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What we learned from Central Michigan’s 31-27 victory over Buffalo

CMU continues to make adjustments to find ways to win, while Buffalo folded over as soon as adversity hit.

Jay McDowell (CMU Athletics)

There are some games which write themselves when they’re kicked off; one team clearly establishes dominance and the game plays itself out. Other games are a little closer, but still milquetoast; A lot of back-and-forth, but not a lot of action.

This game, instead, was a third thing: it was a miracle being written in real time, decided on wings and prayers as the clock wound down. It can be hard to learn about teams in a game like that from technical senses; the game between CMU and Buffalo was emotionally-charged as it gets.

Buffalo charged furiously to a three-score lead in the first half before CMU deployed the alternate gameplan and came all the way back to create a certified #MACtion moment at home under the Wednesday night lights.

In that spirit, we get into the emotional lessons of the game below.

Let’s get right into it:

A star was born on Wednesday night

Bert Emanuel Jr., a true freshman, was kind of an afterthought all season, finding his way onto the depth charts at third QB all season. He finally hit the field for his first snaps of his career two weeks ago against NIU, with six carries for 30 yards.

Emanuel Jr., in that game, had an average of five yards per carry running mostly QB Power, which retrospectively should have been telling for his potential to see the field, but also had a fumble, while backup QB Jase Bauer (109 yards, two touchdowns) highlighted the Chippewa effort on the ground in the infamous three-QB rotation they employed in that game.

It’s an interesting tell, then, that when it came down to it, coaches called on Emanuel Jr., and not Bauer, to lead the way in their hour of need. Emanuel Jr. answered the call, with 295 rushing yards and three touchdowns on a run-centric gameplan. With the performance, he became the first FBS QB since 2019 to eclipse 250+ yards rushing and set the fourth-highest single-game total in CMU history.

His size and athleticism is immediately apparent, as his six-foot-three, 210 lbs. frame made him incredibly hard to bring down when running at full speed, further evidenced by his 10.8 yards per rushing attempt.

We wrote before that CMU had no choice but to go to their youngsters if they wanted a chance at bowl eligibility or to see what they had in the war chest. They certainly seem to have listened, though such an absurdly good performance does raise the question of why either Bauer or Emanuel sat for so long if they were capable of running the offense.

It’s likely we’ll see Emanuel Jr. listed as the starter next week after his performance, with in-state rivals EMU and WMU left on the schedule. Can he continue to show development with starting reps?

It may not be Buffalo’s time yet

Buffalo has now had two opportunities to grasp firm hold of the MAC East division lead after climbing all the way to the top with some impressive performances to start league play, and have failed both times to establish themselves.

It’s especially discouraging after their thorough trouncing of Toledo in their matchup of undefeated teams.

Since then, they’ve been mauled alive by an Ohio offense which scored at will, and given up a three-score lead against a 3-6 CMU team who were relying on a lot of underclassmen, walk-ons and Division II transfers to field a team. It was, retrospectively, a damning sign Buffalo came into Mt. Pleasant one-point road dogs by most sportsbooks despite CMU being 1-3 at home.

It must be remembered that Buffalo is still a very young team in the midst of a rebuild, and that Maurice Linguist is in his second year as a head coach at any level. They still have to learn how to win and play with discipline.

Buffalo committed twice as many penalties as Central did, and had several missed opportunities to make stops and keep the down-and-distance favorable during the game, most notably on Emanuel’s 87-yard run, where no defender put hands on Emanuel as he fell to ensure he was down.

They still have time to clinch bowl eligibility with two weeks remaining, including this week, but their hopes of going to Detroit hinge on needing Ohio and BGSU to mess up somewhere along the line and winning out. Their safety net is gone, and they’ll need to grow up in a hurry if they want to prove their winning streak wasn’t a mirage.

Defensive adjustments determined the day

To use an old cliche, it was a tale of two halves on Wednesday night.

The Buffalo Bulls were extremely assertive and aggressive in the first half of the proceedings, giving CMU no quarter on either side of the ball as they built up a 24-7 lead going into the halftime break. It certainly didn’t help that the Chippewas seemingly had no answers on key downs, with lackadasical tackling and ill-covered gaps abound.

The Bulls were perfect on fourth-down attempts, going 3-of-3 in the first half, and continually converted on third down as well, holding the ball for over 38 minutes of game clock, including well over 20 minutes of the first half.

It was, however, a different story in the second half, as the Bulls let their foot off the gas and ended up with four drives with four plays or less. CMU’s defense keyed in on Buffalo’s run game, forcing the Bulls to try and pass to convert for first downs. The Bulls ultimately finished 9-of-20 on third-down for the game, and went 0-of-2 on fourth-down in the second half as well.

The Chippewas defense also stepped up, with seven tackles-for-loss, two sacks and six pass break-ups to go along with an interception to end a 10-play drive, and a crucial fourth-down stop at the end of the game to secure the victory.

Conversely, Buffalo’s defense failed to account for the sudden change of gameplan by CMU, giving the Chippewas too much time to set up blocks downfield. None of CMU’s scoring drives lasted more than three minutes despite Emanuel Jr. attempting just three passes, an indication the up-tempo attack was affecting Buffalo’s ability to get into the backfield.

Coaching adjustments were ultimately the difference, and the team with decades of head coaching and coordinating experience were able to get one over on one of the younger staffs in the FBS.

CMU will face their bitter rival Western Michigan on Wednesday night for a game scheduled to kick off at 8 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN2, while the Buffalo Bulls look to get their seemingly-elusive sixth win agaisnt Akron on Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS Sports Network.