Midweek MACtion continues on Wednesday night, as Buffalo travels to Ohio in a key game for the East Division title outlook. With a victory over the Bobcats, the Bulls will clinch the program’s first MAC East title since 2008. Ohio is two games behind Buffalo in the East, so coach Frank Solich’s team must win out, hope Miami (Ohio) loses once and have Buffalo lose its last two games in order to claim the division title. Considering the Bulls will be heavy favorites over Bowling Green for the regular season finale, it’s a longshot for Solich’s team. However, a win on Wednesday night keeps Ohio in contention for another week and adds pressure for Buffalo for its Black Friday game against the Falcons.
The 2018 season is already a historic one for Buffalo. The Bulls are 9-1 through 10 games, with the nine victories setting a new record for most in a single-season for this program at the FBS level. Additionally, coach Lance Leipold’s team is 6-0 in MAC play for the first time in school history. With one more victory in the 2018 season, Buffalo will earn 10 wins for the first time at any point in its program history. Leipold’s hire is a big reason why this program has emerged as one of the top Group of 5 teams in the nation this fall. Prior to taking over at Buffalo, Leipold went 109-6 at Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2007-14. After a 7-17 mark through his first two years with the Bulls, Buffalo has finished 15-7 over its last 22 contests. A high-powered offense has guided this team to the doorstep of a MAC East title. Led by quarterback Tyree Jackson and receiver Anthony Johnson, the Bulls are averaging 36.2 points a contest.
Ohio has emerged as one of the MAC’s most consistent programs under Frank Solich’s watch. The Bobcats are 103-75 since 2005 and have earned eight bowl trips over the last nine seasons. This program hasn’t had a losing record since 2008 and has played in four MAC title games. Solich’s team was picked by most as the preseason favorite in the MAC but close losses at Northern Illinois (24-21) and Miami (Ohio) (30-28) have dimmed prospects of a trip to Detroit in late November. Ohio also fell in non-conference matchups against Virginia (45-31) and Cincinnati (34-30).
Ohio holds a 14-10 series edge over Buffalo. The Bulls won two out of the last three meetings in this series but haven't claimed a victory in Athens since 2008.
Buffalo at Ohio
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Ohio -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Buffalo’s Explosive Offense
Ohio’s defense is going to have its hands full trying to contain Buffalo’s offense on Wednesday night. The Bulls average 5.9 yards a play and 36.2 points a game this season. Leipold’s offense can hurt defenses via the ground or through big plays in the passing game. Behind freshman running backs Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks, Buffalo is averaging 191.5 yards a game on the ground. Quarterback Tyree Jackson leads the way through the air, helping the Bulls average 235.8 yards a contest. Buffalo also ranks second in the MAC in plays of 40 yards or more (15) and leads the conference with four plays of 70-plus yards.
When Jackson drops back to pass, it’s no secret his top target is senior Anthony Johnson. Despite being limited due to injury earlier this year, Johnson has caught 35 passes for 699 yards (19.98 ypc) and nine scores. Johnson isn’t the only weapon on the outside for Jackson. Wisconsin transfer George Rushing, junior K.J. Osborn and tight end Tyler Mabry are proven targets and help take the defensive focus off of Johnson.
As mentioned above, the one-two punch of Patterson and Marks anchors the ground game for Buffalo. Patterson has 763 yards and 10 rushing scores this fall, with Marks recording 616 yards and eight touchdowns on just 123 attempts. While Patterson and Marks are talented, the success of the ground game starts up front with a standout group in the trenches. Center James O’Hagan anchors a unit that has allowed only eight sacks through 10 contests this fall.
Ohio’s defense has not allowed more than 30 points in a MAC contest this year but ranks 10th in the league by giving up 6.2 yards a play and sixth in points allowed (27.5 ppg). Those numbers look better within the context of MAC-only matchups. The Bobcats are giving up just 20.3 points and hold offenses to 5.4 yards per snap in conference games. This unit ranks second in the conference versus the run but ranks near the bottom in third down and red zone defense. However, the biggest trouble spot for Solich appears to be the secondary. The Bobcats rank ninth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense, and starting corner Jalen Fox has missed the last six contests due to injury.
