Thanks to a one-point win on the road at Kent State last Thursday night, the Buffalo Bulls are on the brink of bowl eligibility one season removed from a 5-6 campaign in 2014. Much of the credit for the turnaround can be attributed to their new head coach Lance Leipold, who brought his winning ways from Div. III Wisconsin-Whitewater and instilled a new culture in Western New York.
The Bulls welcome in a Northern Illinois team that has won four straight, including last week's upset win over Toledo. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they lost starting quarterback Drew Hare for the rest of the season due to an Achilles injury in that game. As a result, freshman Ryan Graham will make the first start of his collegiate career on the road during a Buffalo Blackout.
Northern Illinois at Buffalo
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Spread: Northern Illinois -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Ryan Graham's poise
Graham didn't have time for nerves to kick in last week on the road in Toledo. The starter went down and the freshman was thrown into the fire, leading a fourth-quarter rally over a ranked and previously unbeaten team. This time around, he's had a whole week to prepare as the starter. That can be a good thing, but it's also a chance for anxiety and doubt to creep in, especially in a hostile environment. How Graham handles his first start early will be key.
2. Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata vs. the Northern Illinois secondary
The Bulls like to toss the ball around and struggle to run it. Licata will be passing against a Northern Illinois defense that is tied for sixth nationally in interceptions with 14. If he doesn't have success early, an already fairly one-dimensional Buffalo offense is going to be pretty easy to shut down. Ideally, Licata wants to be able to get into a shootout with a freshman quarterback in front of a raucous home crowd.
3. Can Buffalo get a consistent pass rush?
The Bulls have 21 sacks as a team on the year -- good, not great. Leipold is going to need to dial up some exotic blitz packages to confuse Graham and get extra pressure on the young gun all night. Toledo was not able to do the same a week ago and it cost them, as Graham has little trouble finding receivers downfield and eluding defenders on designed runs. If the Bulls can't get to and keep Graham in the pocket, it could be a long night for Buffalo.
The crowd will be rocking about as much as a MAC crowd can rock. Look for Northern Illinois to come out and run the ball early to settle down its young signal-caller. Once the Huskies have accomplished that, you'll see them open the playbook and put the game in the hands (and feet) of Ryan Graham and a talented corps of skill players. When Buffalo has the ball, I have a tough time seeing them move it consistently against an ever-improving Husky defense. The end result will be a hard-fought road win for Northern Illinois.