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2020 Mid-American Conference Week 1 Game Recap: Buffalo Bulls at Northern Illinois Huskies

Buffalo defense scores 3 touchdowns while Jaret Patterson headlines the offense with 137 rushing yards.

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Northern Illinois at Buffalo Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson wanted to play football. Week by week passed after the MAC’s decision to cancel the fall season on Aug. 8, but college football continued on without the conference. Patterson was an instrumental voice in returning to play in a player-led movement on social media in September. On Wednesday night, that voice came to fruition.

“When I was on the outside watching the other conferences play, it sat bad with me,” Patterson said. “I felt like the MAC conference definitely deserved to play to show what we can do as a conference as a whole. It’s definitely a big accomplishment that the MAC conference is back.”

Patterson not only took the field, he dominated it. The junior running back rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns in a 49-30 Buffalo victory over Northern Illinois. The Huskies held an 11-0 record over the Bulls since both teams first met as MAC programs in 1999, but a Buffalo team with high hopes overcame the Huskies and proved it belongs as 2020 MAC contenders.

“It’s huge. This team hasn’t beat NIU,” Patterson said regarding the ending of the losing streak. “You can say this program has taken big steps. I feel like this is the year we need to make a run for Detroit and I think we will.”

Buffalo matched its highest scoring output of 2019, and 21 of those 49 points can be attributed to an aggressive defensive effort. The Bulls defense forced five second half turnovers and scored on three on them. With the Huskies driving down 21-16 in the early third quarter, Buffalo flipped the script in an instant.

“It was the defense in the third quarter which really turned the tide for us,” head coach Lance Leipold said.

In an action packed third quarter, inside linebacker Tim Terry Jr. picked up a fumble by quarterback Ross Bowers and ran the live ball in 46 yards. Two plays later, cornerback Isaiah King scooped up a loose ball and traveled 42 yards into the end zone. Then in the fourth quarter, Kadofi Wright jumped a route to record a 65-yard pick six to put the game out of reach. The momentum Terry generated continued to augment and Buffalo’s defense fed off that game-changing play.

“Our defensive end Eric Black got a hold of the quarterback and made him fumble the ball. As I was coming on the blitz, I just scooped and scored — and a very important block from James Patterson as well,” Terry said, recounting the play. “It gave a huge boost. We needed a spark. We got the ball at halftime and we ended up having to punt the ball, so it gave a big boost for us.”

Five turnovers were forced but the defense also crushed the Northern Illinois offense with five three-and-outs. Buffalo’s front seven was especially vital in these defensive stops, recording three sacks and six tackles for loss in the dominant victory.

Offensively, there were high hopes for Buffalo returning Jaret Patterson and fellow 1,000-yard running back Kevin Marks. However, there were questions about how effective the running game would be with three starting offensive linemen transitioning out of the program. Those questions faded when the clock hit triples zeros and Patterson and Marks combined for 169 rushing yards on 6.5 yards per attempt. Additionally, the line protected the passers with dignity and for the fifth-consecutive game, Buffalo didn’t allow a single sack.

“Those guys do a great job. I wasn’t really concerned about replacing guys like Tomas (Jack-Kurdyla), Paul (Nosworthy), and Big Ev (Evin Ksiezarczyk) because our depth in the offensive line room is pretty great,” Patterson said. “We didn’t a miss a beat. I’m really pumped up to show we still have the pound game and the running game is still a strength on our team.”

With the help of gaping holes from the offensive line, Patterson rushed for a 56-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter. He bulldozed through contact and tightroped along the sideline to stay in bounds and complete the highlight run. But the run cemented the junior into school history, as he surpassed James Starks for most rushing touchdowns in a Buffalo uniform with his 35th score.

“For him to do that, he’s only a junior, it says a lot,” Leipold said. “You know he’s a sincere young man and a good person. When those types of people have that type of success, you can’t be anything but happy for them.”

Just like every game in 2019, quarterback Kyle Vantrease passed fewer than 26 times. He finished 11/17 for 175 yards, establishing a formidable connection with wide receiver Antonio Nunn. Nunn made it a priority to put his strength on full display, emerging as the winner of contested catches and stiff-arming opposing defensive backs in a 6-reception, 102-yard performance. He caught Vantrease’s lone touchdown throw of the night and accumulated his highest receiving output since the 2019 opener.

“He gives us that big play threat in the passing game that you need to complement those running backs,” Leipold said. “With Antonio, people are going to start rolling coverages his way. But right now, he’s showing he’s picking up where he left off last year.”

While everything operated smoothly on the Buffalo side, it was a nightmare season debut for the home team in DeKalb. Northern Illinois allowed its most points since the 2015 Poinsettia Bowl and was careless in protecting the football on offense with four fumbles. Additionally, Northern Illinois’ offense, typically reliant on the run game, was placed in a tough spot. The Huskies were forced to break in a new group of running backs with the offseason losses of Tre Harbison, Marcus Jones, and Jordan Nettles. However, Buffalo’s defense answered nearly every test in the run game and limited the Huskies to 3.3 yards per carry.

The Huskies exhibited one particular strength — the ability to close halves well. They mounted a 2-minute drill touchdown drive to end the second quarter and enter halftime down 21-16 after an early 14-3 deficit. In the fourth quarter, they added two touchdowns in the final five minutes, proving there was no quit until the final whistle.

Northern Illinois earned a difficult draw in interdivisional play, facing the MAC team with the best record in 2019. Shifting gears to MAC West play, the Huskies remain in DeKalb next Wednesday for a battle with Central Michigan.

After beating Northern Illinois for the first time as a MAC member, the Bulls have another revenge game in the works. A loss to Miami (OH) was a brutal hit to Buffalo’s 2019 MAC Championship dream, and the Bulls will receive an opportunity to avenge that defeat next Tuesday at UB Stadium.