- Time and date: Saturday, September 16 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: CBS Sports Network
- Location: UB Stadium — Amherst, NY
- Spread: Liberty (-3.5)
- Over/under: 55
- All-time series: Liberty leads, 2-0
- Last meeting: Liberty 35, Buffalo 17 — September 14, 2019
- Current streak: Liberty, 2 (1998-19)
Setting the scene
This is familiar territory for Buffalo.
Last September on Week 2, Buffalo squandered a 14-point first half lead to Holy Cross and suffered the most nightmarish loss possible — the annual home game against FCS competition.
This September on Week 2, Buffalo squandered an 18-point first half lead to Fordham and suffered the most nightmarish loss possible — the annual home game against FCS competition.
While Buffalo’s 2022 defeat to Holy Cross was an abject disaster, the program still recovered. The Bulls bucked an 0-3 start by rattling off five-straight victories and finished the year above .500 with a Camellia Bowl win over Georgia Southern. Now, Maurice Linguist’s program must follow a similar trajectory. This week’s opponent Liberty is 2-0, and the 0-2 Bulls must protect home turf before this season snowballs into something worse.
Liberty Flames outlook
Liberty is no longer independent. The Flames joined a revamped Conference USA this year along with former independent New Mexico State and FCS call-ups Jacksonville State and Sam Houston. That being said, Liberty is finally eligible for the New Year’s Six bid that invites the highest-ranked champion of the AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt. The Flames schedule — which features a non-conference slate of Bowling Green, Buffalo, Old Dominion, and UMass — shapes up nicely for an undefeated regular season record as WKU presents the greatest challenge of remaining opponents.
Liberty already knocked off MAC competition in Week 1, utilizing homefield advantage to upend Bowling Green, 34-24. The Flames survived a late Bowling Green rally, but they benefited heavily from turnovers in that contest. Liberty picked off five Bowling Green passes, limited the Falcons’ quarterback to an 11-of-31 showing, yet, the Falcons still had two drive with a chance to tie in the fourth quarter.
Week 2 went much smoother for the Flames, which defeated New Mexico State, 33-17. Once again, Liberty utilized a high turnover output to contribute to the victory, intercepting two passes and recovering a fumble against the new CUSA opponent. No team has forced more takeaways than the Flames with eight on the season. Another theme that sustained from the Bowling Green game was the ability to run the ball assertively, and Liberty currently ranks seventh overall in rushing yards per game at 248.
Operating under first-year head coach Jamey Chadwell, the architect of the rise of Coastal Carolina, Liberty is running a similar offense to what worked on the teal turf in Conway, SC. The Flames incorporate some triple option elements into a spread offense which features plenty of downhill running. So far, this scheme has worked to a T, vaulting lead tailback Quinton Cooley to 184 rushing yards through two games. He’s received ample support from reserve backs Billy Lucas and Vaughn Blue in this high-powered rushing attack, and quarterback Kaidon Salter brings more diversity to a loaded backfield.
Salter is third on the team with 125 rushing yards thus far, and he hasn’t been too shabby as a passer. The second-year starter has 45 attempts with four touchdowns and zero interceptions this season, exploding for a career-best 276 yards in last week’s outing. Accuracy might be a point of emphasis going forward, but Salter has handled the No. 1 quarterback duty quite well, keeping the Flames undefeated heading into Week 3.
Thanks to that opener against Bowling Green, Liberty boasts some incredible numbers as a passing defense, allowing a 43.9 completion percentage with an FBS-high seven interceptions. Opponents are only registering 125 passing yards per game on first-year defensive coordinator Skylor Magee’s unit, but there is another extreme to note regarding Liberty’s defense. At 6.6 yards per carry, the Flames yield the second-highest rushing output in the FBS, only trailing Southern Miss — which played Florida State. Liberty’s opponents haven’t been renowned for stellar rushing attacks either, so that’s an area Buffalo can exploit the Flames.
But the Bulls must be aware of the talent roaming in that secondary. Cornerback Kobe Singleton has picked off three passes in his two years with the Flames, and he provides blanketing coverage on a recurring basis. And Liberty’s elite pass defense extends beyond the defensive back room as inside linebacker Jerome Jolly Jr. already has two interceptions and a beatdown this year, in addition to a sack and forced fumble.
