- Time and date: Saturday, September 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Cajun Field — Lafayette, LA
- Spread: Louisiana (-8.5)
- Over/under: 59.5
- All-time series: No previous meetings
Setting the scene
Seven winless teams remain in the FBS. Colorado State and FBS newcomer Sam Houston are 0-2. East Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut, Nevada, and Buffalo are one markdown worse at 0-3.
The early quarter of the 2023 season has been a struggle for a Buffalo team coming off a 7-6 season and a bowl win. The Bulls are one of four programs to lose to FCS competition this year, and they struggled to rebound from it, falling 55-27 to Liberty at home last Saturday. There are parallels, however. Buffalo started 0-3 a year ago before rattling off five consecutive wins and proving a threat in the MAC race.
Saturday marks the final opportunity at a non-conference victory for Maurice Linguist’s squad. They travel south for their first-ever matchup with Louisiana, facing a Ragin’ Cajuns team fresh off dominating UAB, 41-21. The Cajuns are 4-0 against the MAC since 2019 with one victory in each of the last four seasons. They’ll aim to make it five-straight vs. the conference Saturday night in Lafayette.
Buffalo Bulls outlook
What has caused Buffalo to limp to an 0-3 start? The main factor has been the defense, which surrendered 40 points to an FCS team in Week 2 and had zero answers for Liberty in a 55-27 pulverization last weekend. The Bulls exhibit the 16th worst passing defense in the country at 281 yards per game and the fourth worst run defense at 230 yards per game. Combine those two facets together, and the result is the 131st ranked defense among 133 FBS teams, allowing 510 yards per game at over seven yards per play.
Buffalo hasn’t been able to utilize turnovers as a crutch to stop the bleeding either. Last year’s team was a ballhawking machine and finished in the FBS top 10 in takeaways generated. This year, the Bulls snagged two interceptions in the opener at Wisconsin and have failed to snatch a takeaway since.
Although the unit is off to a slow start, that doesn’t mean the Bulls lack talent on that end. In fact, two of the top defenders in the MAC reside on the defense conducted by first-year coordinator Robert Wright — Shaun Dolac and Marcus Fuqua. Dolac collected more solo tackles than any other FBS player in 2022 and he’s off to a solid start in 2023 with 12 solo stops and a team-high 21 total tackles through three contests. The First Team All-MAC linebacker was instrumental in defending short-yardage passes and stifling halfbacks behind the line of scrimmage in 2022, and Buffalo looks to see more of those elements going forward.
Fuqua tied for the nation’s lead in interceptions a season ago with seven. While the AP All-American remains in search for his first this year, he has served as one of the unit’s most reliable tacklers with 20 on the season. In order for the defense’s interception numbers to increase, Buffalo needs to provide more pressure at the line of scrimmage, and the team has just one sack in two games against FBS competition this year.
Buffalo’s offense has shown promise, averaging a workable 27 points per game. But the unit stumbled out of the gate last week, falling behind 24-0 before registering its first points. In order to start faster, the Bulls need to establish a stronger rushing attack out of the gate. Buffalo’s run game is situated at 118th in the country at 102 yards per game, and this department averaged just 2.9 yards per carry against Liberty when Liberty allowed the second-highest rushing average in the country entering that matchup.
The Bulls will continue to lean on the Mike Washington and Ron Cook Jr. duo in the run game, hoping to gain answers against a stout Louisiana front allowing just 3.0 yards per rush this year. But Buffalo will inflict the majority of its offensive damage through the passing game. The offensive line has provided ample time for quarterback Cole Snyder and the Bulls — which rank eighth in passing attempts per game — have only allowed two sacks this season, good for 12th in the nation.
Snyder fired for 276 yards on 51 attempts last weekend, setting a new season-high in passing yards in addition to touchdowns with four. After losing his top targets from 2022, wide receiver was one of Buffalo’s greatest uncertainties headed into 2023. But now, it seems to be the strongest position group on the roster. Four different Bulls boast between 111 and 144 yards this season on an offense which is distributing the wealth all around. Marlyn Johnson, Nik McMillan, Darrell Harding Jr., and Cole Harrity all have succeeded in getting open in the red zone and that quartet combines for eight receiving touchdowns thus far.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns outlook
Louisiana’s 41-21 thrashing of UAB doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. In fact, the Ragin’ Cajuns led the Blazers 41-3 with under five minutes remaining before surrendering three late touchdowns. It was the ultimate response by Michael Desormeaux’s team which suffered a 38-31 road loss to Old Dominion in the Sun Belt opener the week prior.
