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2019 Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl Preview: Buffalo Bulls vs. Charlotte 49ers

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Bowl season begins in the Bahamas with two programs searching for their first-ever bowl win.

NCAA Football: Dollar General Bowl-Buffalo vs Troy John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo and Charlotte usher in bowl season beyond international waters, launching the 39-game college football campaign in the Bahamas. In the only bowl game played outside United State soil, two programs on the upswing will have an opportunity to complete a major first. Neither the Bulls nor the 49ers have a single bowl trophy in their collection, but that is certain to change in the sixth edition of the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl.

Buffalo Bulls

Buffalo won the MAC East in 2018 with its first 10-win season in program history. While the Bulls lost a myriad of key components including star quarterback Tyree Jackson and an elite defender in Khalil Hodge, Buffalo reloaded under head coach Lance Leipold and improved greatly as the scheduled progressed with a young roster. After a 2-4 start, the Bulls won five of their last six games — with all five wins occurring by greater than 18 points.

In a tale of two seasons, Buffalo averaged 24.3 points per game over the course of the first half of the year and 38.7 points during the final 6-game stretch. For a non-option-based offense, Buffalo runs more than any other team in the country outside of Boston College. Despite the one-dimensionality appearance of the offense, Buffalo continues to thrive and ignite the scoreboard by grounding the ball over 50 times per game.

Sophomore running back Jaret Patterson is the headliner of the offense. Patterson is sixth in the FBS in rushing yards with 1,626 and tied for eighth in rushing touchdowns with 17. In his penultimate game, he set two personal-bests by recording 192 yards and five scores against Toledo. But those absurd numbers escalated in the finale against Bowling Green to 298 rushing yards and a standalone MAC record six rushing touchdowns. The 5’9” back is very agile and tough to bring down, making him a headache to tackle for opponents. Patterson’s ability to appear unfazed by fatigue is impressive as well, as he received 26 or more carries in each of his last five games and delivered with 140+ yards each time.

Along for the ride with Patterson is sophomore halfback Kevin Marks. Marks is 48th in the FBS in rushing yards with 1,008 — joining forces with Patterson as college football’s only 1,000-yard rushing duo heading into bowl season. Marks is fresh off back-to-back 100-yard outings and has scored a touchdown in each of his last six contests. At 6’0”, he possesses a similar skill set to that of Patterson and often bulldozes his way for extra yards when facing contact. The duo hasn’t been easy to stop recently, and plenty of credit belongs to the offensive line as well.

Buffalo’s offensive line is not only the best in the MAC, it’s one of the top units in the country. Led by three All-MAC prospects including First Team selection Evin Ksiezarczyk at left tackle, Buffalo ranks second to Air Force in the FBS for fewest sacks allowed. The Bulls allowed eight sacks in the regular season, but only one has been yielded since the dawn of October. Whether it’s pass blocking or run blocking, the line was pivotal to Buffalo’s midseason turnaround this year but the unit must battle a challenging pass rush from Charlotte.

The Bulls’ quarterback, Kyle Vantrease, actually started games at punter this season before stepping into the starting quarterback role, a role in which he’s thrived in despite limited pass attempts. With a 60% completion percentage and a 7-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Vantrease has been a solid decision-maker all season long. He’s eclipsed the 200-yard passing mark just once this year, but he’s contributed greatly in other areas. The sophomore has five rushing touchdowns and has only been subjected to two sacks. Vantrease is equipped with solid targets in wide receiver Antonio Nunn and tight end Zac Lefebvre, who should be expected to carry the passing game in the Bahamas against Charlotte’s highly touted secondary.

Defensively, Buffalo has been particularly stout in recent weeks. The Bulls are first in the MAC in points allowed per game at 22.3. They’re one of six teams across the country to allow fewer than 100 rushing yards per game and they’re in the upper quartile in turnovers forced this season. With powerful defensive ends Taylor Riggins (8.5 sacks) and Ledarius Mack (6.0 sacks) manning the line of scrimmage, Buffalo averages 3.17 sacks per game — 12th in the FBS.

