DeKALB – On the surface, Buffalo is a 1-4 team, a squad that has yet to beat a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
However, when glancing at the Bulls’ schedule and statistics, Buffalo’s record looks a little misleading.
For starters, two of the Bulls’ losses have come against BCS teams – No. 14 Georgia and Connecticut. At the start of Mid-American Conference play, Buffalo has lost to Kent State, which is 3-0 in the conference and 4-1 overall, and unbeaten Ohio.
The Bulls outgained the Bobcats in offensive yards, 501-333, during last week’s 38-31 loss on the road, but they were hurt by three lost fumbles.
The Bulls also are 13 for 13 in the red zone, one of three FBS teams to be perfect in the category. The others? No. 1 Alabama and Oklahoma State.
There’s a reason Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren thinks the Bulls are a dangerous team that can pose some problems for his team today at Huskie Stadium.
“On film, they sure don’t look like a 1-4 team,” Doeren said. “They’re a team that has a very talented roster.”
The Bulls can run the ball no matter who’s in the backfield. Branden Oliver leads the MAC with an average of 142 yards a game, but has sat out the past two weeks with a knee injury. If he can’t go this afternoon, true freshman Devin Campbell will step in. He ran for 160 yards in last week’s loss to Ohio.
Quarterback Alex Zordich can pose matchup problems as well. The junior ran for a career-high 110 yards last week. When Oliver’s in the game, Buffalo features more of a direct running game, but the Bulls will go to more of a spread offense when he’s not in the backfield.
It’s comparable to what the Huskies run, and Zordich and NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch are a similar type of quarterback. That’s something that could benefit the Huskies’ defense, which faced Lynch during fall camp and takes reps against him occasionally during practice.
“It definitely prepares you for all aspects that come out of Jordan and out of [Zordich], whether it is running the ball or throwing the ball,” said NIU senior middle linebacker Victor Jacques, who saw action for the first time since Week 1 in last week’s 35-23 win at Ball State. “You have to be specific in your skill set, in your reads to where you’ve got to find out specifically if it is a run or pass.”
The Bulls rank seventh in the MAC in scoring defense and fifth in total defense. Defensive coordinator Lou Tepper’s group features junior outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who Doeren said is one of the best defensive players he has seen “in a long time.”
Mack has 4.5 sacks in 2012, and averages 2.75 tackles for loss, which leads the nation.
“The guy plays football the right way,” Doeren said. “I really like watching him, but I’m not going to like playing against him. I think he’s a great football player, and I have a lot of respect for him.”
NIU'S FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Lynch continues putting up numbers
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch has abused opposing defenses this season. He averages 340.67 yards of total offense per game, which ranks seventh in the country. Team's haven't been able to stop him, and he can beat defenses with his arm and his legs. NIU's offense would like to see the ball in his hands as much as possible.
2. Don't take the Bulls lightly
Buffalo may be 1-4. However, take a closer look at the Bulls' losses — No. 14 Georgia, Connecticut, Kent State and Ohio. Buffalo has also outgained its opponents, 2,061 yards to 1,948.
The Bulls may be 14.5-point underdogs, but this isn't a team to sleep on. The Huskies found that out last season, when Buffalo was a missed extra point away from taking NIU to overtime in Amherst, N.Y.
3. Get an early lead
NIU has done a great job coming from behind this season, and the Huskies have three fourth-quarter comebacks. However, the coaching staff will be a lot more relaxed if the offense gets a halftime lead and uses its strong running game to control the clock in the second half.
4. Handle Buffalo's running game
The Bulls can run, whether it's with tailack Branden Oliver, who leads the Mid-American Conference with an average of 142 yards per game, or true freshman Devin Campbell. Oliver may not play this afternoon due to a knee injury, but the Huskies defense will have its hands full no matter who's back there. Not to mention quarterback Alex Zordich can use his legs as well.
5. Keep Mack in check
Buffalo's defense can be scored upon, and the Huskies should be able to put points on the board. However, Bulls outside linebacker Khalil Mack does a great job rushing the passer, as evidenced by his 4.5 sacks.
NIU's offensive line will need to protect Lynch like it has done throughout the season.