- Time and date: Saturday, September 30 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: InfoCision Stadium — Akron, OH
- Spread: Akron (-2.5)
- Over/under: 55
- All-time series: Series tied, 11-11
- Last meeting: Buffalo 23, Akron 22 — December 2, 2022
- Current streak: Buffalo, 5 (2018-22)
Setting the scene
What’s at stake when Buffalo visits Akron during Saturday’s noon slate? Well for one, it’s series bragging rights. The Bulls have rattled off five consecutive wins over the Zips, knotting the all-time series at 11 apiece. Whichever program emerges Saturday claims the historical superiority, and also, superiority in the early MAC standings.
This game marks both the MAC opener for Buffalo (0-4, 0-0 MAC) and Akron (1-3, 0-0 MAC). Both teams struggled in non-conference play, but Akron captured a victory over an FCS opponent — something Buffalo was unable to accomplish for the second-straight year. The Bulls are one of five winless FBS teams remaining, searching for new life as conference season commences Saturday. Meanwhile, Akron, fresh off a heartbreaking 4-overtime loss to Indiana, hopes to finish the job this time after coming painfully close to a statement win in Big Ten country.
Buffalo Bulls outlook
Buffalo nearly completed an impressive comeback after falling into a 31-7 third quarter pit at Louisiana. The Bulls invaded Ragin’ Cajun territory with a chance to tie or take the lead down 45-38, but a late interception thwarted the impressive late-game effort, which was assisted by an onside kick recovery.
As suggested from the Louisiana game, offense hasn’t been the primary cause of Buffalo’s 0-4 start, as the team averages 29.8 points per game — in the upper 50th percentile of the FBS. But slow starts have still plagued the unit. Buffalo went scoreless for the first seven possessions against Louisiana, trailing 17-0 before generating any imprint on the scoreboard. And in the prior week against Liberty, Buffalo stumbled to a 24-0 deficit with five scoreless drives to start the game.
Stronger, scripted drives out of the gate are required to get Buffalo an early advantage. The Bulls have not led an FBS opponent this year, and first quarter points might be necessary in this one, given the big-play explosiveness of Akron’s offense. Buffalo’s offense relies heavily on the passing attack, guided by second-year starting quarterback Cole Snyder. Averaging 39 attempts per game, Snyder ranks atop the MAC in both passing yards (933) and passing touchdowns (10). He is throwing interceptions at a higher rate than last year with four across his last two games, so turning the dial back on turnovers could get Buffalo that coveted hot start.
Snyder is equipped with a deep receiving corps, and it’s a formidable committee without a prevailing No. 1 option. Marlyn Johnson leads the team with 15 receptions, 175 yards, and four touchdowns, but five different players have at least 10 catches and five different players own at least 100 receiving yards on the year. Nik McMillan, Darrell Harding Jr., Cole Harrity, and Boobie Curry are among the frequented options, as is running back Ron Cook Jr. in the checkdown game.
Buffalo’s passing offense performs relatively better than its run game, when compared to the rest of the FBS, but some promise was established on the ground at Louisiana. After back-to-back games under 100 yards, the Bulls attained a season-high 178 on the ground against the Ragin’ Cajuns. However, Cook suffered an injury late in the game after scoring two touchdowns, causing Jacqez Barksdale to expand his role in the backfield. If Cook is unable to go, Barksdale will split the carries with power back Mike Washington — Buffalo’s leading rusher with 234 yards on the season.
The defense has yet to carve out a strong performance this season, allowing at least 38 points in all four contests, including against Fordham of the FCS. Only North Texas surrenders more points per game than Buffalo’s 44.5, and the Bulls are one of three FBS teams to yield at least 500 yards per contest. The damage is done twofold, as Buffalo exhibits a bottom 20 ranking in both run defense and pass defense, but containing opponents on the ground is the greater struggle.
