Time and Date: Saturday, September 11 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Network: Big Ten Network
Location: Memorial Stadium — Lincoln, NE
Spread: Nebraska (-14)
ESPN FPI: Nebraska has 61.2% chance to win
All-time series: No previous matchups
Setting the scene
The Maurice Linguist era is off to a perfect start. No FBS team logged more points than Buffalo last week, which dropped 69 on Wagner of the FCS. While the Bulls’ opponent can best be described as a tune-up foe, there was no lack of execution for Buffalo. Save for victory formation, Buffalo scored points on every possession of the game en route to a 69-7 result.
The Bulls’ Week 2 opponent is one of the few teams in the country shaping up for its third game of the season. Nebraska kicked off its year in Week 0 where the Cornhuskers dropped a conference game to Illinois. Scott Frost’s program bounced back in Week 1 by pulverizing FCS opponent Fordham in a convincing 52-7 win.
Each program enjoyed a dominant FCS win, but the competition level amps up for both the Bulls and Cornhuskers when they settle their differences at Memorial Stadium this Saturday.
When Buffalo has the ball
Remember when Buffalo would just run opponents into the ground in 2020 and maybe mix it up with 10 to 12 passing attempts in a game? That style of play may have been a staple of the Lance Leipold era, but that option is still on the table for the Bulls.
The centerpiece of Buffalo’s offense is senior halfback Kevin Marks, who eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in 2019 and averaged over 100 per game in 2020. Without his usual running mate in Jaret Patterson, Marks is ready to take over the backfield and lead explosive performance after explosive performance. Buffalo didn’t overload him against an outmatched foe like Wagner, but the rushing game remained a force for the Bulls. Collectively, they registered 312 yards and seven touchdowns in Week 1, proving there are still remnants of the 2020 rushing attack which ranked third in the FBS in yards per game.
Buffalo’s passing attack did its job as well in the opener. Third-year starting quarterback Kyle Vantrease left UB Stadium with an efficient 15/19 showing, delivering one touchdown pass on 231 yards through the air. His new crop of targets is led by Jovany Ruiz and Eastern Michigan transfer Quian Williams. Both wideouts impressed last week, combining 172 yards on eight receptions. While picking apart defenses through the air isn’t Buffalo’s first preference, Vantrease has proved he is capable of doing so, especially with his 353-yard, 4-touchdown performance in the win over Miami (OH) last November.
Nebraska’s aerial defense looked stout against Fordham while securing three interceptions. But the Cornhuskers allowed Illinois to dissect them with a slew of short, efficient passes in the Week 0 meeting. The Illini didn’t look beyond the sticks often but they completed 15/19 passes to constantly move the chains and keep the Nebraska defense on the field. Buffalo hasn’t been accustomed to screen passes and dump-offs lately, as the running game has sufficed for those short yardage situations. But that is an element of the game the Bulls may want to investigate leading up to Saturday.
The Cornhuskers do present solid personnel in limiting the run game, however. Luke Reimer and JoJo Domann are a pair of linebackers the Bulls must be aware of when looking to spark the ground game. Nebraska’s front seven has been known to invade backfields on occasion, especially after producing nine tackles for loss against Illinois.
When Nebraska has the ball
This marks the fourth year of the Scott Frost era, and the former UCF head coach has been tied to one quarterback since landing in Lincoln. Adrian Martinez is settling in to his fourth season as Nebraska’s starter, and he is still looking to lead this program to its first winning record of the Frost era.
It is no secret Martinez likes to run the ball and is fully capable of doing so. The quarterback blasted off for a 75-yard run during Nebraska’s attempted comeback at Illinois and he obtained 117 rushing yards that contest. Martinez’s mobility should be the primary focus for Buffalo’s defense, because Nebraska isn’t a team that flings the ball for 300 yards to win football games. He has currently gone 15 consecutive games without attaining the 300-yard mark, and his preferred target area is within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage.
That being said, Nebraska usually has one receiver that steps up into a playmaking role each game. In Week 0, Oliver Martin assumed that position with 103 receiving yards on six catches. Last weekend, it was Samori Toure in a 133-yard outing creating significant YAC for the Huskers. Thus, Buffalo’s cornerbacks must be on their best tackling ability as Nebraska prefers to get its receivers on islands in the open field, so they are one cut away from major yardage.
Nebraska appeared to receive a revelation in the running game last week, too. USC transfer Markese Stepp seemed to emerge as the No. 1 halfback after accruing 101 yards on 18 carries. Stepp was limited to three rushes in Week 0, but his sensational showing in Week 1 likely augments his playing time.
Buffalo didn’t allow Wagner’s run defense to accomplish anything as the Bulls stifled them to 18 yards on 35 carries. This team is incredibly deep in the front seven and limiting opponents on the ground is its speciality. All-MAC middle linebacker James Patterson is the heart and soul of the defense, and he shined in 2020 with 63 tackles across seven games.
The Bulls’ veteran linebacking group presents many strengths, but the best part of this defense might be the four men up front. Defensive end Taylor Riggins returned to the lineup last Thursday after missing the entire 2020 season, and he looked fresher than ever. After producing a MAC-high 8.5 sacks in 2019, Riggins added 2.0 against Wagner to his ever-growing career total. Rising stars Eric Black and George Wolo serve as key complements to Riggins’ pass rushing ability, and Buffalo totaled five sacks and nine tackles for loss as a whole in Week 1.
The 14-point spread seems very generous to Nebraska, which has received the benefit of the doubt so many times in the Scott Frost era (see No. 24 preseason ranking in 2019 after coming off a 4-8 season). So, disregard that double-digit betting line. This game seems destined for a down-to-the-wire finish.
But it is hard to gauge where Buffalo is as a program under Maurice Linguist, as the Bulls have not battled any FBS competition since enduring an offseason of massive turnover. Still, there are talented playmakers such as Kevin Marks, James Patterson, and Taylor Riggins scattered across this roster, and the Bulls still appear to fit the mold of MAC contenders after scoring on every possession of their opening game.
What gives the Cornhuskers a slight edge in this one is the dual-threat nature of their quarterback. Buffalo’s defense didn’t have its brightest day against Kent State mobile quarterback Dustin Crum in 2020, allowing 41 points in that contest. Martinez is going to extend several plays with his feet for Nebraska, and that multidimensionality will be the x-factor in this one.
Marks and Buffalo’s offense will keep this close via success in the ground game, but the home team emerges on top by a field goal.
Prediction: Nebraska 24, Buffalo 21