Time and Date: Saturday, September 18 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Location: UB Stadium — Buffalo, NY
Spread: Coastal Carolina (-14)
ESPN FPI: Coastal Carolina has 59.3% chance to win
All-time series: No previous matchups
Setting the scene
The 2020 season was a historic fall for the Buffalo Bulls and Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. Both programs, relatively new to the FBS scene, finished ranked in the final AP Poll for the first time in program history. Buffalo and Coastal Carolina only lost one game apiece and checked in at No. 25 and No. 14 in the country, respectively.
But the 2021 offseason presented drastic direction changes for each program. Buffalo lost its head coach Lance Leipold, two All-American selections in Jaret Patterson and Kayode Awosika, and started the year without a single preseason AP vote. The Bulls eviscerated an FCS team in Week 1, but suffered a brutal 28-3 loss to Nebraska last Saturday.
Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina retained the majority of its personnel including head coach Jamey Chadwell and his star quarterback Grayson McCall. The Chanticleers were pegged as No. 22 in the preseason AP Poll and have risen to No. 16 after a 2-0 start.
Buffalo Bulls outlook
Buffalo started the Maurice Linguist era with a bang. Its promising Week 1 showing featured points on 11-of-11 drives, culminating in a 69-7 victory over Wagner of the FCS. All of that offense came to a halt when traveling to Lincoln in Week 2. Nebraska’s defense limited the Bulls to one lone field goal — a complete 180 offensively from opening weekend. Now, the Bulls aim to rebound against their toughest opponent yet, but they’ll have the luxury of hosting duties.
In the Lance Leipold era, Buffalo’s offense preferred to ground the offense until somebody stopped the running backs. It was not uncommon to see quarterback Kyle Vantrease attempt fewer than 20 passes in a game, due to the high run-to-pass ratio. But Saturday, Vantrease dropped back to pass 50 times — the most by a Buffalo player since Tyree Jackson attempted 50 passes in October 2017.
Vantrease only completed roughly half of his passes, and his average of 4.5 yards per attempt was not enough for the Bulls’ offense to gain momentum. Buffalo only reached the red zone twice in the Cornhuskers’ house, failing to cross the opponent’s 19-yard line all game.
Thus far, Eastern Michigan transfer Quian Williams and returning wideout Jovany Ruiz are handling the bulk of receiving production. The duo is responsible for 65.5 percent of Buffalo’s receiving yards this season and they’ve handled 20 of Vantrease’s 42 completions. No other player on the roster is averaging more than two catches per game, and the Bulls need another target to step up if they’re going to increase reliance on the passing game.
One quality trait of the passing game has been protection. Despite replacing three offensive linemen this offseason, Buffalo’s line remains one of the premier position groups in the MAC. Since October 2019, the Bulls have only allowed two sacks. Not a single one has been yielded through two games in 2021, but Coastal Carolina registered six a week ago, so an arduous challenge awaits.
Buffalo is used to posting absurd rushing numbers and finished third in ground offense last season. Kevin Marks is no stranger to statistical dominations, and he averaged over 100 yards per game in 2020. Last Saturday, he ran decently, but not at his usual standard, to the tune of 85 yards on 21 carries. Marks hopes to shake that performance off as he searches for his first 100-yard showing since the 2020 Camellia Bowl.
Marks spent the past few years as second fiddle to Jaret Patterson, but this year Dylan McDuffie is serving as the secondary back to Marks. McDuffie’s first two games of 2021 have gone swimmingly, and the junior is averaging 6.6 yards per carry with a pair of touchdowns. If Buffalo reverts to its ground-heavy attack, McDuffie’s increased role will be pivotal to the unit’s success.
Defensively, the Bulls have been fairly stout this season. The only glaring issue has been allowing big plays to bite them. Nebraska scored four touchdowns last week. Two were 68-yard touchdown passes to Samori Toure, one was set up by a 71-yard QB scramble, and the other was a 1-play, 1-yard drive following an inopportune interception. The Cornhuskers couldn’t methodically drive downfield on the Bulls, but allowing receivers to get behind defenders is an issue that must be addressed immediately. Nebraska only completed 14 passes, yet three of them sailed for more than 50 yards.
There is plenty of stardom contained in Buffalo’s front seven, however. The Bulls are rolling with their star defensive end Taylor Riggins again after Riggins missed the entirety of the 2020 season. The 2019 First Team All-MAC selection already has 10 tackles and two sacks on the year, and he’ll be the ringleader of getting to the quarterback Saturday. In terms of limiting Coastal Carolina’s option attack, middle linebacker James Patterson will be called upon to step up. Patterson is on pace to lead the team in tackling for the second season in a row after garnering a team-high 12 takedowns in the Nebraska game.