Buffalo Bulls outlook
Buffalo is one of three FBS programs to suffer the dreaded, undesirable loss to FCS competition. The same catastrophe transpired in Week 2 last season, and the factors contributing to the Fordham loss were a mirror-image of those which struck in the 2022 defeat to Holy Cross.
First, Buffalo’s passing defense was unacceptable. One week after defending this element of the game well against Wisconsin, the Bulls surrendered 309 passing yards and five touchdowns to an FCS program. The run defense wasn’t in stellar shape either, allowing a 100-yard rusher and averaging fewer yards per carry than Fordham. Buffalo struggled mightily on critical downs, where Fordham converted 11-of-19 opportunities. And lastly, penalties — the heel in the 2022 Holy Cross debacle — were far too abundant. The Bulls were flagged 10 times for 91 yards, proving to be one of the most significant factors in a nightmare performance.
Conversely, what went right? Buffalo amassed 37 points thanks to one of the strongest showings by quarterback Cole Snyder. The second-year starter completed 24-of-30 attempts for 265 yards and three touchdowns while remaining turnover-free in the contest. Buffalo’s passing attack was a question mark heading into the season with the losses of Justin Marshall, Quian Williams, and Jamari Gassett, but Snyder has already found a slew of viable options.
Longtime roster member Marlyn Johnson just recorded his first 100-yard game. Johnson, who had been fielding snaps since 2019, posted 105 yards and two touchdowns in the Fordham game and could play a vital role in the offense for the first time. Cole Harrity, who caught a pass of touchdowns Week 1, will be another frequented option, while Boobie Curry and Darrell Harding Jr. should play supporting roles in a pass-centric offense.
The run game wasn’t tremendous or terrible in Week 2, but the Bulls showcase an experienced thunder and lightning tandem of power back Mike Washington and speed back Ron Cook Jr. The duo combined for 109 yards on 4.5 yards per attempt against Fordham, producing similar results to what transpired Week 1 at Wisconsin.
The defense was overall calamitous in Week 2, although there were areas of promise. Buffalo invaded the backfield for nine tackles for loss and exhibited much more strength in fitting the run than it did Week 1. But the woes in coverage and tackling in the secondary were too great to overcome, and Fordham moved the ball with ease through the air, utilizing a diverse throw profile. Cornerback play will need to sharply improve as Liberty strolls into town, but Buffalo has several All-MAC caliber players it can rely on to rise to the occasion on a weekly basis.
One is middle linebacker Shaun Dolac, who finished first nationally in solo tackles in 2022. Dolac is off to a strong start as a tackler once again with 17 stops through two games, and he’s more than capable in coverage across the middle — as demonstrated by his seven pass breakups in 2022. The other star on the Bulls’ defense is free safety Marcus Fuqua, who earned AP All-American honors for leading the FBS in interceptions last fall. Fuqua remains in search of his first pick in 2023, but the star senior can often be found lurking in the right area in zone coverage, and Liberty must take note of No. 10’s whereabouts.
Buffalo is certainly familiar with Jamey Chadwell and his offense, as this will be the third-straight year with a Week 3 meeting between Chadwell and the Bulls. Coastal Carolina emerged 28-25 in Conway in 2021 and 38-26 at UB Stadium in 2022.
Things aren’t going well for Buffalo right now, but it’s clear the Bulls still contain plenty of the talent that catapulted the team to seven wins in its final 10 matchups last season. Starting quarterback Cole Snyder has improved, he’s found viable receivers to connect with, and defensive stars Shaun Dolac and Marcus Fuqua remain dangerous.
Buffalo needs that turnover battle on its side though, which is something that has benefited the Flames but hindered the Bulls. But as we saw with Grayson McCall in Jamey Chadwell’s offenses at Coastal Carolina, some good ball protection is being exhibited by Kaidon Salter. He’s refrained from errant and risky throws, and he escapes pressure well with an impressive degree of mobility.
Salter and the running backs may not post 250 rushing yards again this week, but they’ll be able to thrive enough on this run defense to make Buffalo play from behind. The Bulls should remain within single-digits by establishing a stronger ground attack this week, but the Flames are hot on both sides right now, and they’ll claim their first road win of the season in Upstate New York.
Prediction: Liberty 31, Buffalo 23