Unfortunately for the Ragin’ Cajuns, that victory came with a cost. On the opening possession, starting quarterback Ben Wooldridge suffered a foot injury which will keep him sidelined for several weeks. While losing the second-year starter is far from ideal, Louisiana was supported by a tremendous performance from backup Zeon Chriss against UAB. Chriss connected on 14-of-20 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown, but where the redshirt freshman especially made his mark was on the ground. The mobile quarterback accumulated 103 yards on just six rushes with a pair of scores — bolstered by an improvised 80-yard touchdown scamper on a designed passing play in the second quarter.
The expectations remain lofty for Chriss after that statement performance, and he’ll look to carve out a Buffalo run defense which yielded 66 rushing yards to Liberty quarterback Kaidon Salter in the prior week. But Louisiana’s run game offers more options than its new signal caller. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 11th in the FBS in rushing at 228 yards per game, fueled by leading rusher Jacob Kibodi. The veteran running back first came onto scene at Texas A&M in 2017, but he’s already enjoying his best season to date. Kibodi’s 211 yards on the season are a career-best and his 8.1 yards per rush rank seventh among ball carriers with at least 25 attempts this year.
Dre’lyn Washington, who was set to be the bellcow running back prior to the season, will return this week after suffering an ankle injury in an 88-yard performance Week 1. Washington missed the prior two contests but contributed 350 yards as a secondary option in 2022.
Although the ground game will serve as the foundation for the offense, Louisiana has pulled its weight through the air, even with Chriss in the lineup. Averaging under one interception per game is always a good complement to the run, and that’s what the Ragin’ Cajuns will ask for as Chriss prepares for his first collegiate start.
Longtime Cajun wide receiver Pierre LeBlanc is the ideal possession receiver Buffalo must be aware of in the short throw game, while Jacob Bernard and true freshman Harvey Broussard are the other emerging receivers after the team lost star wideout Michael Jefferson this offseason. All three of the aforementioned players — Louisiana’s only 100+ yard receivers — have exactly eight receptions on the year, so there’s no overbearing target Buffalo must gameplan for Saturday night.
Defense showed tremendous improvement from the Old Dominion loss to the UAB win, and it’s unclear which version of Louisiana is going to be the one to emerge on a weekly basis. The prevailing difference between those games was pressure. While Louisiana got to the quarterback several times in Norfolk, it didn’t compare to the seven sacks the defense accrued in Birmingham. That degree of pressure forced UAB into a slew of bad passes, and the Ragin’ Cajuns earned their first two interceptions of 2023 in the blowout win.
Gaining turnovers will be key for Louisiana, but Buffalo’s offense has been pretty sound in ball security for the most part. The Ragin’ Cajuns will rely heavily on defensive end Jordan Lawson for this turnover creation. Lawson leads the entire Sun Belt with 4.0 sacks on the season, and assisting him with the pressure is outside linebacker Cameron Whitfield, who produced 2.5 sacks in Week 3’s throttling of UAB.
Buffalo’s defense has been nightmarish in the run game. And the problem for the Bulls is, that’s where Louisiana excels.
Not only do the Cajuns tout the dynamic duo of Jacob Kibodi and the returning Dre’lyn Washington, but Zeon Chriss’ quarterback mobility is another weapon Buffalo must stop — especially on designed passing plays. The Bulls’ defense hasn’t put together a promising performance yet this year, and given Louisiana’s firepower on the ground, this matchup Saturday night might be another difficult one for the unit.
The Bulls should be able to counter with a strong passing attack, but the defense needs to prevent missed tackles, bad reads, and busted coverages in order to prevent a dreaded 0-4 start.
Prediction: Louisiana 41, Buffalo 28