Tuesday night’s matchup at UB Stadium between Miami (OH) and Buffalo may have been the most anticipated MAC game of the season. With the 2019 conference champion pitted up against the MAC team with the best overall record a year ago, 2020 conference title implications were certainly at stake.
The result was more lopsided than anticipated. Buffalo pummeled Miami, 42-10, leaving no doubt that the Bulls are frontrunners for Detroit. Buffalo (2-0) not only avenged its 2019 loss to Miami (1-1) — the Bulls napalmed any memory of last year’s result, slicing and dicing the RedHawks on both sides of the ball with considerable versatility. Now, Buffalo is 2-0 and if there was a statement to be made this early in a 6-game schedule, it has been one thunderous message.
“Every win is a statement game but this one especially,” quarterback Kyle Vantrease said. “It puts us on the map, as an offense and a defense. No matter what the circumstances are, they’re the reigning MAC champions and that’s a statement game in itself.”
Vantrease walked into the locker room at halftime having completed 8-of-18 passes. In the second half, a new version of Kyle Vantrease was unearthed. Entering Tuesday night with a career-high 208 passing yards, the junior quarterback shattered that mark — in the second half alone. Not a single one of Vantrease’s nine passes hit the ground in the second half. He was a perfect 9/9 with 229 yards and three touchdowns. Overall, he finished with career-bests of 353 yards and four touchdowns in his best showing in a Buffalo uniform. Vantrease looked much-improved at the deep ball, connecting on long touchdowns of 78 and 82 yards in the win.
“The entire game, you gain information based on how everything plays out,” Vantrease said. “Once we started figuring some things out and putting some things together, gaining information from earlier, learning from our mistakes, it all just started to fall into one place.”
Vantrease dropped back to throw 27 times Tuesday night, the most he’s thrown in a game since 2017. Buffalo rarely relied on his arm last year, but the Bulls have shifted their offensive philosophy to a more balanced unit. One thing which has allowed the balance is increased versatility in Vantrease’s targets. Antonio Nunn carried a heavy load of responsibility last year, but this year the receiving corps’ production has expanded as a whole. Nunn caught five passes for 137 yards, but Trevor Wilson added 103 yards, Jovany Ruiz accumulated 27, and tight end Zac Lefebvre shined with 67. Each player was the recipient of one Vantrease touchdown pass.
“It’s huge for us as a team to have that diversity in the offense to be able to throw it, be able to run it effectively,” Vantrease said. “Whereas prior, it’s been predominantly run, but now people have to respect the pass a lot more too.”
It was milestone night for the running backs. Jaret Patterson, one week after breaking the school’s rushing touchdown record, became the fastest Buffalo running back to eclipse 3,000 career rushing yards. Patterson rushed for 73 yards and powered through goal line defenses to score two of the Bulls’ first three touchdowns. His partner-in-crime Kevin Marks surpassed the 2,000-yard mark in the victory, leading Buffalo with 109 rushing yards on 16 carries. With Vantrease dishing dime after dime on Miami’s defense, Buffalo’s running backs weren’t charged with their usual workload, but the juniors remained a lethal tandem.
“We weren’t going to wait sophomore or junior year to pick it up,” Marks said on the milestones set Tuesday night. “We wanted to start freshman year by knowing the plays to give the coaches confidence to put us out there in positions to help the team win.”
Buffalo controlled the trenches offensively to allow zero sacks for the sixth consecutive game. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Bulls’ typically-stout pass rush didn’t manage a sack Tuesday night but the defense showed poise in other areas. Buffalo broke up six passes in the secondary, and cornerback Roy Baker created the ultimate momentum swing. While Miami was driving down 7-0 in the second quarter, Baker picked off a deep pass in 1-on-1 coverage. Buffalo took an immediate deep shot in response, and Vantrease sent a 78-yard bomb to Wilson to extend the margin to 14. Before the offense picked things up in the second half, those types of defensive plays were crucial in the blowout.
“We’ve got some young players out there and it was encouraging,” Buffalo head coach Lance Leipold said of his secondary. “To keep convincing those guys to learn under fire against a team like this and to have confidence, and take away the confidence of a young quarterback like that who had such a good opening week — it’s a tribute to all of our defense.”
Miami backup quarterback A.J. Mayer, in relief for the injured Brett Gabbert, won MAC East co-Offensive Player of the Week honors for delivering three touchdown passes in a comeback win over Ball State. His follow-up performance was not as memorable. Plagued early by drops, the RedHawks couldn’t string together long drives. Mayer completed 7 of 25 attempts overall, finishing with one touchdown pass to Jalen Walker and one interception in the loss.
“If you drop a 5-yard hitch, it sucks. If you drop a ball when you’re clearly behind him or drop a touchdown, it hurts,” Miami head coach Chuck Martin said. “And it magnifies because we weren’t playing great on defense. We had opportunities to answer and if you answer, that gives your defense energy and life.”
Before the third quarter Buffalo scoring explosion, the RedHawks showed signs of strength on defense in the first half. Middle linebacker Ryan McWood built on his outstanding opening week showing with 14 tackles and a key fourth down stop on Patterson in the first quarter. But once Vantrease got in a rhythm through the air, Miami’s secondary folded and the scoreboard got out of hand in an instant. But Martin made it clear that the unit, nor the team as a whole, can let the disastrous defeat derail their entire season.
“How do you react when you get sand kicked in your face? It’s hard,” Martin said. “You wanna slam your helmet. You wanna yell and scream... Yelling and screaming doesn’t change 42-10. The time to change it is in your preparation for the game. The time to change it is looking at yourself.”
When pitted against the reigning MAC champion, Buffalo played as nearly perfect of a game as possible. In their first trip to UB Stadium in 2020, the Bulls attained 558 yards of offense, committed zero turnovers, allowed zero sacks, and nearly every player on the team had a starring role in the victory. The path to Detroit feels illuminated, but Buffalo must sustain the excellence from Tuesday night through its remaining four contests.
“We know we had a rough start last year at the beginning of the season, and we knew we couldn’t have that if we wanted to go to the championship this year or even make a run,” Marks said. “We can’t take our foot off the pedal.”