Inside linebacker Matt Otwinowski and outside linebacker James Patterson are two other disruptive players to watch in Buffalo’s front seven. They’ll be tasked with stopping Charlotte’s premier running back Benny LeMay from a standout day in Nassau. However, Buffalo’s leading tackler hails from the secondary. Strong safety Joey Banks functions as the team’s Swiss army knife. Having 78 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, and two forced fumbles, Banks’ résumé speaks volumes about the versatile impact he’s had on the Bulls defense.

Buffalo remains winless in bowl games, losing all three of its matchups in 2008, 2013, and 2018. For the first time in history, the Bulls will participate in consecutive bowls, and they’ll have a golden opportunity to finish the season strong with their first bowl win in program history.


Charlotte 49ers

It finally happened. Charlotte is going bowling. The 49ers are in their fifth year of playing at the FBS level, and all it took to break the bowl eligibility barrier was a first-year head coach. Will Healy, a miracle worker at FCS program Austin Peay, has already taken Charlotte football to new heights and can make it even sweeter with a win in Nassau.

While Charlotte’s season ended in much triumph and celebration, the beginning was rough. With out-of-conference opponents including Clemson and Appalachian State, the 49ers stumbled to a 2-5 start. But both sides of the ball continued to improve linearly with time, and Charlotte rattled off five consecutive wins to close the regular season, including a 24-13 victory over a respectable 8-4 Marshall team.

Like Buffalo, Charlotte’s offense centers on a star running back. Benny LeMay qualified for First Team All-C-USA honors after rushing for 1,027 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He played a vital part in the receiving game too, hauling in 19 receptions for 242 yards and four touchdowns as a frequent option on halfback screens.

While containing LeMay should be a focus of Buffalo’s front seven, the Bulls will also be forced to stop a mobile quarterback in Chris Reynolds. Charlotte’s signal caller is second on the team in the ground game, attaining 757 yards this year. Still, the 49ers air it out more often than Leipold’s Bulls do, and Reynolds surpassed 2,300 yards passing this year with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Reynolds’ top target and the greatest threat to Buffalo’s secondary is playmaker Victor Tucker, who averages over 17 yards per connection. Tucker owns team-highs in receiving yards with 848 and receiving touchdowns with six.

Charlotte brings an element to the table that Buffalo’s offensive line isn’t familiar with — a sack-happy pass rush. On one end of the 49ers’ defensive line sits defensive end Alex Highsmith. With 15.0 sacks registered this season, Highsmith only trails Ohio State’s Heisman finalist Chase Young in the category. His matchup with Ksiezarczyk or Kayode Awosika in the trenches will be a noteworthy one and could set the tone of the game when Buffalo possesses the football. While Highsmith attempts to cause havoc, Charlotte also employs edge rusher Markees Watts, the owner of 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks this year. Overall, the 49ers’ defense winds up in opposing backfields quite frequently, averaging 6.9 negative tackles per game.

The secondary is 23rd in the nation in fewest passing yards allowed. Charlotte gives up under 200 per game, which aligns with Buffalo’s sub-150 passing yard average. Thus, the key to the 49ers’ defense is limiting the run, a facet of the Bulls’ offense which opponents have struggled to contain since October. While the 49ers improved over the final stretch of the season, Charlotte boasts the 99th ranked rushing defense heading into Friday’s matchup.

If Charlotte gains an advantage in the must-see battle in the trenches, the 49ers earn a shot at claiming their first bowl victory in an already-historic moment for the university.


