Last season, the Bulls were a missed 21-yard field goal away from pulling off a major upset against perennial MAC East title contender, the Miami of Ohio RedHawks.
On a field more fitted to bobsledding or ice fishing than football, they ran wild over the RedHawks, amassing a season-high 290 yards rushing in former Bulls' Head Coach Craig Cirbus's last game. Buffalo, however, was plagued by turnovers throughout and a missed chip shot at the end. The RedHawks prevailed 17-16, ruining Cirbus' going-away party.
Do the Bulls have unfinished business to take care of? Or did their best chance at toppling the RedHawks drift away with that mid-December snow storm? They'll find out tomorrow when they play Miami at Yager Stadium, in much more football-friendly conditions (60 degrees and sunny).
The Bulls will see many unfamiliar faces when they line up against the RedHawk offense tomorrow. As long as announcers can pronounce his name, fans can expect to hear a lot about redshirt freshman quarterback Ben Roethlisberger around the MAC for the next four seasons.
"I think he's very athletic. He can be damaging with his feet, as well as with his arm," said Bulls Coach Jim Hofher.
Roethlisberger engineers a balanced attack that has averaged 383.75 yards per game, good for fourth in the MAC. He has a number of options to choose from in this fast paced spread offense.
The good news for the Bulls is they will not be going up against Steve Little, the RedHawk tailback who sliced and diced through the Bulls' defense for 222 yards in the 2000 season finale.
The bad news is the RedHawks boast a pair of quick, shifty tailbacks in Cal Murray and Luke Clemens. Murray is their big play threat, averaging a whopping 8.5 yards per carry on the year. Each has gone over 100 yards at least once this season. You can bet they're both licking their chops against the Bulls' defense, currently ranked 97th in the nation against the run.
The Bulls will also have to pay close attention to wide receiver Michael Larkin, cousin of perennial All-Star Barry Larkin, shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds. The freshman has racked up 204 yards on only seven catches for an average of just under 30 yards per catch in limited playing time. The Bulls will have to be aware of his presence at all times.
Once again, the Bulls defensive front will face a formidable offensive line. Although this line may not be quite as big as the Chippewas' front seven, they may well be more skilled; the RedHawks return four of five starters from last year's unit.
The Bulls will have to stop the run with numbers, putting up to eight men in the box. They will have to rely on their stellar pass defense, now ranked sixth in the nation, to keep the RedHawk passing game under wraps. Airtight cover men Mark Graham and Mike Lambert should be able to deal on the outside with the RedHawk receivers, who are good but not great. To this point, all aspects of the Bulls defense have excelled in playing the pass and have been marginal at run defense, with the exception of linebacker Bobby Johnson, who has been a tackling machine all season.
"We've been able to get to the quarterback fairly well. Our secondary is excellent, and does a heck of a job back there," said defensive end Jamie Guerra.
Whether by ground or air, the RedHawks' offense will get their share of yards. It is imperative the Bulls continue their trend of impeccable play inside the red zone. Bulls opponents have been inside the red zone 14 times on the season, but have only come away with only three touchdowns. The Bulls can't give up the big play, and must stand tall when their backs are against the wall.
Moreover, they will need to create turnovers to stand a chance Saturday. Over the last two seasons, Miami is a flawless 7-0 when committing two or fewer turnovers. When they have committed three or more miscues they are just 1-7. 'Nough said.
The key to the Bulls offense is determining whether the real Joe Freedy will please stand up. If Freedy can reclaim the form he showed two weeks ago against UConn, the Bulls should be in business. He must be willing to throw the ball away instead of throwing an interception or taking the big sack, two tendencies he put on display last week against Central Michigan.
The Bulls were able to move the ball last week, but too often put themselves in third and long due to penalties and sacks. If the Bulls can stay away from negative plays, running back Marquis Dwarte should be able to find holes and keep the chains moving.
Burly tight end Chad Bartoszek, who scored the Bulls' lone touchdown last week, will be an essential ingredient in the passing game. Freedy will depend upon Bartoszek to be open in the flats and be the outlet receiver in the Bulls' short passing game.
"We've got to come together and start to gel sometime soon. I think once we pick it up we'll really start getting it done," said Bartoszek.
For Bartoszek and the Bulls, now is as good a time as any.
Miami gives up an average of 200 yards per game through the air, and 345 yards of total offense per contest. They have accumulated an unremarkable eight sacks in their four previous contests. The Bulls will have to pay close attention to speed rusher Matt Robillard, who at 6'3", 220 lbs. is listed as a safety but also plays outside linebacker in certain defensive packages. Robillard leads the RedHawks in both sacks and tackles; the Bulls success will be contingent on containing him.
Other causes for concern for Buffalo include Ryan Terry and Terrell Jones. Terry is a mammoth 327-pound nose tackle who takes up a lot of space in the middle - and beyond. It will be Bulls center Matt Weber's job to somehow open holes for Dwarte despite giving up some serious poundage to Terry.
Jones anchors the team's defense from his middle linebacker position. He was named a third team All-American by the Sporting News during his freshman campaign, and is posting even better numbers as a sophomore.
The Bulls can expect the services of receiver Zeke McKine and linebacker Lamar Wilcher this Saturday. The team is now as healthy as it has been all season.
It is parent's weekend at Miami, where the RedHawks will be gunning for their 600th victory. A win over Buffalo would make them the 22nd college and first MAC team to eclipse the mark.
Freedy and the offense can't wait until the fourth quarter to get the offense on track. The Bulls will have to score early and instill doubt in the heavily favored RedHawks. They will need to play almost mistake-free football to shoot down these fearsome predators.