Three Hundred Fifty Miles to Ford Field: A MAC Championship Preview

The Northern Illinois Huskies and the Buffalo Bulls will play Friday for the MAC Championship.  Alright the boring and necessary factual statement is out of the way.  Buffalo and Northern Illinois are almost equidistant to Ford Field from their home campus (as long as Buffalo doesn’t cut through Canada).  The two teams did not play each other through the conference schedule, so to try to compare them a lot of information comes from how they performed against teams that are close to what the other team is.

What The Bulls and Huskies Do to Win Games

The Bulls and Huskies go about their business in opposite ways.  The Bulls are a balanced offense with weapons everywhere.  Quarterback Tyree Jackson, running back Jaret Patterson, and wide receivers Anthony Johnson and KJ Osborn lead the way on an offense that wins with explosive plays.  The Huskies are almost not capable of explosion plays this season.  They’re not great at overcoming falling behind schedule either.  Points and the Northern Illinois offense have had a complicated relationship this season.

The Huskies do, however, limit almost every team they play with their fantastic defense.  If they struggle at all, it’s in passing situations.  Even then, they’re about average but Sutton Smith can speed up the clock on the quarterback and end a drive.  The Buffalo defense on the other side is an average unit.  Their game plan is to outscore teams and get enough stops to stay ahead.

Bulls in a China Shop

Buffalo has not seen a team like NIU this season.  The teams that best emulate a team that relies on their defense to win games that Buffalo has played are Temple, Eastern Michigan, and Miami.  That list is very flawed.  When Buffalo played Temple, Temple hadn’t become the G5 death machine they are now, and EMU still had Mike Glass at quarterback.  The EMU offense was far more dynamic with Glass before he went down with an injury.  The end of year stats suggest a top 40 defense and an offense that is below average.  They weren’t there in week 3.  Miami is a stretch at best to match an NIU profile.  Nonetheless, it’s all there is to work with.

Offense

The best defense that Buffalo saw this season was Temple’s defense in week 2.  Temple also has the best run defense on their schedule.  Temple was able to keep them in longer than average down and distance, and limit the running game.  The Huskies defense is even better at both of those things.  Buffalo stilled scored 36 points, with 3 of 5 touchdowns being scored from 20 yards or more away from the endzone.  Buffalo also had a sizeable advantage in field position.

When Buffalo has played a top 40 pass defense, there has been a mixed bag.  Against Miami, Tyree had a great game and threw for 358 yards.  The only other game was Central Michigan.  Buffalo only had 127 yards and a 50% completion percentage.  They didn’t need the passing game much and ran the ball 48 times for 295 yards.  The passing game numbers should’ve been better had they needed it but it’s hard to know.

The Husky defense is slightly better than average at limiting the big play.  Rutgers, Miami, and Bowling Green all surprisingly fit that mold on Buffalo’s schedule.  Buffalo got their big plays against those teams.  The problem with this comparison is that Miami is the best defense of that group and they are not close to NIU.

Defense

There are very few data points to look at when trying to learn how Buffalo will play against the NIU offense.  The Huskies don’t move the ball particularly well so it may not be a huge problem.  NIU is a run first offense that is only average at running the ball and is terrible through the air.  Buffalo has played a run first offense, Army, but they are a totally different animal.  Even the teams that run the ball even close to average, throw the ball better than they run it which makes defending them totally different.

The game plan could be to stack the box and force Marcus Childers to have a career game passing the ball.  I would hold back aggressive run blitzes unless they’re needed to get a drive killing negative play.  The front seven from Buffalo have a lot of hard work in front of them in this game.

Sutton Smith and the Funky Bunch

Buffalo is a more balanced in and the difficulty of Northern Illinois’ schedule gives more opportunity to analyze this matchup.  Buffalo is a team that is a top 50 offense and defense.  For a MAC school, that’s a great team.  The Huskies have played some games against top 50 balanced teams.  Iowa to open the season and Utah the next week are both teams much better than Buffalo but they are balanced strong teams.  Miami is a balanced team a little worse than the Bulls but that game can fall into the overall profile.

An interesting point is at NIU has lost all of those contests.  The Miami game might be the best blue print, Iowa and Utah games would tell you to recruit better.  It’s a little late for that.

Offense

The Bull defense is a little susceptible to the big play, better at stopping the pass than the run, and can struggle a little in an obvious passing situation.  The Huskies have been a ball control offense all season and don’t hit on the big play very often.  They probably won’t hit any with their regular offense.  In big games Rod Carey will pull out the trick play.

Against Central Michigan, Akron, and Toledo the Huskies had some of their better passing games.  Those teams all have better pass defenses than run defenses, like the Bulls.  That may have caused NIU to use the pass as a change of pace and found more success than normal.  That could happen Friday.

NIU was put in long down and distance in their games against Miami, BYU, Eastern Michigan, Utah, and Florida State.  This seems to be the key to the NIU offense.  They win when they stay on schedule, and when they don’t they need a spectacular game from the defense.

Defense

The defense for the Huskies lives by limiting the running game, and putting teams behind the sticks.  Those tend to go hand in hand.  However, the secondary is a little vulnerable when the pass rush doesn’t get home.

Ohio, Toledo, and Florida State all have explosive offenses similar to Buffalo.  Each of those teams got their big plays, mainly through the air.  NIU only lost the Florida State games of those three.  The Huskies forced three turnovers against Ohio and forced Toledo to throw enough incompletions to kill drives.  Tyree Jackson has a tendency to be inconsistent with his throws so that kind of game is on the table.

When the Huskies play a team with a good passing game, they allow yards but get their sacks.  Ohio’s Nathan Rourke threw for 275 yards and was sacked 4 times.  Kaleb Eleby for Western Michigan threw for 285 yards.  He was sacked 6 times.  I imagine a similar stat line is coming for Tyree Jackson.

Championship Projection

The keys to this game are, as usual, pretty simple.  The Huskies have to stay on schedule and get good field position to score as often as possible.  On defense, they need to force Tyree to have a low completion percentage game.  They can handle the running game but need to do their best to limit Anthony Johnson and KJ Osborn.

The Bulls need to score more than 30 to guarantee a win.  The best defense NIU scored more than 30 on was Akron, who has a below average defense.  Stay stout against the run and force NIU to throw the ball and the game is theirs.

Both teams can win this one.  This is not a huge mismatch but I do have the favorite winning.  Make it 27-20 Buffalo.

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