Each week, Voice of Bulls Football Paul Peck will preview the upcoming game.
Buffalo (2-3, 0-1) vs. Central Michigan (2-4, 1-1)
While we won't officially hit midseason until after this game, the bye week allows us to look back at the start of the season and make some observations. My first thought is that the Bulls have been in every game so far, and played well in every game. That comes from good coaching and preparation by Lance Leipold and his staff. In the losses to Penn State and Nevada, UB trailed by less than a touchdown heading into the fourth quarter. Against Bowling Green, a fourth quarter rally gave the Bulls a chance to win. In each of the losses, there were one or two plays that made the difference.
The Bulls defense has been a pleasant surprise, as the young defenders have exceeded expectations. The linebackers have been tackling and takeaway machines. Five freshman are playing key defensive roles.
The offense has run the ball well, using both Anthone Taylor and Jordan Johnson. We knew Joe Licata had a lot of weapons, and he's used them all. Matt Weiser has emerged as a major weapon, and the offensive line has given Licata time to find all those weapons.
It's hard to draw a lot of conclusions, because the Bulls have played only one MAC opponent. Bowling Green is the frontrunner in the Eastern Division, and may wind up being the best team on UB's schedule. So the next seven games will give us a true picture of where this Bulls team is headed. The combined record of the rest of the Bulls opponents? 17-24. So don't make too many determinations yet. There's a lot of football still to be played.
Bullseye on: Buffalo Offense
Joe Licata has thrown for 686 yards in the last two games. That's the best back-to-back stretch of Joe's career. He's in a groove right now, especially when it comes to using all his targets and finding the open receiver. Against Bowling Green, three receivers had eight catches (Ron Willoughby, Marcus McGill, Matt Weiser). That had never happened in UB history.
Licata passed Cliff Scott to move into second in career passing yards. He trails Drew Willy by 990 yards. If Joe averages 141 yards passing a game, he'll take over the top spot.
Willoughby is ahead of his team-leading pace of last year, when he had 50 catches. The senior wideout already has 30 receptions. His 342 yards rank eighth in the MAC. Weiser and fellow tight end Mason Schreck have combined for 33 catches. Last year, Bulls tight ends had only 25 grabs. Weiser is four catches away from equaling the amount of passes he caught in his first three seasons. Collin Lisa has eight catches for 103 yards in the last two games.
Even though they struggled in this area against Bowling Green, the Bulls offense ranks third in the MAC in red zone scoring. They've grabbed points on 17 of their 19 trips inside the 20, with 11 of those scores going for touchdowns. Leipold said that's an area the team worked on during the bye. They also focused on third downs, where UB ranks only 10th in the MAC.
Taylor moved into fifth all-time in rushing yards. A huge rest of the year could move him past James Starks, but he won't be able to catch Branden Oliver.
Last season, when they held Taylor to 25 yards, the Central Michigan defense was number one in the MAC. This year, they come in fourth. The Chippewas have been better in stopping the pass, ranking second. They have allowed only one wide receiver to have a 100-yard game. That's due to the outstanding play of cornerback Amari Coleman, Central Michigan's best pass defender. The Chippewas safeties are also very good. Kavon Frazier ranks third in the MAC in tackles, while Tony Annese was third team All-MAC in 2014.
They will be without second-leading tackler Tim Hamilton. The starting middle linebacker is out with a shoulder injury. That's big loss for their defense. He'll be replaced by sophomore Jeff Perry and freshman Alex Briones. Defensive tackle Nathan Palmer is their best lineman. He's a big body who can stop the run. The Chippewa have only five sacks in their first six games. Their aggressive defense has already had two players ejected for targeting.
Bullseye on: Buffalo Defense
The hottest Bulls defender is linebacker Brandon Berry. He's had 41 tackles in the last four games, and topped 10 tackles in each of the last three games. Berry, Nick Gilbo and Okezie Alozie are 1-2-3 in tackles. The Bulls three linebackers have accounted for 35 percent of the teams total tackles and 56 percent of their team's tackles for loss.
Leipold had a good stat that paints a picture of how the defense can impact games. All eight takeaways have come in the two wins, with none in the three losses. Boise Ross continues to lead the country in passes defended with 13. Brandon Stanback has started the last two games at safety, and appears to have won that position. Fellow freshman Cameron Lewis was used extensively as the nickel back against Bowling Green.
Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush is having an excellent season. He ranks second in the MAC in passing yards, and third in TD passes. He's in the NCAA top 16 in yards, touchdown passes and completion percentage. Against Syracuse, Rush threw for 430 yards. In the epic Bahamas Bowl comeback last December, Rush threw for 493 yards and an NCAA bowl-record seven touchdowns. Rush will remind you a lot of Licata. They are both smart, steady and poised. Licata has 33 career starts with 67 TD and 27 interceptions. Rush has 29 starts, with 54 TD and 33 interceptions. The word from Mt. Pleasant is that the bowl game gave Rush a huge boost of confidence, and he has added to that this season.
Rush has a number of solid weapons, just like Licata. Jesse Kroll leads the team with 32 catches. 23 of those have gone for first downs. He normally wears #88, but for this game will don #21 in honor of Chippewas defensive back Derek Nash, who died of cancer this summer. Anthony Rice and Mark Chapman are the other key receivers. Tight end Ben McCord has emerged as a huge weapon. He's third in catches, and against Syracuse caught 10 balls for 147 yards.
The Chippewas have struggled to run the ball, now that Thomas Rawls is off and starring for the Seattle Seahawks. CMU is dead last in the MAC in rushing, and fourth-worst in the country. But they did run for 161 yards in their last game against Western Michigan. Starting running back Devon Spaulding is out with an injury. Jahray Hayes made his first start last week, and ran for 52 yards and a score.
The Chippewas lead the MAC in red zone offense, scoring on 23 of their 25 trips inside the 20.
Bullseye on: Tight Ends
In the current age of the spread offense, the tight end has become a forgotten position. But not this week. The Bulls and the Chippewas feature two of the best tight ends in the MAC. Matt Weiser and Ben McCord are among the best tight ends in the country. Both were named to the John Mackey Award midseason watch list, the only ones from the conference. Weiser has 25 catches for 266 yards and a touchdown. McCord has 22 catches for 373 yards and four scores. Both have had a 10 catch game this year, and both have topped 100 yards receiving in at least one game. With each team featuring a smart, steady veteran quarterback, it's not surprise that the two seniors have emerged as valuable threats in each team's passing attack. Some football people say all the good tight ends are instead playing power forward on the basketball court. But Saturday, you'll be treated to seeing two good tight ends who are slam dunks for All-MAC.
Please join me, color analyst Jim Kubiak, sideline reporter Scott Wilson, game host Brad Riter and postgame host Bob Gaughan for the broadcast on the Bulls Football Network. Our pregame show starts at 12:00pm. You can hear it in Buffalo on ESPN 1520 (www.espn1520.com), in Rochester on Sports 1280 WHTK (www.foxsports1280.com) & in New York City on 570 WMCA (www.wmca.com).