A rematch of a recent MAC Championship Game could cement a spot for a team in the next one when Northern Illinois and Buffalo face off on Wednesday.
Northern Illinois (7-3, 5-1 MAC) kicked a game-winning, 32-yard field goal as time expired to eke out a 30-29 victory over Ball State last Wednesday. The victory helped the Huskies maintain their one-game lead over Central Michigan in the West Division. A win over Buffalo would clinch a spot in the Dec. 4 conference championship game at Ford Field in Detroit. This coming just a season after NIU went 0-6 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.
Meanwhile, the Bulls (4-6, 2-4) must defeat Northern Illinois and Ball State on the road on Nov. 23 just to go bowling. The defending East champs have struggled recently, losing their past two games to Bowling Green and Miami (Ohio) by a combined 39 points.
Northern Illinois and Buffalo have met 14 times previously. The Huskies hold a commanding 12-2 edge in these meetings, including a 30-29 victory in the 2018 MAC Championship Game, but the Bulls were victorious last season, winning 49-30 in DeKalb. NIU has yet to lose to Buffalo on its home turf (5-0).
Northern Illinois at Buffalo
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Northern Illinois - 1
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
There's really no secret to the Huskies' offensive game plan. NIU is second in the MAC in rushing offense at 220 yards per game. The Huskies have run the ball nearly twice as many times (459 attempts) as they have thrown it this season (270).
Last week against Ball State, the ground game churned out 211 yards and two touchdowns on 41 carries. Freshman Jay Ducker did most of the damage, gaining 155 yards 24 carries with one of the touchdowns. He's posted four straight 100-yard performances and is third in the conference in rushing yards per game (91.8).
Ducker may get the bulk of the yards, but Clint Ratkovich has shown a knack for getting into the end zone. He's tied for seventh in the MAC with eight rushing touchdowns, doing this on 74 carries. He's scored in four straight contests, including last week against the Cardinals.
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi also can make things happen with his legs. He's third on the team with 375 rushing yards and has scored five times on the ground. He's also thrown for 2,717 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Leading receiver Tyrice Richie missed last week's game because of a foot injury, but Trayvon Rudolph and Cole Tucker both stepped up, combining for 211 yards and a touchdown on 14 catches to help defeat Ball State. Rudolph leads the team and is tied for fourth in the MAC with seven touchdown grabs.
Even though Lombardi has posted big passing numbers (532 yds., 3 TDs vs. Kent State on Nov. 3), the key to the Huskies' success this season has been to stay grounded. This could be a problem for Buffalo's defense. The Bulls have given up 218.3 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per carry in conference games. Buffalo is tops in the MAC and tied for fifth nationally with 33 sacks, but Northern Illinois has only surrendered seven sacks all season (tied for fourth fewest in the FBS), so that matchup doesn't appear to benefit the Bulls either.
When Buffalo Has the Ball
A year after having the nation's second-ranked rushing offense, the Bulls have seen their ground production diminish significantly. With current Washington Football Team running back Jarret Patterson leading the way, Buffalo averaged 287.4 rushing yards per game in the 2020 shortened season. This year, the Bulls are fifth in the MAC at 191.3 yards per game. Dylan McDuffie is third in the conference with 857 rushing yards and tied for third with 10 touchdowns on the ground, but the big chunk plays just aren't there as the team is averaging a collective 4.3 yards per carry compared to 6.7 last season. Some of this can be attributed to attrition (some players transferred late after head coach Lance Leipold took the job at Kansas in April) and injury along the offensive line.
Injuries also have impacted the quarterback position. Kyle Vantrease has started all 10 games this season, but he hasn't finished them all due to taking some big hits. He's thrown for 1,865 yards with eight touchdowns and six interceptions. Between him and backup Matt Myers, Buffalo is eighth in the MAC in passing offense at 223.3 yards per game.
Seniors Quian Williams (57 rec., 784 yds.) and Dominic Johnson (29, 404) are the top targets in the passing game, but the duo has combined for just four touchdowns. Seven other Bulls have caught a touchdown, but no one else on the team has more than 18 receptions.
Even though Northern Illinois has the best record in the MAC, the Huskies have walked a fine line. In conference games, they are ninth in total defense (448.3 ypg) and seventh in scoring defense (30.8 ppg). Teams have been able to run on NIU (188.2 rushing ypg in MAC play) and the defense has just one interception on the season (vs. 15 total TD passes allowed). The Huskies also are dead last in the MAC when it comes to sacks (11). So Buffalo should be able to move the ball on NIU, it's just a matter of making the most of its possessions.
Northern Illinois is 5-1 in MAC play despite having a scoring margin of just plus-2.4 points in those games. All of the Huskies' conference contests have been decided by eight points or fewer. So NIU is getting the job done in close games, as evidenced by the game-winning field goal last Wednesday to beat Ball State.
As a result, the Huskies are on the doorstep of clinching the West Division and a spot in the MAC Championship Game in Detroit. Buffalo is the defending East champs, but the Bulls have been in a state of transition since their former head coach left for a new job in late April and several players transferred afterward.
Buffalo is trending in the wrong direction down the stretch while NIU is on the verge of pulling off an impressive turnaround. It may not be a blowout, but the Huskies get the job done on Wednesday night following the same script they used this season — running the ball and making just enough stops to win the game.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 31, Buffalo 27
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