College football’s 2019-20 bowl season officially gets underway on Friday, as Buffalo and Charlotte meet in the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl. The 49ers have made significant progress under first-year coach Will Healy, with the trip to the Bahamas marking the first bowl game in program history. The Bulls are also making their own history with this bowl trip, as it’s the first time Buffalo has made back-to-back postseason appearances.
The 2019 season marks the fifth year Charlotte has participated at the FBS level. The 49ers went 12-36 from 2015-18, but new coach Will Healy has helped this program tap into its potential. Charlotte went 7-5 in the regular season – earning the program’s first winning mark at the FBS level and bowl trip – and finished 5-3 in Conference USA action. The 49ers started 2-5 but won their last five games, including a 24-13 matchup against Marshall and a 39-38 thriller over North Texas. Healy previously turned around a struggling Austin Peay program from 2016-18, so it’s no surprise Charlotte is already trending up after just one season with the 34-year-old coach at the helm.
Buffalo has posted only five non-losing seasons since 1999. However, three of those have come under coach Lance Leipold. After a successful run at Wisconsin-Whitewater (109-6 with six Division III titles), Leipold was hired as Buffalo’s head coach prior to the 2015 campaign. After a 7-17 start, the Bulls are 23-15 over the last three years. Buffalo won the MAC East with a 10-4 mark last fall but is still looking for the first bowl victory in program history. Similar to Charlotte, the Bulls ended the regular season playing their best ball of the year. Buffalo won five out of its last six, including a 43-20 victory over MAC West champ Central Michigan.
This is the first meeting between Buffalo and Charlotte on the gridiron.
Bahamas Bowl: Buffalo vs. Charlotte
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 20 at 2 p.m. ET
Spread: Buffalo -6.5
When Buffalo Has the Ball
It’s no secret what Buffalo’s offensive gameplan will look like on Friday afternoon. The Bulls favor the run by a 70-30 percent split on offensive snaps this season. Additionally, Buffalo attempted less than 30 passes in 10 of its 12 matchups, with the offense falling below that level in all eight MAC contests this year. In the Bulls’ seven victories, the offense is averaging just 18.7 pass attempts. In the five losses, that number rises to 26.
Buffalo’s offense enters the bowl season second in the MAC in rushing, averaging 236 yards a contest. The ground game is anchored by a standout offensive line, which had Evin Ksiezarczyk, Kayode Awosika and Paul Nosworthy each earn a spot on the All-MAC team. This unit has allowed just eight sacks through 12 games and has cleared the way for rushers to average a healthy 4.6 yards per carry. Running behind the standout offensive line for the Bulls is the one-two punch of Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks. This duo has combined for 2,634 yards and 25 rushing scores this season. Patterson closed out the regular season on a high note by gashing Bowling Green for 298 yards (11.5 ypc) and six rushing scores in a 49-7 blowout by Buffalo.
As mentioned above, Buffalo doesn’t put the ball in the air too often. Entering the Bahamas Bowl, the Bulls have the fewest total passing yards (1,587) of any team in the MAC. Freshman Matt Myers started the season as the No. 1 quarterback but suffered a season-ending injury in late September. Kyle Vantrease stepped up into the No. 1 role with Myers sidelined and has been effective (1,116 yards and 7 TDs to 1 INT). When Vantrease throws, Antonio Nunn (44 catches) and Daniel Lee (22) are the top targets on the outside.
Charlotte’s defense allowed six of its first seven opponents to score at least 30 points, but this unit improved in the second half of the season. The 49ers held each of their last five opponents under that mark and limited Marshall and Old Dominion under five yards a play in back-to-back games to close out the regular season. However, Charlotte still has some work to do on this side of the ball. This unit finished 11th in Conference USA in scoring defense (32.5 ppg), 10th versus the run (190.8 ypg) and 13th in pass efficiency defense. Getting to the quarterback was a strength for this unit. Ends Alex Highsmith (14) and Markees Watts (9.5) led a pass rush that accumulated 36 sacks. With Buffalo’s ability to churn out yardage on the ground, Charlotte’s ability to stop the run is going to play a huge role in which team comes out on top.
When Charlotte Has the Ball
Charlotte’s offense was one of the most-improved groups in Conference USA this season. The 49ers averaged only 21.7 points a game in 2018 but increased that total to 31.6 in ’19. Additionally, after averaging only 4.96 yards per play last fall, Charlotte led C-USA with a 6.4 mark this season.
The development of quarterback Chris Reynolds is a big reason why Charlotte’s offense improved on the stat sheet this season. He was limited to just six games in 2018 due to injury but started 11 games for the 49ers this fall. Reynolds connected on 62.2 percent of his throws for 2,366 yards and 21 touchdowns to just 10 picks in 12 overall appearances. He also chipped in 757 yards and six scores on the ground and posted two 100-yard games this season. Victor Tucker (49 catches for 848 yards) is having a terrific sophomore campaign as Reynolds’ go-to target, with Cameron Dollar (37) and Tyler Ringwood (20) forming a strong trio for Charlotte’s passing game.
Running back Benny LeMay has led Charlotte’s offense for three consecutive years in rushing yardage and has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns. LeMay was dealing with an Achilles injury that forced him to miss two games, but the senior finished strong with back-to-back 100-yard efforts to close out the regular season. LeMay is also a factor out of the backfield (19 receptions), with Aaron McAllister (377) or Ishod Finger (299) ready to spell LeMay if needed in a humid environment on Friday.
Buffalo’s defense will present a tough challenge for Charlotte’s high-powered offense. The Bulls lead the MAC in scoring defense (23.7 ppg), limit opposing offenses to just five yards a play and rank third in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Buffalo excels at getting to the quarterback (38 sacks), is holding teams to just 2.9 yards per carry and giving up only 94.4 rushing yards a contest. Leipold’s group features three first-team All-MAC selections in linemen Taylor Riggins and Malcolm Koonce and defensive back Joey Banks. Four additional Bulls were awarded spots on the second and third-team All-MAC squad that was released at the conclusion of the regular season.
An x-factor to watch: Special teams. Charlotte has an advantage in this department, and with a tight game expected, that could be a significant boost in favor of Healy’s squad.
The Buffalo-Charlotte matchup is the sixth pairing of the Bahamas Bowl. Of the previous five contests, three were decided by four points or less. Expect another close one on Friday afternoon. The battle up front is crucial to this game, as the Bulls want to run the ball behind a standout offensive line and two 1,000-yard backs. Can the 49ers force Buffalo into long-yardage situations and obvious passing downs? And when Charlotte has the ball, the Bulls have to find a way to keep Reynolds in the pocket and create a couple of takeaways. Buffalo is plus-seven in turnover margin, while the 49ers are minus-three. The guess here is Reynolds and LeMay have a few moments, but Leipold’s group is able to establish the run in the second half to clinch the first bowl victory in Buffalo’s program history.