Buffalo’s offense has scored at least 30 points in five out of its six MAC contests this year. Can Ohio’s defense find a way to slow down Jackson and Johnson through the air and keep the ground game in check? With an explosive offense that can hurt a defense in a variety of ways, this is a tough matchup for Solich’s defense.
2. Ohio’s Ground Game Against Buffalo’s Defense
Buffalo’s offense is certainly deserving of all of the pregame attention, but don’t overlook Ohio’s attack on Wednesday night. The Bobcats rank No. 1 in the MAC in scoring at 39.3 points a game and average a healthy 6.9 yards per play.
Similar to Buffalo’s attack, Ohio’s offense has the ability to control the game through the air or on the ground. However, in an effort to limit Jackson’s possessions, a run-focused attack might make the most sense for Solich’s team on Wednesday night. Running back A.J. Ouellette has rushed for 777 yards and eight scores, followed by quarterback Nathan Rourke with 653 yards and eight touchdowns. Maleek Irons (613) will spell Ouellette as needed and enters Tuesday night’s matchup averaging 6.4 yards a rush.
Can Buffalo’s defense slow down Ohio’s ground game and force Solich’s team to win through the air? Led by All-America candidate and linebacker Khalil Hodge, the Bulls are holding teams to 153.9 rushing yards a game. Buffalo is only giving up 3.8 yards per carry and has allowed only nine rushes of 40 yards or more in 2018. Since giving up 281 rushing yards in a loss to Army on Sept. 29, no opponent has eclipsed more than 170 on the ground against Buffalo’s defense.
3. Ohio QB Nathan Rourke
It’s no secret Ohio will need a big-time performance from Rourke in order to win on Wednesday night. The junior college transfer emerged as the top quarterback for Solich last season, accounting for 38 overall touchdowns over 13 games. The junior has been better as a passer in 2018, connecting on 62.3 percent (up from 55.1 last fall) of his throws for 19 touchdowns to just five picks. In addition to his uptick in performance through the air, Rourke has maintained his big-play ability on the ground. He ranks second on the team with 653 rushing yards and eight touchdowns this season.
Can Buffalo’s defense contain Rourke within the pocket on Wednesday night and prevent the junior from generating much on the ground? On the positive side for Leipold, the Bulls rank near the top of the MAC in the four key defensive categories. Buffalo is only giving up 22.5 points a contest, limits offenses to 4.8 yards a play and ranks third in the conference in rush defense and first in pass efficiency defense. Linebacker Khalil Hodge is the leader for Leipold’s group, but fellow linebacker James Patterson (53 tackles) and lineman Chuck Harris (six sacks) are having standout years. While the Bulls rank near the top of the MAC in those defensive categories, Miami (Ohio) quarterback Gus Ragland accounted for 366 yards and four total touchdowns in the matchup on Oct. 30. Stopping Rourke and Ouellette on the ground and forcing Ohio to win this game with the pass has to be Buffalo’s top priority on defense Wednesday night. With two high-powered offenses in place, whichever defenses can win on third downs, create havoc plays and force stops in the red zone could decide this game.
This is a tough matchup to predict. Buffalo’s high-powered offense won’t be easy for Ohio’s defense to keep in check, but the Bobcats are also going to land their share of points and yards on Wednesday night. Ohio hasn’t lost at home this year and will be playing with its back against the wall in an effort to keep MAC East title hopes alive. On the flipside, Buffalo just needs a victory to clinch the division title and seal a trip to Detroit. Both teams are plus-nine in turnover margin, so a timely takeaway could be the difference. Look for these two teams to trade punches deep into the fourth quarter, but Jackson and Johnson connect on a big play late to clinch the division title for Buffalo.
Prediction: Buffalo 34, Ohio 31
(Top photo by Lauren Bacho, courtesy of Ohio Athletics)