Neither Penn State nor Buffalo was tested on opening weekend, but Saturday will certainly be the Bulls’ greatest challenge in the 2019 season.
After a 38-10 thrashing of FCS opponent Robert Morris, Buffalo enters Happy Valley as massive 30-point underdogs. Buffalo decisively defeated Rutgers in Piscataway last season, and now the Bulls are seeking their second-ever Big Ten victory over No. 15 Penn State. Without NFL draft picks Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders on the depth chart, the Nittany Lions still managed to post 79 points on their FCS opponent, Idaho.
Penn State remains in State College for Week 2 in a battle between two 1-0 teams looking to be tested.
“Next man up” quarterbacks
From 2016-18, both Penn State and Buffalo enjoyed great stability at the quarterback position with Trace McSorley and Tyree Jackson. However, with both QBs departing their universities for NFL gigs, it’s time to introduce a new batch of talent. Both teams will trot out a quarterback making his second career start under the lights at Beaver Stadium.
Buffalo’s starting quarterback spot was up in the air for most of the summer until redshirt freshman Matt Myers won the job in late August. Myers never attempted a pass until the Robert Morris game, where his arm was used sparingly. He completed five of his 10 attempts, threw for 69 yards, and tossed a pair of touchdowns to tight end Zac Lefebvre — including a 40-yard streak down the left sideline. Myers displayed rushing capabilities as well, earning 11.8 yards per carry on four attempts.
For the Nittany Lions, Sean Clifford will get the start for the second time in his career. In his starting debut against Idaho, Clifford threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns, impressively connecting with wide receiver K.J. Hamler while being contacted by a defender on a 36-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
We saw a teaser of Clifford’s cannon arm last fall, where he averaged 28 yards per attempt and threw two touchdowns on seven passes. But the sophomore Nittany Lion looked comfortable all around the field last Saturday. Like Myers, Clifford showed flashes of mobility by gaining 57 yards on seven attempts.
When Buffalo runs the ball
Buffalo ran the ball over 80% of the time in the opener against Robert Morris, so don’t be surprised if Lance Leipold frequents the run game in Week 2. And for Buffalo in a post-Tyree Jackson era, it’s the team’s identity. The Bulls sport a strong two-back tandem in Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks, who combined for over 1,800 yards a season ago. In Week 1, the pair joined forces for 165 yards on 25 collective carries.
Along with the running backs, Buffalo’s strongest position group is its offensive line. With four returning starters — all except center James O’Hagan — the Bulls line retains its chemistry and dominance from a season ago. Buffalo set many school records last season, and thanks to the offensive line, it achieved program-bests in rushing yards and fewest sacks allowed. Led by senior tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk, the Bulls’ line allowed zero sacks in the opener and allowed the team to average over six yards per carry on 47 attempts.
Countering Ksiezarczyk and the line is defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. The junior defensive end, a likely first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, already is shredding opposing offensive lines with his strength and pass rushing ability. He recorded 2.5 sacks against Idaho, adding to the 8.0 sacks and 20 tackles for loss he racked up in 2018. Buffalo’s offensive line will have to nail its blocking assignments on Gross-Matos, because the defensive end could be a major issue for the Bulls.
Outside of Gross-Matos, Penn State’s front seven includes several other budding stars. Sophomore outside linebacker Micah Parsons led the team in tackles a year ago despite not playing as a full-time starter. Senior inside linebacker Jan Johnson is also a reliable run stopper, helping Penn State maintain its famed “Linebacker U” mantra.
When Penn State runs the ball
It’s unclear whether Penn State will operate with one feature back as it did when Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders were on campus, or if the Nittany Lions will continue to spread the wealth. Nine different ball carriers received touches in the backfield in the Idaho game, with depth chart starter Ricky Slade picking up just nine yards on five carries.
Journey Brown impressed with 38 yards and two touchdowns on five attempts, while freshman Devyn Ford surpassed the century mark on six attempts in his first collegiate game. Ford’s 81-yard run in the second quarter is the longest pickup either Penn State or Buffalo has recorded this season.
Buffalo should expect to see a mixed bag from the running game, which is rushing behind an offensive line replacing two players who departed for the NFL Draft — guard Connor McGovern and tackle Ryan Bates. That leaves senior guard Steven Gonzalez and junior right tackle Will Fries as the veteran leaders in the trenches. The line will work against a rather inexperienced front four for Buffalo.
In terms of stopping the run game, Buffalo’s hero is outside linebacker James Patterson. The twin brother of Jaret, Patterson ranked second on the team in tackles behind Khalil Hodge last year and wrapped up for five tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in his 2019 debut. Another name to watch on the Buffalo defense is a potential breakout player, freshman safety Cory Gross Jr. The free safety actually led the Bulls in tackles a week ago with seven and his athleticism adds new talent for a defense looking to fill many vacancies this offseason.
Players to watch through the air
Penn State wide receiver K.J. Hamler is one of the fastest in the nation. With Juwan Johnson transferring to Oregon, Hamler has solidified the No. 1 receiver spot for the blue and white. He already has 115 receiving yards and two touchdown catches to his name after a dominant outing against Idaho. Buffalo’s secondary will be greatly challenged by Hamler’s quick cuts and ability to create separation downfield.
Buffalo tight end Zac Lefebvre caught two touchdown passes a week ago, filling the void left by the absence of Tyler Mabry, who transferred to Maryland. Lefebvre has already surpassed produced over 50% of his receiving yards output from a year ago and should be a key player for a team that’s replacing five of its leading receivers from 2018.
Time and Date: Saturday, September 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Beaver Stadium — University Park, PA
Spread: Penn State (-30)
ESPN FPI: Penn State has 98.9% chance to win
All-time series: Penn State leads 2-1
Last meeting: Penn State 27, Buffalo 14 — September 12, 2015
Penn State and Buffalo’s last meeting is better remembered as the day the nation discovered Saquon Barkley. Barkley recorded his first career 100-yard game with 115 on 12 carries. The Bulls made the final score respectable in Happy Valley, thanks to a pair of Joe Licata touchdown passes.
In case you don’t remember Buffalo ever beating Penn State, it’s probably because it happened before the state of Oklahoma was admitted into the union and before Henry Ford founded his self-named company. Yes, Buffalo shut out Penn State 10-0 on November 29, 1900.
Buffalo is coming off its best season in program history, but this one in Happy Valley will still be a challenge for the Bulls. Don’t expect Buffalo to frequent the air, as the Bulls’ will probably rely on conservative play calling to bring out the best in their offensive line and running backs.
Penn State’s defense will have a solid outing, led by Yetur Gross-Matos, and the Nittany Lions’ offense will once again light up the scoreboard with their litany of skill players. Penn State improves to 2-0, and for Buffalo, its toughest game on the schedule will be behind it when the lights shut out in Happy Valley on Saturday night.
Prediction: Penn State 42, Buffalo 17