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What We Learned from Buffalo’s 23-21 win over Georgia Southern

Buffalo’s resiliency under pressure proved key in an important marker game for the program under Mo Linguist.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Georgia Southern at Buffalo Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bulls won the 2022 Camelia Bowl 23-21 over the Georgia State Eagles, closing out their season on a high note with winning record. The Bulls’ largest lead was nine points in the fourth quarter, but the Eagles answered immediately to create a one-score game, as it had been all afternoon.

It’s the final game of the season and an offseason full of change is in front of every college football program. The takeaways from the bowl games probably don’t translate to the next season, but they might.

What gave the Bulls the edge in the Camelia Bowl? What trends were spotted during the game? Did the game go down the way it was expected to go?

Third down conversions for everyone, scoring opportunities for Buffalo

Team Yards Per Play 3rd Downs Avg Yards to Go Scoring Opps Avg Field Position
Buffalo 4.8 12 for 19 6.7 5 33.0
Ga. Southern 6.4 8 for 15 6.2 3 22.9

The Camelia Bowl got off to a sluggish start. The first six drives each ended with a punt. Only two of the drives were three-and-outs, however, so the field position was adjusting slightly as the offenses found their footing.

There were 16 combined drives the rest of the game and the offenses only elected to punt twice after that, an indication that both teams figured out how to move against the other team’s defenses.

Buffalo and Georgia Southern both showed incredible efficiency on third-down attempts— and the yards to go weren’t always easy pickups. On Buffalo’s first touchdown drive, the Bulls converted all three third downs they faced and they needed a combined 26 yards. When the first six drives are removed, the two teams combined to go 19-of-27. That’s insane.

Georgia Southern punted four times in total and three of them were in Buffalo territory. Two were fourth-and-10 and the first one was fourth-and-13. With 10+ yards to go, those are punts the Eagles had good reason to make but that doesn’t make them sting any less.

With the lack of punting, the defenses needed to find new other ways to get off the field. Buffalo forced two second-half turnovers to get the job done. Each turnover led to a field goal for Buffalo and increased the lead to six points.

Deciding to kick field goals on a fourth-and-goal from the six-yard line and the two-yard line were conservative decisions that eventually worked. Going for a touchdown both times is the move according to almost any analytics system. Conversion on only one gets just as many points without the extra point. Giving the Eagles the ball 94 or more yards from the endzone is still a good position for the Bulls to be in.

At least the second field goal from the two-yard line made the game two possessions in the fourth quarter, but a touchdown there takes away the opportunity to win with a field goal down the stretch.

Still, the Eagles were able to score two second-half touchdowns when they didn’t turn the ball over.

The Bulls were able to overcome the disadvantage in yards per play with superior field position. With fewer yards to the endzone, they were able to create more scoring opportunities. Every scoring opportunity, a first down inside your opponent's 40-yard line, resulted in points for each team. Buffalo had two more opportunities and neither team being very explosive was the decisive stat underneath the score.

The turnovers feed into better field position and more scoring opportunities. Both teams converted third down with ease and weren’t an advantage for either. The large differential in yards per play is mainly driven by a 79-yard touchdown pass, but even without it, the Eagles held the yards-per-play advantage. Only slightly though, at 5.4 to 4.8.

Bulls close the game out with bully ball

The fourth quarter started when Buffalo intercepted their former quarterback Kyle Vantrease and took over the ball at the Georgia Southern 40-yard line. With 13:55 left in the game, the Bulls sought to shorten the game. The drive that ensued was nine plays for 38 yards and ate six minutes off the clock. Every play was a run.

The made field goal created a nine-point game with just under eight minutes left.

The Bull defense gave up a touchdown, but only after making the Eagles drive 90 yards over 13 plays to take five minutes off the clock.

The Eagles forced Buffalo to use their hands team but blasted the ball into the endzone for a touchback with 3:38 left in the game. Plenty of time to get a stop with three timeouts and have a chance to win the game.

The Bulls ran eight plays, seven runs and one pass, and closed the game out. The Eagles used two of their timeouts during the first series of downs and forced a third down and seven. Snyder completed a pass to Marshall for nine yards to keep the drive alive. Another first down was achieved on three run plays and the game was over.

The final two drives totaled 16 plays. The Bulls ran the ball 15 times and passed only once while eating 9:37 of the fourth quarter. It was no secret what the Bulls were going to do and the Eagles could not stop it.

Dropped interceptions and batted passes everywhere

In a By the Numbers article I wrote, I noticed that both secondaries have high havoc rates and the offenses allow passes to be deflected or intercepted at a high rate. Vantrease forced passes for Georgia Southern and Snyder threw passes that get broken up, despite low interceptions. That showed up in the first drive when Buffalo cornerback Caleb Offord dropped an interception.

Only one interception was thrown in the game but if the defensive backs caught passes that receivers would be expected to catch, there would’ve been at least four.

In total, 85 passes left the quarterback's hands and 16 were broken up or intercepted. That’s an incredibly high rate. Games will always have more variation than seasons, but 18.8% is more than 1.5 times the highest team average. Ball State was the worst in the nation with 12% of their passes being tipped or intercepted and this game had almost one of five passes being affected by the defense.

Buffalo was able to deflect five passes with one interception by Dylan Powell. Georgia Southern knocked ten passes out of the air and dropped multiple should-be interceptions. Converting any tipped pass into an extra possession could have tipped the scales to Georgia Southern.

Buffalo wide receivers Justin Marshall and Quian Williams have great final games

The Bulls have built their offensive identity on the ground from the time Lance Leipold took over to now. It isn’t always flashy, but it is effective. The Bulls were without running back Ron Cook Jr, their second-leading rusher, and had to look down the depth chart for production in the running game.

This season, the passing game was effective and statistically more efficient than the running game. Buffalo got the spark they were looking for from their pair of senior wide receivers Justin Marshall and Quian Williams.

Marshall had a career day in receptions and yards to finish his senior season in Buffalo. He was showing up all over the field with 11 catches for 127 yards and a beautiful touchdown grab.

Five of Marshall’s catches converted third downs and kept drives alive, including the only pass on the final drive of the game.

Williams is not a stranger to 100+ yard games and he finished his college career with five catches for an even 100 yards. He averaged 20 yards per catch, his highest when he catches more than one pass. He did fumble a ball away to start the second half, but that was the only blemish on an otherwise outstanding day.

Marshall and Williams will be tough to replace in 2023, as the graduate seniors leave Buffalo.