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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 5 Game Preview: Western Michigan Broncos @ Buffalo Bulls

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Two teams that envision themselves as conference title contenders meet to open MAC play, in a game that represents a clash in styles.

NCAA Football: Coastal Carolina at Buffalo Nicholas LoVerde-USA TODAY Sports

GAME NOTES

  • Time and Date: 12:00 PM, Saturday, October 2, 2021
  • Network: CBS Sports Network
  • Location: UB Stadium, Buffalo, NY
  • Spread/Total: Western Michigan -6.5, O/U 59
  • All-time series: Western Michigan leads, 7-2

The calendar has turned to October, and non-conference play is now officially behind us. Conference play represents a clean slate for all of the teams in the MAC, and every team in the conference still has a clear path to Ford Field in December. These next few weeks will separate the true contenders from the rest of the group.

Two teams that believe they are in that “contender” group will face of on Saturday, as the 3-1 Western Michigan Broncos travel to upstate New York to take on the 2-2 Buffalo Bulls. We learned a lot about both teams in the non-conference portion of the schedule, and both teams enter conference play with confidence.

Buffalo is coming off of a very up and down performance last Saturday, as they traveled to Old Dominion and picked up a 35-34 victory over the Monarchs. As the old saying goes, a win is a win, but the way the second half played out in the game certainly left many within the Bulls fanbase with a bit of apprehension.

The Bulls built a 35-7 halftime lead off of the strength of the defense and special teams. Buffalo opened the scoring by blocking an Old Dominion field goal and returning it for a TD, and added a defensive score in the second quarter when LB Tim Terry returned an ODU fumble 67 yards for a TD to make it 35-7.

The Bulls almost squandered that 28 point half time lead, as the Monarchs outscored the Bulls 27-0 in the second half. After scoring what appeared to be the game tying TD with 19 seconds left, Old Dominion missed the extra point due to a personal foul penalty. Buffalo escaped with a 35-34 win, but were outgained by the Monarchs 433-297. Maurice Linguist’s squad enters conference play at 2-2, but there’s still a lot to figure out here.

On the other side of the ball, Western Michigan enters this game 3-1 and full of confidence. The Broncos are coming off of back to back great performances, knocking off ACC foe Pitt two weeks ago and following that up with a dominant 23-3 victory over 2020 Mountain West champion San Jose State. The Broncos offense has been the star of the show thus far, and QB Kaleb Eleby leads the MAC in total offense and TD’s. The defense showed their potential last week, dominating the San Jose State offensive line to the tune of eight sacks and forcing three turnovers. The Spartans were only able to manage 119 yards in the game.

It is within this context that these two teams meet at UB Field on Saturday. The winner of this game will be in a great position moving forward, and starting 1-0 in conference play is always a big deal.


When Buffalo has the ball

With the loss of RB Jaret Patterson to the NFL, many felt that the Bulls offense would rely more on QB Kyle Vantrease and the passing attack. So far this year, that has not been the case.

Coach Mo Linguist has chosen to keep the run-first identity that the Bulls offense was known for under Lance Leipold, and the Bulls are currently third in the MAC and 32nd nationally with 203.8 rushing yards per game. Buffalo has become synonymous with strong offensive line play, and that trend has continued this season. The Bulls are averaging a healthy 4.7 yards per carry.

Many thought RB Kevin Marks, Jr. would have a breakout year this year, however there have been three backs that have seen significant usage through the first month of the season. Marks is the leader, to be sure, and has racked up 254 yards and three TD’s on 67 carries. Behind him, however, have been Ron Cook Jr. and Dylan McDuffie, who are both averaging over five yards per carry themselves. This is a good group, and the Bulls are going to try to establish the run on Saturday as they always do.

Kyle Vantrease is still a solid, if unspectacular signal caller. Thus far this year, he’s completing 62.6% of his passes and has thrown two TD’s and only one interception. He has only thrown more than 20 passes in two of Buffalo’s four contests thus far, though he has shown the ability to take over the game if given the opportunity (see last year’s game against Miami, when he went 17 of 27 for 353 yards and four TD’s).

