It’s a battle of undefeated programs in Amherst, New York on Saturday, as the Buffalo Bulls (4-3, 3-0 MAC East) hope to make a statement by defending their home grounds against the visiting Toledo Rockets (5-2, 3-0 MAC West) in one of the most pivotal contests of the 2022 season.
It’s a bit of an unexpected surprise, as neither of these sides were expected to be division favorites in the preseason media polls, but their respective play on the field has been immaculate, with both teams featuring high-powered offenses, domineering defenses and a balanced approach to find a way to success.
Now, they’re set to play one another to either take a more firm grip on the league table or suffer their first loss— opening up the division to a potential taker on either side.
Let’s dive right into the game notes:
- Time and Date: Saturday, October 22, 2022, at 1 p.m. Eastern time.
- Network: ESPN+ (A subscription is required for viewing.)
- Location: UB Stadium in Amherst, New York
- Spread/Total: Toledo is a seven-point home favorite, with an over/under of 57, per OddsShark.
- All-time series: Toledo has the all-time series lead at 7-5, but Buffalo has won the last two contests, with their last meeting a 49-30 UB triumph in 2019.
Getting to know the Rockets
The Rockets are flying high right now, with the top scoring offense and second-best scoring defense in the league, winning their last three contests.
The last game was especially team-defining, as the Kent State Golden Flashes got out to an early 21-0 first-quarter lead at the Glass Bowl before Toledo pulled out a 52-10 run to win the game by multiple possessions. At present, this looks to be a team which is hard to prepare for, as they’re good-to-great at every positional unit for depth and execute the gameplan with extreme efficiency,
Toledo QB Dequan Finn has become a sensation in 2022, showing rapid growth since the Ohio State game, currently sitting at 1,397 passing yards and 17 touchdowns through the air and 455 yards and six touchdowns on the ground through seven games.
The ball gets spread around in the passing game, with six players hauling in at least one touchdown in 2022, with Jerjuan Newton (23 receptions, 465 yards, six touchdowns) pacing the attack. Jamal Turner is a keen redzone target from the tight end spot, with five touchdowns to go along with 150 yards on 12 receptions. Demeer Blankumsee and Devin Maddox serve as primary possession receivers, with Blankumsee leading Toledo in receptions (29).
On the ground, Finn is the lead back, but Jacquez Stuart (354 yards, three touchdowns) and Peny Boone (243, two touchdowns) are also contributors who are talented enough to warrant the defense’s attention and open the gameplan up.
For as talented as the offense is, this team is built on defense.
The Rockets are one of the best defenses in the country, even with the Ohio State game built into the stats, limiting opponents to an average of 26 points, while forcing 11 turnovers and limiting opponents to a 37.7 percent third-down rate. They’re especially great in the passing game, allowing just 194 average yards and 10 scores while picking up seven interceptions.
The two Johnsons, Desjuan and Dyontae, pace the Rockets attack, with Desjuan leading the team with 7.5 tackles-for-loss and 36 total tackles from the defensive line, while Dyontae has 47 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, three pass break-ups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Jamal Hines continues to produce at an all-MAC pace, with 25 tackles, two sacks and four each of tackles-for-loss, QB hits and pass break-ups.
In the secondary, Ohio State transfer Dallas Gant has set the tone, with 64 tackles from the safety spot, 17 more stops than the second-place tackler, with 4.5 TFLs and four pass break-ups. Nate Bauer and Zachary Ford play alongside Gant in the three-safety set and each have an interception and two pass break-ups to their name. Quinyon Mitchell has five pass break-ups and four interceptions from the corner spot— though the picks were all accumulated two weeks ago vs. NIU— and has been Toledo’s best cover man as well, with fellow corner Chris McDonald (29 tackles, one interception, three pass break-ups) holding admirably opposite-side.
Thomas Cluckey is one of the best kickers in the MAC, with an 8-of-10 rate in 2022, while Jonathon Batzke averages 41.5 yards per boot when called upon.
Getting to know the Bulls
No one expected the Bulls to be in this position just a few weeks ago— well, maybe everyone except the Buffalo coaching staff.
The Bulls had one of the most embarrassing losses in the 2022 season over the whole of Division I college football, losing at home on a Hail Mary to the FCS-level Holy Cross Crusaders to fall to 0-2 in a game where they struggled to generate any positive momentum. They’ve gone 3-1 since, with three straight wins coming into this contest against their fellow division leader.
