Dollar General Bowl: Buffalo (10-3) vs. Troy (9-3)
There are Bulls players sitting outside the hotel enjoying the sun. Some are having fun in a players-only lounge in a hotel ballroom. All are wearing their new bowl gear. They've spent the last few days being treated like kings by a city that knows how to throw a party.
The game Saturday night is the reason the Bulls are here in Mobile, Alabama. But it's all of those perks that make this trip more than just a game, and a big reason why getting to a bowl was such a big goal for the team. For a program like UB, that's only been to two other bowls, this is what it's all about.
For every sports fan that says there are too many bowls, come watch a team like UB that's been fighting to reach this level. Come watch the smiles on the faces of the players at every event in southern Alabama. Come see the level of satisfaction on their faces. Then you tell me there are too many bowls. (There are so many bowls because sports fans watch them.)
This bowl game is of course, about winning a football game. But it's also a reward for a team that has reached a new level of success.
"I just know that all the guys have been ready. It's what you look forward to when you play college football, "says senior defensive end Chuck Harris, "It's very rewarding."
Bull Session Trivia: What legendary college football coach made his coaching debut with his famous team at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, the site of the Dollar General Bowl?
Bullseye On: Buffalo Offense
Some milestones are within reach for the Bulls top offensive players. Tyree Jackson is 143 yards away from a 3,000 yard season. He'd join Drew Willy as the only Bulls signal callers to reach that mark. Tyree is two from tying, and three from breaking Joe Licata's single season record for touchdown passes…Troy coach Neal Brown praised Tyree, calling him the "strongest arm quarterback we've faced all year"…Receiver Anthony Johnson needs 56 yards to reach 1000 for the season. It would be the 7th thousand yard season in school history. Johnson would be the 7th player to do, and the third to do it twice…Running back Jaret Patterson is 54 yards away from his own 1000-yard season. He would be the 8th Bulls back to reach that mark…Johnson will play on this same field in Mobile later in January when he takes part in the Senior Bowl. A leg injury slowed him down a bit in the MAC Championship, but he's healthy and ready to go and looked dominant in the practices leading up to the departure for Alabama…The Bulls offense has already set records for most points, most touchdowns and most rushing yards. In the Dollar General bowl, they need 88 yards to set a school record for most yards gained…Troy's defense will present a major challenge for the Bulls. The Trojans allowed 30 points in a game only once. They held 10 of their 12 opponents to under 25 points. Their average of 345.6 yards allowed per game was second in the Sun Belt Conference, and would have led the MAC….The best part of the Trojans defense is their ability to force turnovers. They had 10 forced fumbles and 17 interceptions. Those 27 takeaways were the fifth-most in the NCAA…Troy led the Sun Belt in rushing defense, sacks, interceptions and red zone defense….They play a base 4-3 defense, but in a different way. Defensive end Hunter Reese is more like a rush linebacker. Outside 'backer Tyler Murray is more like a strong safety….Reese leads the team in sacks with 7.5. He's had a tackle for loss in 20 straight games…Big nose tackle (327 lbs) Trevon Sanders is a space-eater…Outside linebacker Tron Folsom led the team with 79 tackles. He also had two sacks and two interceptions…Middle linebacker Carlton Martial was a Freshman All-American and the team's second-leading tackler…The Trojans are strong in the secondary. They have three very good cornerbacks and an active, play-making safety. Corner Terence Dunlap mans one corner spot. Blace Brown and Marcus Jones share the other spot. Brown has 12 career interceptions, and is just rounding back in form from offseason knee surgery. Jones was 2nd Team All-Sun Belt Conference and was second in passes defended….Safety Cedarius Rookard led the conference in interceptions with four. He was 1st Team All-Sun Belt….Jones and Rookard are both excellent kick returners.
Bullet Points: 50. Bulls center James O'Hagan will start his 50th game on Saturday. It will also be his 50th consecutive start. O'Hagan has never missed a game since his redshirt freshman year. Fellow offensive lineman Pete Bittner (2007-10) is the only other Bull to start 50 career games.
Bullseye On: Buffalo Defense
Linebacker Khalil Hodge enters the game with 415 career tackles. He has 139 this year. With seven tackles Saturday, he'll own the second and third best single season tackle years in UB history….Hodge will play one more game after this, as he's been invited to play in the Shrine Bowl all-star game in Florida…Khalil, and his eyes, will be a key in this matchup with Troy. Lance Leipold has used the words "multiple, diverse & exotic" to describe the motion and movement in the Trojans offense. The Bulls, especially the linebackers, will have to be disciplined and not fall for the movement. "They do a great job of exotic plays, double passes and reverses. We need to be fundamentally sound with our reads, and we need to be disciplined with our eyes," says Leipold….Lance also praised Troy for adapting to losing their starting quarterback. Kaleb Barker injured his knee in the sixth game. He had been completing 73% of his passes, and had thrown for ten touchdowns and run for three. Sawyer Smith is the starter now. He is not the dynamic runner that Barker was, but he is a better long ball passer. Smith has 10 TD passes and 6 interceptions….Smith struggled down the stretch when starting receivers Deondre Douglas and Damion Willis were hurt. Both are healthy for the Dollar General Bowl, and both are dangerous. Willis is six-foot-four, and averages 18 yards per catch. The 1st Team All-Sun Belt wideout had seven catches of 40 yards or more this season…Douglas leads the team with 44 catches, but averages less than ten yards per grab. He is one of Troy's top ten all-time receivers. Add in third wideout Sidney Davis, and Leipold calls it "as good a wide receiver corp we've seen all season."…Running back B.J. Smith is another 1st Team All-Sun Belt player. He led the conference with 1093 yards. He had a stretch this season where he ran for over 100 yards in five straight games…The Trojans have a veteran, experienced offensive line. Four of the five players have started at least ten games…The Bulls must limit Troy's big plays. The Trojans had 21 plays of 40 yards or more this season.
Bullseye On: Special Teams
In a closely-matched game like this, it could be decided by special teams. We saw that happen in the MAC Championship. The Trojans are a dangerous unit, from their kicker to their returners.
While the kickers have struggled this season, the Bulls have also been good on special teams. K.J. Osborn led the MAC in punt return yardage, and became one of the conference's most dangerous returners. The coverage teams were very good, never giving up a kick return over 50 yards or a punt return over 25 yards. Punter Evan Finegan, at 41.8 yards, is in position to set a new single season school record for punting average.
Troy's Tyler Sumpter is their kicker and punter. He's very good at both. As a kicker he hit 18 of 24 field goals, including 8/11 from beyond 40 yards. His punting average of 44.8 yards was second in the Sun Belt. Sumpter had three punts of more than 70 yards.
Troy's special teams shines in the return game. They returned a punt and a kickoff for scores this season. Kickoff returner Marcus Jones has four career scores, and averages over 25 yards per return. Fellow kick returner Jabir Daughtry-Frye also averages 25 yards per return.
Punt returner Cedarius Rookard averaged almost 12 yards per return, with a 58-yard score against Nebraska.
The Bulls will have to raise their special teams game to make sure that doesn't decide the Dollar General Bowl.
Bull Session Trivia Answer: Legendary Alabama head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant made his Crimson Tide coaching debut in Mobile in 1958. Alabama played a game every year at Ladd-Peebles Stadium from 1948-1968.
Please join me, color analyst Scott Wilson, game host Brad Riter and postgame host Bob Gaughan for the broadcast on the Bulls Football Network. Our pregame show starts at 6:00pm. You can hear it in Buffalo on ESPN 1520 and in Rochester on Fox Sports 1280. A link to the online broadcast is also available here and on the Tune In app.