In the receiving game, Eastern Michigan transfer Quian Williams has been a pleasant surprise for the Bulls. He currently leads the team with 24 catches for 346 yards, and he had his best game in a Bulls uniform this past Saturday against Old Dominion, where he compiled nine catches for 134 yards and his first TD of the year.

Anyone who follows Western Michigan knows that they struggle at containing the big play. The Broncos defense has given up five scores of 30 yards or more this year, and this is a match up that the Bulls may be able to exploit. Buffalo uses the run to set up their passing game, and Vantrease loves to use play action to take shots down the field. Willams, Dominic Johnson, and Jovany Ruiz are all averaging over 10 yards per catch this season, and all three present a deep threat. If Kyle Vantrease has time to throw, this WMU secondary can be had.

The most intriguing match up of the game, to me, is the Buffalo offensive line against the Western Michigan front seven. It seems that the Broncos have found their defensive identity, which consists of relentless pressure on the QB to help alleviate the struggles on the backend of the defense. On the strength of defensive lineman Ralph Holley and Ali Fayad, the Broncos recorded nine sacks on Saturday and are currently tied for fifth in the FBS with 16 sacks through the first four games.

Here’s the thing though: this Buffalo offensive line is historically proficient at protecting their QB. Through 119 passing attempts this year, this group has not given up a sack. Through 157 passing attempts in eight games last year, they gave up one sack. That’s one sack on 276 passing attempts over the course of two seasons. This group will be up to the task of stopping this Western Michigan pass rush, and I would be very surprised if Western Michigan gets anywhere near a repeat performance of nine sacks this week. This match up could be the one that determines the winner of this game.


When Western Michigan has the ball

Although the Western Michigan defense looked great last week, the offense is still the star of the show.

Kaleb Eleby has been his typical efficient self through the first month and currently leads the MAC with 902 passing yards and seven TD’s. Buffalo is currently in the middle of the pack in terms of pass defense, ranking seventh in the MAC and 52nd in the FBS giving up 207.8 yards per game. The Bulls have struggled at defending dual threat QB’s this year, which Eleby is not, however they have not faced a passer with Eleby’s accuracy and efficiency.

Similar to when Buffalo is on offense, Western Michigan’s success will be determined by their offensive line play. Western Michigan leads the MAC in sacks, but Buffalo is second in the conference with 13 sacks through their first four games.

DE Taylor Riggins has had a phenomenal start to the year and leads the team with four sacks. Kadofi Wright and James Patterson anchor what could be one of the best linebacking groups in the conference, and this team still has the same hard nosed defensive identity that they had under Lance Leipold.

Western Michigan RB’s Sean Tyler and La’Darius Jefferson seem to be hitting their stride, and the Broncos ground game has looked better the last two weeks. It will not be easy to establish the run against the Bulls, as they currently fourth in the conference in rushing defense at 167.5 yards per game.

Buffalo has not faced an offense such as WMU’s through the first month of the season. Nebraska, Coastal Carolina, and Old Dominion all employ dual threat QB’s and have a semblance of the zone read offense. The Broncos represent a shift in offensive style, with Eleby much more of a traditional drop back passer. The Bulls have had varying degrees of success thus far on defense this year, but again, their game plan for Western Michigan will have to be completely different than what they’ve done through the first month of the season. Their secondary will be challenged more in this game than they have been thus far, as Skyy Moore and Corey Crooms make up one of the most formidable receiving tandems in the conference. Both rank in the top ten in the MAC in receiving yards, with Crooms coming in second in the conference at 334 yards and three scores. The Bulls secondary will have their hands full in this one.


Prediction

This is an intriguing match up of two teams that we still have a lot to learn about. We know more about the Broncos than we do about the Bulls at this point, and it seems that WMU has found their identity on both sides of the ball. Offensive line play will determine the outcome in this one – whichever team has more success in protecting their QB will win this game. The Broncos have more variety on offense, which has me leaning their way. I think this is a game that Buffalo keeps close, but Western Michigan will pull away in the fourth quarter to start MAC play at 1-0.

Western Michigan 28, Buffalo 17