It’s a must-win game in Mt. Pleasant on Wednesday night, when the Buffalo Bulls (5-4, 4-1 MAC East) come to town to take on the Central Michigan Chippewas (3-6, 2-3 MAC West) in a nationally-televised contest.
The Chippewas must win out to guarantee a bowl game after starting the year 1-5. Any other result takes them out of the running for the postseason. The Bulls, meanwhile, can’t afford to lose either, as any loss would put them behind in a strong MAC East divisional race where three teams are tied for first place. A win would also secure the Bulls a potential bowl bid.
A lot is on the line in this one, even if by the eye test, it doesn’t really have that feeling to it. Let’s get into the game notes:
- Time and Date: Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, at 7 p.m. Eastern time.
- Network: ESPN2 (A subscription is required for viewing.)
- Location: Deromedi/Kramer Field at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
- Spread/Total: CMU is a one-point home favorite, with an over/under of 54, per OddsShark.
- All-time series: Central holds the 7-3 advantage all-time, but Buffalo has won the last two contests, including a 43-20 triumph at UB Stadium in 2019 the last time these two teams met.
Getting to know the Bulls
The Bulls took a shocking loss to Ohio last week, getting outdone at their own game by a margin of 45-24, allowing the Bobcats to gain the advantage by dictating the game pace while struggling to produce much of anything on either side of the ball to try and stay in the game.
The Bulls were behind 24-3 with 4:03 remaining in the first half, but managed to find answers in the middle frames, getting to within a touchdown on a Keyshawn Cobb Jr. pick-six to start the second half. But they couldn’t maintain momentum, as the defense gave up 21 second-half points while the offense mustered just a field goal.
They’re hoping the 3-6 Chips can serve as a get-right game, as any slip-up over the rest of the season would mean losing ground in the MAC East race after working so hard to be in contention.
The team relies upon a stable of backs to produce the majority of their yardage, with three rushers who are capable of hitting home runs at any time. Mike Washington has proven to be the biggest contributor thus far in the time share, with 506 yards and six touchdowns on 113 carries, while Ron Cook Jr. has 500 yards and three scores on 117 carries. Al-Jay Henderson has also shown good potential in limited snaps, with two touchdowns and 188 yards on 31 carries.
Dual-threat QB Cole Snyder, a Rutgers transfer, throws at about a 58 percent clip, connecting for 2,145 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions through the air while managing 279 yards gained and four scores on the ground before sack yardage. His main receiving threats are former Louisville transfer Justin Marshall (41 receptions, 569 yards, six scores) and Quian Williams (47 receptions, 547 yards, four scores.)
Defensively, this is a unit which relies on the big play and stopping the run. Shaun Dolac (95 tackels, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, sack, six pass break-ups) and James Patterson (82 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks, interception) patrol the middle of the field at the linebacker position, with two of the MAC’s biggest playmakers in the secondary in Keyshawn Cobb (38 tackles, six pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, pick-six) and Marcus Fuqua (five interceptions.)
Where the defense really excels, however, is in their turnover margin.
The Bulls are one of the most opportunistic teams in the country at generating new possessions, picking up 11 fumble recoveries and nine interceptions, while giving up 13 turnovers in return, for a +7 margin. Such turnover luck was important in several of their wins this season, especially with their conversion rates on “key” downs. The Bulls convert third downs at a 38.8 percent clip, while also picking up the majority of their fourth downs, with a 55 percent rate on 23 attempts. This aggression allows the Bulls to average around 30.8 points per game on offense, which can be hard to run up against in the MAC.
Buffalo has some of the better special teams units in the MAC, with the league’s most accurate kicker in Alex McNulty (16-of-18), and recently-named starter Anthony Venneri at punter, who has already kicked seven punts of 50+ yards, and averages 43 yards per boot.
Getting to know the Chippewas
The Chippewas had to win a truly ugly game with the NIU Huskies last week to keep their bowl hopes alive and did so, picking up a 35-24 victory on the road to eliminate the Huskies from postseason contention.
It was a much-needed result for their confidence, as this CMU unit has had to persevere through a difficult offseason of change and a rash of injuries to major contributors. It puts CMU at 3-6, with a decent chance of running the gauntlet if they can get past Buffalo, their biggest threat.
