, allowing 101 yards and one touchdown to a tandem of Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis, which had eight 100+ yard games between them in the prior eight games. Ward was effectively invisible after collecting a first quarter touchdown for the Chippewas, finishing with 64 yards on 18 carries. Lewis wasn’t much better, with only 29 yards in rotation. CMU effectively abandoned the run game as the score became too much to bear, which was probably the gameplan.
The defense also forced three fumbles, recovering all three, four sacks and four tackles-for-loss, showing relentless pressure on the quarterback, who often had to shift out of the pocket just to make plays. The two interceptions in the fourth quarter as CMU attempted to make the game respectable were also clutch for the Bulls, especially on the pick-six by Wright. The Buffalo defense has really shut the door on conference opponents, as they haven’t allowed more than 20 points in three of their four games, with their one dud against Miami, because the MAC East.
Their performance against CMU might be their best exhibit yet.
Special teams ultimately won the day
I am a really big proponent of special teams. Despite their derided nature in the general public, punts, field goals and kickoff returns really do matter in terms of setting up situations for teams.
Special teams can especially come into play when offensive and defensive strategies get upturned, and that was the case on Saturday.
Buffalo had a perfect day kicking field goals, after coming in 6-of-14 on attempts. Alex McNulty had a long of 36 yards and the offense managed to make points in the redzone even when CMU stiffened up on defense, allowing the Bulls to maintain pressure on the Chippewas.
Jackson Baltzar solidified his status as the starting punter with a four-punt, 125 yard day, averaging about 31.2 yards per punt with a long of 40. Their kickoffs were also extremely effective, as they forced four CMU returns, two of which ended up in muffed catches and bad field position for the Chippewas.
The Chippewas had a costly turnover on special teams (after a punt set up by an offsides penalty on a punt attempt,) when the ball bounced off of Demarcus Governor, who was trying to clear room for the ball to drop, and was eventually recovered by Buffalo. It wasn’t the only faux pas for the Chips in punt coverage, as they allowed two long punt returns to Ron Cook and Antonio Nunn thanks in part to poor return coverage and missed tackles, giving Buffalo advantageous field position.
Ryan Tice also struggled in kickoffs, with one touchback and an out-of-bounds kick on three attempts. Tice didn’t see the field at all for a field goal attempt, as McElwain was once again aggressive using fourth downs, including in the redzone, going 2-of-5. CMU had a lot of drives ending in empty possessions as a result, which was surely demoralizing.
McElwain’s use of Tice has been especially puzzling this season, as he’s opted to keep Tice on the sideline in many potential scoring drives several times this season. McElwain has also put Tice into unfavorable situations, as seen in a 1-of-3 game against Bowling Green, where Tice kicked into a strong wind from 50+ yards twice. In fact, he’s been asked to kick from 50+ yards six times this year, where he’s 2-of-6, and being sat on the sideline despite being perfect from inside 49 yards.
That’s surprising, considering Tice was a preseason Lou Groza Award watchlister heading into 2019 after a 10-of-12 year converting field goals in 2018. It might be something the staff needs to revisit moving forward.