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2020 MAC Championship Game Storylines: #23 Buffalo Bulls

With the spectre of 2018’s MACCG loss to NIU hanging over them, the Bulls try to right a wrong and earn their first MAC title since 2008.

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bulls enter Friday’s MAC Championship Game as the only unbeaten in the MAC, sporting a perfect 5-0 record. Buffalo, led by sixth-year head coach Lance Leipold, is in the midst of its most successful stretch in program history. The last two seasons have featured the program’s first 10-win campaign and first bowl victory. Now, Buffalo is set to battle Ball State on Friday night in Detroit with eyes fixated on its first MAC title in 12 years.

December in Detroit, Take II

Only one team in Saturday’s matchup has MAC Championship Game experience. Ball State has not booked a trip to Detroit since 2008, but Buffalo landed in the conference title game two years ago. Entering as considerable favorites over a 7-5 Northern Illinois team, the 10-2 Bulls could not finish the job. Buffalo watched a 29-10 second half lead rapidly slip away, falling by a final score of 30-29 to the underdog Huskies.

“It was very disappointing, that game and the way that season ended,” head coach Lance Leipold said. “The maturity within the locker room of the ones that were there during our week of preparation is needed. You have to play 60 minutes and finish strong.”

The underclassmen from the 2018 that were minutes away from the program’s first title since 2008 remember the heartbreak. After marinating in disappointment in the Ford Field locker rooms two years ago, Buffalo’s veteran leadership aims to direct that energy into a positive.

“We want to play for the MAC Championship and win it this time,” inside linebacker James Patterson said. “We don’t want to be crying tears on the field, and walking off and being butthurt. I was mad as a freshman, but I’m here as a junior now and I think I’m ready for it.”

While Buffalo figured it could return to the MAC Championship Game, it didn’t always seem likely in 2020. The MAC canceled its fall season in August before reversing course in September and rebooting on Nov. 4. The Bulls have capitalized on the opportunity and enter the title game with an unblemished record after clearing an abbreviated conference schedule.

“Why would we do all this work and come all the way to Detroit to lose this game?” running back Jaret Patterson said. “I think this will mean a lot for this program, even for the guys that have left the program... there are a lot of guys from that 2018 season who couldn’t get a ring. I think that would mean a lot to see us get the win for them and for ourselves.”


Unstoppable in the running game

Only 25 running backs in college football average 100 rushing yards per game. Two of those halfbacks are juniors on Buffalo’s roster — Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks.

Jaret Patterson, the MAC Offensive Player of the Year, leads the entire nation with 205 yards per game. It’s been a record breaking season for Jaret, who tied the FBS record for fewest games needed to reach 1,000 yards, most touchdowns in a single game, and the second best rushing outing of all-time with 409 yards against Kent State.

“I have a tremendously talented offensive line up front so you’ve got to stop them first before you get to me,” Jaret Patterson said. “We’ve seen them put eight in the box, that’s not successful. Those guys up front make my job easy because I don’t have to make three to four guys miss. I just have to make one guy miss.”

His running mate, Kevin Marks, is also one of the elite running back talents in college football. Jaret Patterson only played one half against Akron, providing Marks a canvas to showcase his own abilities. The result was a career-high 182 rushing yards, two touchdowns, and a MAC Offensive Player of the Week award.

“I’m very proud of Kevin, because in the situation that he’s in with the success of Jaret Patterson, it would be very easy of him to be unhappy, disgruntled, a distraction — and he has been anything but that,” Leipold said. “He and Jaret both have come to a great understanding that they’re good for each other. And they’re happy for each other’s success, but not just coexisting in a room or on the field — they know and see the value of each one and how they play the game and how it adds something for each one of them.”

It’s rare for a non-option based team to lead the FBS in rushing, a feat which hasn’t been accomplished since Auburn’s dominant 2013 run. In 2020, Buffalo claims the No. 1 spot with 344 yards per game. On top of that, the Bulls have the top scoring offense in the country. While college football is shifting toward aerial-based offenses, Buffalo’s classic ground-and-pound style has yet to be countered this season.

“Do what you do best and don’t apologize for it,” Leipold said. “We’ve still maintained and tried to be multiple. I think we have talented receivers, talented tight ends. But right now, if No. 26 is carrying the ball and you get a good chunk on first down, until they slow you down a little bit we’re gonna keep doing that.”


Closing down the Hall

Ball State’s key to upsetting the No. 23 Bulls lies within the passing attack. The Cardinals lit up Western Michigan in a de facto MAC Championship play-in last weekend, attaining 249 yards and three touchdowns through the air.

The engineer of Ball State’s offense was wide receiver Justin Hall, who registered 175 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the victory. Buffalo is impressed by Hall’s film, and stopping the talented wideout from dominating the yards after the catch category will be a primary focus Friday night.

“He’s so dynamic and patient,” Leipold said. “I get asked these one word things to describe and it’s impossible because it’s the package that he brings. The one that doesn’t get talked about to me enough is his balance. He’s got outstanding balance when he gets hit. If I had a good secret to (stopping him), I wouldn’t share it for weeks, months, years until he leaves.”

Hall’s quarterback Drew Plitt averages within the ballpark of 280 passing yards per game, and this will be one of the superior offenses the Bulls have battled this season. One week after its best defensive performance of 2020, Buffalo hopes to counter Plitt, Hall, and the rest of Ball State’s explosive offense by cranking up the physicality.

“We’ve got to tackle well in space, run to the ball, create havoc,” James Patterson said. “This whole week, you’re gonna see Eddie Wilson running 15 yards down the field which is unusual. When this means so much to you, you’re gonna put your body on the line. It’s gonna be a good game because they’re a physical team so we have to bring our physicality to the game and match that or overdo that.”