There’s a couple issues for CMU going in, however. They’re a paltry 1-3 at home, with an average margin of defeat of 10.3 points, including a bad 34-18 loss to BGSU two weeks ago. They’re also down their leading passcatcher in tight end Joel Wilson (44 catches, 445 yards, six touchdowns), who was injured during a trick play vs. NIU.
It’ll have to be a massive effort to upset Buffalo with a makeshift offense, as it’s to-be-determined if CMU will continue the three-QB rotisserie with Daniel Richardson, Jase Bauer and Bert Emanuel Jr. moving forward. Under that system last week vs. NIU, Richardson operated the play-action pass package, with Bauer and Emanuel operating a read-option look.
Regardless of what the situation looks like under center, Lew Nichols will lead the offense as the bellcow back. Nichols has fought injury and a re-shuffled line for most of the year, but still offers big play threat which opposing defenses have to account for, with 561 yards and six touchdowns to average around 80 yards per game. He’ll likely team up with Jase Bauer to create a 1-2 attack, with Nichols attacking the inside and Bauer popping outside (which he did for 109 yards and two scores last week.)
With no Wilson as a safety valve, Maryland transfer Carlos Carriere will have to shoulder the load. Carriere has two touchdowns on 42 catches for 478 yards. He’s had just nine receptions for 95 yards in the last three games as defenses have keyed in on him as the only serious threat. No other receiver has had more than 17 catches (Noah Koenigsknecht) or 252 yards (Jalen McGaughy,) so someone else stepping up would be go a long way.
They’ll need to be a lot better about holding on to the ball, however, as CMU has lost 16 fumbles and thrown six interceptions, contributing to a NCAA-worst -13 turnover margin.
There’s more to be optimistic about on defense, as the Chippewas have proven to be one of the deadliest havoc units, ranking 19th in the NCAA in sacks and third in tackles-for-loss. The CMU defense also limits opponents to a 31.3 percent conversion rate on third-down, good enough for 19th best in the NCAA.
Thomas Incoom continues to highlight at the EDGE position, with 35 tackles, 13 tackles-for-loss, 8.5 sacks, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown. Incoom’s performance paces a defensive line which totals 44 tackles-for-loss and 20.5 sacks. Kyle Moretti leads the Chippewas in the tackling charts with 65 total, including 5.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks, while battery mate Justin Whiteside has 53 tackles and seven tackles-for-loss.
The secondary has also much improved after a shaky start to the season, with Trey Jones (54 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions, two pass break-ups) and De’Javion Stephney (33 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, six pass break-ups) locking down the safety spots, while the brothers Kent have proven to be some of the MAC’s best cover corners. Donte Kent leads the team with 12 pass break-ups and a forced fumble, while Ronald Kent Jr. has six pass break-ups and 3.5 tackles-for-loss.
Special teams have been a nightmare for CMU this season, with the league’s worst kicking game, converting 4-of-12 between Marshall Meeder and Josh Rolston, and the league’s worst return game, with multiple game-changing fumbles resulting in turnovers. Luke Elzinga has been a bit of a saving grace, averaging 43 yards on 40 punts.
What to Expect
It’s honestly hard to know what to expect here.
The Vegas supercomputers have this as essentially a toss-up at one point in either direction. The belief is likely that Buffalo’s conversion rates on key downs is unsustainable against a CMU defense which has proven to be great at stopping opponents from rushing the ball. There’s also a bit of a “break effect” in play, as Buffalo comes in after a loss and CMU comes in after a win, with both results killing certain streaks. It’s hard to quantify the emotional understanding of both sides after such a vulnerable week.
As cliche as it sounds, ultimately, this will come down to wants it more.
Both teams have a lot to gain and everything to lose here, though the stakes are decidedly different. Buffalo has renewed pressure in their divisional race after taking an unexpected loss to EMU, while Central has a true “kitchen sink” appeal to their game as they must survive and advance over the month of November to even have a chance at a prize.
My personal belief is this is a game which will be decided by somewhere between three and seven points. CMU’s defense matches up with Buffalo’s offense extremely well, and CMU’s offense might struggle against a fast and furious Bulls defense, but I have more faith in the discipline of Buffalo’s special teams to give them the advantage in the margins.