MAC Championship Game 2018: Buffalo Must Solve The MAC’s Best Defense to Win it All

Tyree Jackson and Sutton Smith take the field at the same time with a championship on the line in one of the most interesting match ups in recent championship game history.

2017 MAC Championship Game between Toledo and Akron. Photo by Justin Coffin

This MAC Championship is exactly what was ordered weeks ago. It’s just that instead of grabbing fire sauce this game threw some mild in the bag on accident.

The two participants this year didn’t close well. One of them decided the last two weeks were merely an exhibition, losing to schools a combined two wins over .500. The other took a nationally televised ass kicking in Athens, Ohio. It’s perfectly fine to look at this game and go, “meh.” It’s also perfectly fine to take these very real losses that happened and place them firmly in the trash where they belong.

Can you blame Northern Illinois for checking out? Like a child listening to a grandparent’s story they’ve heard seven times, the Huskies had no interest in seeing the regular season through. They knew how it ended. It’s practically insulting at this point that nobody wants to win the division twice in a row.

For Buffalo, losing to Ohio stung, especially since it meant it had to give a damn about Bowling Green the next week. But rebounding from getting clobbered by Ohio on the road to win a MAC title would make it the first team to do that since…literally last year.

The Bulls are the new kids on the block looking to take it to the bullies from DeKalb. About the only thing these two programs have in common is their distance from Ford field. The histories are dissimilar, but it’s the Bulls that find themselves favored over a program that has three MAC titles since they last raised a banner. Will NIU cement itself as the team of the decade, one that not only wins the division but finishes the job, or will Buffalo put a bow on a mostly dominant season that, quite frankly, deserves a trophy to go with it? As far as narratives go, this is as clean as it gets.

Sutton Smith vs. The World

When these teams take the field the story will be NIU’s defense led by two-time MAC Defensive Player of the Year and All American defensive end Sutton Smith against the Buffalo offense of five All-MAC first team selections led by quarterback Tyree Jackson and wide receiver Anthony Johnson.

In all likelihood, the winner of this game will point to their effectiveness in shutting those names down as a key to the victory, and they’ll be absolutely correct. Smith is capable of causing devastation to an opposing offense. He has 13 sacks, four forced fumbles, 21 tackles for loss and a blocked punt for a touchdown. He has scored 24 points in his college career at defensive end. The average yards per play on tackles Smith makes is less than zero. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Smith to NIU’s MAC-best scoring defense.

Considering the Huskies allow just 2.6 yards per carry, Buffalo will need to throw the ball a lot to win, Something the Bulls haven’t had to do much of this season despite having a quarterback and wide receiver on the All-MAC first team. The Bulls threw more than they ran just twice this season, including the drubbing at Ohio. A big part of their success has been Jarret Patterson, MAC Freshman of the Year, on the ground.

But the Bulls clearly have the weapons to attack the NIU secondary. In addition to Jackson under center, wide receivers Johnson and K.J. Osborn are two of the MAC’s best, landing in the top six in both total receiving yards and yards per catch. The Bulls also allowed sacks on just 2.5 percent of drop backs this season according to S&P+, good for seventh nationally. They’ll need that to continue and keep their star quarterback clean all night against an unrelenting pass rush in order to control this game.

Buffalo Plays Defense Too

The game should be most interesting when a majority of the stars are on the field at the same time between NIU’s defense and Buffalo’s offense. But where NIU lacks balance (13th in defensive S&P+ vs 120th on offense), the Bulls have an advantage.

Buffalo is third in the MAC in scoring defense at 24.3 points per game, and while the 4.3 yards per carry it allows isn’t on the same level as their counterpart, it’s more than respectable. That rush defense, led by first team All-MAC linebacker Khalil Hodge, has an opportunity to slam the door shut on this game by slowing down the only thing NIU does well on offense. Hodge is a handful, logging 88.5 tackles for the season including seven tackles for loss.

If NIU looks to pass the ball, it might find it a difficult prospect. The Bulls gave up less than 200 yards passing in eight games this season. Only Miami, Ohio, Eastern Michigan and Temple eclipsed 200 yards. If there’s a window for NIU to hope for, it’s that Buffalo recently played one of its worst games defensively against a quarterback that likes to run the ball. Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke gashed the Bulls for 77 yards on just seven carries two weeks ago, while the entire Ohio team averaged 7.8 yards per carry. Carrying the ball from the quarterback position is a key part of what NIU does and the most effective part of Marcus Childers’ game.

How Each Team Wins

If NIU is able to create turnovers and find success running the football, it has a good shot at neutralizing the effects of Buffalo’s prolific offense by keeping it on the sideline. The Huskies are an underdog for a reason, and if they are to win this game they’ll have to get more out of their offense than they have been getting as of late. Buffalo is too good for Rod Carey’s team to rely solely on the defense to score points.

Where NIU’s formula for winning is doing literally anything of note on offense, Buffalo has a couple of avenues. The Bulls win if they find a way to run the football. Period. That’s not likely against this NIU front. Buffalo’s most likely winning scenario involves getting big plays out of the passing game without allowing Smith to wreak havoc in the backfield, combined with keeping NIU running back Tre Harbison out of the second level on defense. Simply put, don’t allow NIU to out perform its usual self on offense and you should be fine.

Game Information

Buffalo Bulls vs Northern Illinois Huskies
Date: Friday, November 30th, 2018
Betting Line: Buffalo by three
Game Time: 7:00 PM ET/6:00 PM CT
TV: ESPN2