Midweek MACtion in November has a different feel to it in 2020, but there’s always intrigue for the games, and that’s exactly the case when Buffalo travels to Northern Illinois on Wednesday night. With just six games to decide the winner of each division, there’s added importance to the matchups this Wednesday. The Bulls are the projected East Division winner by the media, while the Huskies were picked to finish last in the crowded West. This matchup should be a good barometer to see where these teams stand in the unusual six-game slate.
Buffalo is a program on the rise under coach Lance Leipold. After a 13-23 start, Leipold is 18-9 over the last two seasons and guided the team to a 2018 MAC East title. Buffalo is 12-4 over the last two years in MAC play and won the program’s first bowl game last season with a victory over Charlotte in the Bahamas Bowl. Leipold’s program returns 14 starters, including an All-America candidate at running back in Jaret Patterson and standout left tackle Kayode Awosika. The Bulls host Miami (Ohio) in a key East Division showdown next week but hit the road to play at Ohio in early December.
Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock returned to his alma mater after Rod Carey took over at Temple after the 2018 season. Hammock had an up-and-down debut in DeKalb but nearly guided the Huskies to a bowl. Northern Illinois finished 5-7 and lost three games by seven points or less. Hammock’s team has some holes to fill on both sides of the ball. However, if the team can answer those questions early, the wide-open West allows the Huskies a chance to surprise.
Northern Illinois holds a 12-1 series edge over Buffalo. The Bulls have never defeated the Huskies as a member of the MAC. These two teams met in the 2018 MAC title game, with Northern Illinois winning 30-29.
Buffalo at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Buffalo -11
When Buffalo Has the Ball
When Buffalo has the ball, it’s no secret what coach Lance Leipold’s team wants to do. The Bulls ran the ball on 70 percent of their snaps, led the MAC in rushing attempts (659), and pounded opponents for 250.5 rushing yards a contest in 2019. The offense boasted two 1,000-yard rushers, as Patterson led the team with 1,799 yards and 19 scores, and Kevin Marks chipped in 1,035 and eight touchdowns over 227 attempts. A standout offensive line cleared the way for rushers to average 4.94 yards per carry, and this group remains strong despite losing a couple of starters. Left tackle Kayode Awosika anchors the edge, with sophomore Mike Novitsky returning to start again at center.
The combination of Buffalo’s standout offensive line and ground game will be a handful for Northern Illinois. Hammock’s defense ranked fifth in the MAC in rush defense (177.9 ypg) but ranked near the bottom of the league in yards per carry allowed (4.95). The strength of NIU’s defense rests at linebacker with Jordan Cole, Kyle Pugh and Lance Deveaux, but uncertainty remains up front after Matt Lorbeck and Jack Heflin transferred earlier this offseason.
Buffalo averaged only 21.4 passing attempts last season, but both Kyle Vantrease and Matt Myers proved plenty capable. Vantrease connected on 58.7 percent of his throws for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns to two picks, while Myers threw for 602 yards before a season-ending injury. The Bulls haven’t announced their starter for Wednesday night, but Leipold’s team is in good hands with either under center. Expect Antonio Nunn (49 catches) to be the go-to target at receiver against a Northern Illinois secondary that enters the 2020 season with major question marks and four new starters. Getting to the quarterback was problematic for the Huskies last season. This unit generated just 14 sacks, and with Heflin and Lorbeck transferring, the secondary won’t have the protection of a good pass rush to protect it against Buffalo’s passing game.
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
Northern Illinois closed 2019 by winning two out of its final three games but more will be needed out of its offense to exceed preseason expectations. Hammock’s group averaged just 5.2 yards per snap and ranked 10th in the MAC in scoring (22.8). Additionally, the Huskies finished near the bottom of the conference in big plays and third-down offense.
Improving the production from this side of the ball starts at the quarterback position. Ross Bowers played in nine games after transferring from California and threw for 2,130 yards and seven touchdowns to eight picks. The Washington native connected on 57.8 percent of his passes and averaged 7.4 yards per attempt. With another offseason to develop under Hammock and offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness, Bowers should be more comfortable in the scheme. But can the Huskies provide enough weapons for him to develop? The line brings back a solid foundation with three returning starters, and three of the top four receivers from last season are back as well. Cole Tucker (38 catches) is the No. 1 option, with tight end Daniel Crawford also among the MAC’s best at his position. A revamped backfield lacks a proven No. 1 option after Tre Harbison transferred to Charlotte and Jordan Nettles wasn’t listed on the fall roster. Junior college recruit Erin Collins and freshman Jeyvon Ducker are running backs to watch.
Buffalo’s defense held eight of their 13 opponents in 2019 to 25 points or less and ranked first in the MAC in scoring (21.3 ppg) and yards per play (4.87) allowed. This unit also led the conference in rush defense and limited opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage of 58.5. A few starters have to be replaced, but seven are back to form a strong foundation for co-coordinators Brian Borland and Chris Simpson. Ends Malcolm Koonce and Taylor Riggins combined for 17.5 sacks last fall and could create plenty of havoc against a questionable NIU offensive line. The linebacker unit is arguably the best in the MAC, and the secondary is led by returning starters in Aapri Washington (CB) and Tyrone Hill (safety).
There’s a good chance Buffalo is the best team in the MAC, and the opening matchup gives Leipold’s team a chance to make a statement. The unusual offseason and practice time adds some uncertainty here, but the Bulls have a sizeable advantage on both sides of the ball. Northern Illinois’ revamped line has to find a way to generate negative plays against Patterson and Marks and force Buffalo into long-yardage and obvious passing downs. And when the Huskies have the ball, the MAC’s top defense is a tough matchup for an offense that scored 17 or fewer points in three out of their final four games last season. Leipold is one of the top Group of 5 coaches in the nation and will have his team ready to play. Look for Buffalo to cruise to an easy 1-0 start on Wednesday.
Prediction: Buffalo 34, Northern Illinois 13