Back to take the MAC

Bulls return to MAC Championship after a decade away

mac-title-review-wayne

The Bulls walked off the field at Perry Doyt field disappointed with the effort and the results on the season. They lost 27-19 to Bowling Green.

Buffalo won 44-14, a statement win in the same place the program hit a low point.

The Bulls (10-2, 7-1) will contend for the MAC title on Friday against the Northern Illinois Huskies (7-5, 6-2 MAC) at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. It is Buffalo’s first title game since 2008, where they defeated a nationally ranked Ball State team. The Bulls are favored to win but have not defeated the Huskies since 1968, the teams’ first-ever meeting.

“I told them at the start of this year they have a great opportunity to be a special group and to leave a legacy of some sort,” Leipold said on Tuesday. “There was opportunity there to do things that maybe haven't been done before or haven't been done in a while. There's been a lot of growing pains but this group has gone through some special circumstances. No matter what happens these last two games, this group is pretty special.”

The group includes 10 members named to the All-MAC team, a program record. Junior quarterback Tyree Jackson was named the offensive player of the year and freshman running back Jaret Patterson named freshman of the year.

Jackson has had the healthiest season of his career, starting every game for the Bulls this season. Jackson has only been sacked eight times all year. With 25 passing and 7 rushing touchdowns, he holds the school record for most total touchdowns in a season.

Patterson was a revelation for the Bulls this year. Initially third on the depth chart, Patterson broke out and finished as the leading rusher for Buffalo with 874 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns.

None of this would have been possible without the strength of the Bulls offensive line. Senior center James O’Hagan was named to the All-MAC first team for the first time in his career. Since redshirting his freshman year, O’Hagan has started every game. Junior left tackle Evan Ksiezarczyk was named to the second team.

The two spearheaded Buffalo’s rushing attack that had a program record 2,406 yards this year.

Against Northern Illinois, the Bulls will have their hardest matchup of the year. The Huskies lead the MAC in sacks with 46. Northern Illinois senior defensive end Sutton Smith is the MAC defensive player of the year and overall player of the year. He leads the league with 13 sacks.

The Huskies’ front-seven on defense not only rush the passer better than anyone else, they are able to stop the running game. The Bulls average over 200 yards per game on the ground, but the Huskies only give up an average of 107.

“It's an excellent defense that really plays to its strengths very well,” Leipold said. “They probably played the most challenging schedule of anyone in the group of five schools, and to still be after 12 games the top defense in the MAC says a lot about what we're going against.”

Buffalo will be forced to air it out against Northern Illinois. With potential first-round draft pick senior Anthony Johnson and second team all-MAC member K.J. Osborn, the task becomes much easier.

Johnson was able to rack up 820 yards on just 45 receptions, despite missing multiple games this season. In a pivotal matchup against Miami (OH), he had a school record 238 yards and three touchdowns.

Buffalo has a chance to redefine its legacy and continue the most successful year in athletic history. It’s Leipold’s first chance to prove Buffalo made the right choice in hiring him from Division III.

“This team has validated itself to me a long time ago in its work ethic and its character and what it has been able to do and overcome,” Leipold said. Our staff has proven itself at being able to coach at this level and evaluate, develop and retain not just players, but student-athletes. I am pleased with where we are at and where we are headed.”

The Bulls kickoff at 7 p.m. at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. The game will be broadcasted nationally on ESPN2. 

Nathaniel Mendelson is the sports editor and can be reached at nathaniel.mendelson@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @NateMendelson