Bahamas Bowl fun facts

The Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl is the very first bowl game to kick off this season, a designation which the bowl has never held before. In its six year history, the bowl is already full of plenty of interesting stories, which are documented in Hustle Belt’s preview of the game every year. Here are fun Bahamas Bowl facts:

  • The official name of the event is the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl. “Makers Wanted” actually isn’t a brand or corporation but rather a slogan of Elk Grove Village, an industrial park located in Eastern Illinois. Yes, a small town in Illinois sponsors a bowl game in the Bahamas.
  • The Bahamas Bowl didn’t have a sponsor in 2017, but the sponsor from 2014-16 was Popeyes, the Louisiana based chicken and biscuit fast food chain (this was before the days of the viral Popeyes chicken sandwich). There are actually three Popeyes locations in the Bahamas. Also, this tweet needs to be brought up every year because it’s impossible to watch the following GIF without shedding a tear:
  • Lou Holtz was in the announcing booth for the first-ever Bahamas Bowl, his final call ever with ESPN. That game ended up being one of the best finishes in college football history, as Central Michigan rallied back from a 49-14 deficit in the last 12 minutes of the fourth quarter. On the final play of regulation, Chippewas quarterback Cooper Rush launched a Hail Mary to Jesse Kroll, and three laterals later, wide receiver Titus Davis scored on the 75-yard miracle. However, Western Kentucky won 49-48 because of a failed 2-point attempt (Central Michigan ran the fade route in effort to complete the greatest comeback in history).
  • And most importantly, there are no laws or regulations at the Bahamas Bowl. Well, there are technically laws, but please check out this Reddit thread, where several attendees of 2017’s Ohio-UAB game tell the tale of the unique atmosphere. Quotes from posters supermav27 and cunninghamc16 include:

Brought beer right in to the stadium. The locals at the gate didn’t even ask to check tickets. One of them took a sip of my beer.

We walked all the way around the stadium, until we reached a fenced off area. A Royal Bahamas Defense Force guard said we should check behind the fence, because he doesn’t know what’s back there. Upon walking past the fence, we ended up in the Ohio locker room. No questions asked.

People are constantly walking on the athletic track around the field and chugging beer. The security forces down there just keep laughing and high fiving everyone. One of the soldiers keeps hugging random fans.

A drunk fan just walked on to the sideline and high fived a player. He then high fived a Royal Bahamian Defense Force soldier when walking back. The soldier couldn’t stop laughing.

There’s like 20 entrances to this stadium, and only like 10 of them are guarded. Literally anyone could walk in here.

They have one working scoreboard, and instead of showing the clock, it’s the ESPN feed so you can barely see the score and clock on the bottom right corner.

Whoever’s in charge of music can’t decide the volume. He tried playing Believer and adjusted the volume up and down around 4 times before giving up. There hasn’t been any music since.

The entertainment on the outskirts of the stadium right next to concessions includes ARCHERY. I saw a child as small as 4 getting help aiming an actual bow and arrow at a target 20 ft away.

This is the greatest sporting event of the year.

Game Notes

Time and Date: Friday, December 20 at 1 p.m. ET

Network: ESPN

Location: Thomas Robinson Stadium — Nassau, Bahamas

Spread: Buffalo (-6.5)

ESPN FPI: Buffalo has 63.3% chance to win

All-time series: No previous matchups


Prediction

This is a high-stakes moment for both teams, as Buffalo and Charlotte both hope to claim postseason win No. 1 in their respective program’s history. Both programs similarly improved throughout the year after overcoming rocky starts and both programs are led by coaches who experienced unprecedented success at lower divisions in college football.

While the game appears evenly matched from that standpoint, Buffalo’s been so dominant on both sides of the ball recently where it’s hard to look past the Bulls. Charlotte’s gateway to an upset is to sell out on the run and prevent Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks from dominant outings. Also, the 49ers must permeate through one of the better defenses in college football, a unit which forces frequent sacks and stands relentless at the line of scrimmage. With the Bulls possessing the better defense in this game, Buffalo punches its way into the record books and triumphs in the first game of bowl season.

Prediction: Buffalo 34, Charlotte 28