This team wants to stop what you do best on defense, and set the pace of play on offense, utilizing a balanced roster and getting the most out of their players. It’s strange to think this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Maurice Linguist and his staff; if they pull away with this one under their belts, the narrative of the program changes entirely.
Buffalo is a balanced unit, with the 62nd-rated rushing offense (157.1 yards per game) and 69th-best passing offense (241.6 yards per game), wanting to possess the ball as long as possible and open up play-action for big plays downfield.
The Bulls have a stable of backs who they can depend upon for yards, with Mike Washington (97 rushes, 451 yards, six touchdowns) and Ron Cook Jr. (96 rushes, 378 yards, two touchdowns) splitting primary duties. Al-Jay Henderson also gets run as a spell back, with the capacity for big plays (such as the 84-yard run he had against UMass last week.)
Rutgers transfer Cole Snyder has dual threat capability, 133 net yards and three touchdowns on the ground, and also handles the controls at quarterback, passing for 1,662 yards for 11 touchdowns and five interceptions on a 61 percent completion rate.
The Bulls rely on three receivers for the vast majority of their yards, with Louisville transfer Justin Marshall (32 catches, 471 yards, five touchdowns) leading the receiving charts as a big-bodied target. Quian Williams (36 catches, 413 yards, four touchdowns) is an athletic compliment to Marshall on the outside, while the speedy Jamari Gassett has come on in recent weeks, with 269 yards and a touchdowns on 21 receptions.
The defense is a unit which likes to get after you, currently 37th in the country in both team tackles-for-loss (45) and third-down conversion rating (34.1 percent). They’re also right around the middle of the standings in total defense, sitting 74th at 384.7 yards allowed per game, indicating this is a do-or-die unit.
There are six Bulls who have notched at least three tackles-for-loss each, with defensive lineman Daymond Williams topping the tables at 7.5. Linebacker James Patterson is the heart-and-soul of the defense, sitting at 55 tackles, six TFLs, a sack, two pass break-ups, one interception, a fumble forced and two fumble recoveries. Running mate Shaun Dolac has been a revelation in 2022, with 73 tackles (55 solo), with 6.5 TFLs and three pass break-ups.
The secondary doesn’t get a lot of turnovers, but the turnovers they do manage to get, they’ve cashed in for either points or vital stops. The defense has 25 pass break-ups and four interceptions, with the safety pair of Marcus Fuqua (two picks) and Jahmin Muse (one pick) nabbing three of those. It’s a bend-don’t-break philosophy otherwise, giving up an average of 216.6 yards per game but only eight passing scores against.
Alex McNulty has been the best kicker in the league in 2022, with a 13-of-14 mark thus far, including a long kick of 52 yards. He has range from 56 yards and in as well, giving Buffalo a decided advantage in the kicking game. The Bulls have been acclimating a new punter to replace Jackson Balthar after some mixed performances, with Hamilton, Ontario’s Anthony Venneri averaging 44.8 yards per punt, with three 50+ yard punts on 14 attempts, including a 61-yarder.
What to Expect
It wasn’t the titanic battle we expected to take control of the conference, but it’s the one we’ve gotten, setting up an extremely interesting narrative game.
Toledo has a habit of falling short of expectations, and it will be curious to see if they can hold up their end of the bargain in one of the most stakes-filled conference contests they’ve had since 2017, the last time they were competing for the MAC title. Jason Candle was head coach in the MAC title season; can he navigate this battle to set the Rockets up for a similar run?
Buffalo, meanwhile, is seemingly playing with the freedom of someone who isn’t supposed to be here, catching a lot of teams off guard and grinding their way through their opponents along the way. This will be a test of Maurice Linguist and his staff, to see if they can coach through the adversity of a big game with stakes attached.
Vegas expects a very close contest, with the line sitting at one touchdown as of publication, and that honestly feels accurate. Toledo does have weaknesses in both the offense and defense which can be exploited despite their record, while Buffalo still has a lot to prove themselves, with their last three wins coming over UMass, BGSU and Miami, not exactly a murderer’s row.
Ultimately, I think this will be a game decided by multiple possessions; the potential for a let-down game for either team is very much there if the action on the gridiron goes awry.