Buffalo’s run defense is second-to-last in the FBS with a per game allotment of 240 yards on a 6.1 average, but the passing game also allows 273 yards on a 68 percent completion rate. Although the defense has struggled, that doesn’t mean there is an absence of star talent within the unit. Middle linebacker Shaun Dolac ranked first in the FBS in solo tackles last season, and he reigns supreme on the team with 32 tackles on the season. Free safety Marcus Fuqua led the FBS in interceptions in 2022, and the ballhawk will aim to secure his first takeaway of 2023 against an Akron team which has tossed seven picks.
Akron Zips outlook
Akron watched a coveted win over a Big Ten program get snatched from its jaws in excruciating fashion. In the midst of a tie ballgame, the Zips utilized the final minute of clock to set up a 32-yard field goal in the center of the hashes, but that field goal attempt was hooked left. Akron responded maturely with an immediate touchdown in the first overtime period, but Indiana forced second overtime three plays later. It came down to a two-point barrage, and the Hoosiers prevailed 29-27 in four overtimes, handing Akron a disappointing defeat as road underdogs.
But that game made clear the progress Akron has taken in year two of the Joe Moorhead era. The Zips of the past four years were highly uncompetitive in games like that, and this year’s team is two bad breaks away from a 3-1 start, also factoring in the blown 21-7 lead to Temple in the opener.
Akron is led by a blossoming star at quarterback in DJ Irons. While the quarterback hasn’t seen a statement performance through the air this year, he captivated viewers with his mobility, rushing for 141 yards and two touchdowns in the overtime thriller. But teams have been exposed to Irons the gunslinger before, and he fired for over 300 yards in three of his final five starts in 2022. Reverting to that aerial success is the key which can elevate Akron’s offense to another level. As can limiting interceptions, and the team has thrown seven this year, which is fourth-to-last in the FBS.
Pass protection has been something the Zips have struggled with for years, and although Irons’ willingness to extend plays may contribute to some sacks, the line needs to be more formidable going forward. Progress was shown against Indiana, but the unit allows 3.8 sacks per game, which is the most surrendered in the MAC.
But even with these faults, Akron has an impressive degree of explosiveness in the offense. Running back Lorenzo Lingard has accounted for two touchdowns spanning at least 70 yards on the year, and he provides electrifying playmaking out of the backfield and as a receiver. First Team All-MAC wide receiver Alex Adams also creates separation downfield quite often. While he hasn’t connected with Irons on a home run play this season, 40+ yard touchdown strikes between the two were commonplace in 2022.
On defense, hasn’t been too shabby. The Zips only allowed more than 24 points in regulation once this year, and it was 35 to undefeated Kentucky. Akron’s defensive transformation under second-year coordinator Tim Tibesar is spearheaded by a potent front. The Zips rank 25th in the FBS in run defense, allowing just 91.8 yards per game on a 3.0 average. Akron produced three sacks and five tackles for loss against the Hoosiers, demonstrating significant improvement from the prior year in that department.
Defensive end CJ Nunnally is responsible for the most pressures on the team. The 230-pound edge rusher collected three sacks and five tackles for loss in his first four games, along with forcing one fumble and producing 17 total tackles. Another essential component to the Zips’ improved run-stifling effort is inside linebacker Antavious Fish who has 21 tackles on the season.
But against Buffalo, the secondary plays a crucial role defending a bevy of targets. Cornerback Tyson Durant is Akron’s most pertinent player in the defensive back room, deflecting six passes and picking off three in 2022 — including one interception in last year’s regular season finale at Buffalo. He is already up to one pick this year, and he aims to continue the Bulls’ high giveaway as MAC play commences.
The quarterback matchup of Cole Snyder and DJ Irons could lead to a higher-scoring affair in the Rubber Capital of the World.
Both teams can create explosives in the passing game, and Akron is establishing a stronger rushing offense than prior iterations of the team with the combo of Irons and Lorenzo Lingard. While Akron’s defense is markedly improved, the Bulls may still pick apart the Zips in the secondary, leading to an onslaught of touchdowns Saturday.
This one has track meet potential, and the kangaroo — equipped with homefield advantage — looks bound to outrace the bull in an offensive showcase.
Prediction: Akron 42, Buffalo 35