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers outlook
Last season, Coastal Carolina set a Sun Belt record as the first team from the conference to adorn the top 15 in the AP Poll. It’s only Week 3 and the Chanticleers are already knocking on the door of the top 15 again, situated at No. 16 after dismantling Kansas for the third-straight year. Saturday will mark Coastal Carolina’s first road trip of 2021 and the team currently rides a 5-game road win streak heading into UB Stadium.
Much of Coastal Carolina’s recent success can be attributed to the smart, efficient play of quarterback Grayson McCall. Last season, the Sun Belt Player of the Year completed roughly 69 percent of his passes while hoisting a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 26-to-3. This year, McCall has completed over 80 percent of attempts in both games and has accounted for three passing touchdowns without an interception.
Efficiency is his specialty as a passer. As a runner, nobody runs the speed option in college football better than McCall. Everything from his expertise in reading defenses to his break tackle ability to his pitch timing makes him the optimal quarterback for such concepts. McCall’s management of option plays allows the run game to thrive. Replacing halfback C.J. Marable was a key storyline this offseason, but Coastal Carolina filled in the vacancy seamlessly. Through two games, running back Reese White has 164 rushing yards and five touchdowns with a rushing average just south of eight yards per carry.
Coastal Carolina presents numerous threats to Buffalo’s secondary in the receiving corps. After Toure’s success against the Bulls’ corners, Buffalo must turn its attention to Jaivon Heiligh, who plays a similar style to the Nebraska wideout. Heiligh currently has 122-yard and 133-yard outings under his belt in 2021, scoring a touchdown in each victory. His complements in the receiving game are No. 2 wideout Kameron Brown and the talented tight end Isaiah Likely. Likely is a sizable red zone threat at 6’4” and 240, yet he averaged over 20 yards per reception in 2020. It’s not easy to match up against the star tight end and containing him might be Buffalo’s greatest challenge Saturday.
The Chanticleers’ defense is known in Conway, SC as the “Black Swarm.” And fittingly, the defense swarms the backfield and gets to quarterbacks with ease. Kansas was buried in the turf last week, suffering six sacks and 11 tackles for loss at the hands of Coastal Carolina. EDGE rusher Jeffrey Gunter should be a priority for Buffalo’s offensive line. The aggressive playmaker led the FBS with six forced fumbles in 2020 on top of producing 6.5 sacks.
Alongside Gunter, Josaiah Stewart serves as an emerging threat on this defense. Only a true freshman, Stewart registered 3.5 sacks against the Jayhawks. Buffalo’s offensive line has been renowned in recent years for not yielding sacks, but facing Gunter and Stewart is no easy task.
The Chanticleers defense isn’t all pass rushing though. Teddy Gallagher rocks a nice mullet and he rocks opposing running backs, as demonstrated by his 75 tackles and All-Sun Belt selection a year ago. Alex Spillum is the most versatile weapon on the defense, and he played a key role in special teams last week by blocking a punt and scooping up the remains for a touchdown. Last season, Spillum returned four interceptions for 101 yards, and the strong safety seemingly makes an impact on every play.
Buffalo’s Week 2 performance showed that the Maurice Linguist era will indeed come with growing pains after a smooth start to the season. The Bulls are facing a Coastal Carolina team loaded with veteran talent, including several sixth and seventh year “super seniors” across the defense.
Coastal Carolina is hyper-aggressive on defense. This ferocity allows the Chanticleers to come up with frequent sacks, forced fumbles, and even blocked punts, but every so often these heavy blitz packages pave way for screen passes or scrambling quarterbacks to gain massive yardage. However, these aspects aren’t defining elements of Buffalo’s game, and the Chanticleers match up well against the reigning Camellia Bowl champions.
If Buffalo is going to experience success Saturday, it starts with getting Kevin Marks to attain 100 yards on the ground. The Bulls haven’t seen desired results recently when things go awry in the run game, so Marks’ performance will be the x-factor in this one.
Overall, Coastal Carolina presents a more multidimensional offense and its veteran defense should be able to meet the Bulls at the line of scrimmage with force. The new-look offensive line will face more pressure than it did in its prior two games, and this pressure will lead to a Chanticleers victory.
Prediction: Coastal Carolina 38, Buffalo 23