DeKALB – The contrast between Northern Illinois and Buffalo’s respective histories with the Mid-American Conference Championship Game is stark.
Heading into Friday’s battle between the teams for the 2018 title, NIU is making its seventh appearance in the past nine years and 10th overall. Buffalo is making only its second appearance.
“It fuels me a lot. It fuels my brothers. My teammates. All of us,” redshirt junior wide receiver Spencer Tears said of the Huskies’ history in Detroit. “It’s a lot of fuel to the fire because you don’t want to let your former brothers or teammates down. You always want to keep that legacy going, and you want to pass it down to the next generation or the young cats underneath you so when you leave, they know what’s to be expected and how things are supposed to be done at Northern Illinois.”
Buffalo (10-2, 7-1), has only made the MAC Championship Game once before this year, having joined the MAC the year after the title game’s inception in 1997. Riding the wave from its highest win total in program history, the Bulls enter the game with an offense filled to the brim with athletes full of immense talent and the statistics to prove it.
The Bulls lay claim to NFL-caliber talents at quarterback (junior Tyree Jackson) and wide receiver (Anthony Johnson) in addition to defensive stalwart Khalil Hodge (linebacker). Chuck Harris is an aggressive edge defender, as well.
Jackson and Johnson are complemented by skill at other spots at wide receiver in K.J. Osborn and running backs James Paterson and Kevin Marks.
The young running back duo’s combined total of 1,607 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns isn’t the most threatening part to the offense to observers entering this game, as NIU opponents are averaging a menial 2.6 yards a rush this season.
“They have some really special wideouts,” NIU coach Rod Carey said. “They can beat you over the top on a designed play. They can take it the distance by catching it underneath, making a quick move and getting vertical on a broken play. They stay alive very well.”
The big-play ability Jackson possesses between Osborn and Johnson is glaring. Lesser-known Charlie Jones also has averaged 22.2 yards a catch on 17 receptions.
“Probably where he’s the most devastating at quarterback is when he gets out of the pocket and throws the deep ball because he can throw it a country mile,” Carey said. “But most guys that can throw it that far can’t hit the broad side of the barn, and he can drop it in a bucket.”
“Their quarterback, he throws a great deep ball. And they’ve got some big receivers,” NIU defensive coordinator Jeff Knowles said. “[Johnson], he’s definitely a guy they throw some up to. On those 50-50 balls, the offense looks at them as 50-50, they have got to be more like 90-10. We’ve got to stop that. That again, a big part of that will be the front guys. We’ve got to get there.”
The Huskies’ defensive front that leads the nation with 46 sacks will go to battle with a Buffalo offensive line that has yielded only eight sacks this year, the third-best total in the country.
“I think our offensive line has done an outstanding job all season,” Buffalo coach Lance Leipold said. “It has kind of been one that’s sometimes forgotten. I think the balance we’ve been able to create running and passing is definitely attributed to their skill set and their ability to work at both.”
Without defensive end Josh Corcoran for the first half because of a targeting call at Western Michigan, Matt Lorbeck and Quintin Wynne should factor into the first half heavily.
“I feel bad for Josh that he has got to miss this opportunity for something I think is ridiculous, but it’s – I feel more bad for him than I am worried about us,” Knowles said. “Our guys have played football. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to put someone in there who has never seen the field in a key moment’ or anything like that. We’ve got guys that we trust, and we don’t expect any drop-off.”
Buffalo’s defense is led by Hodge and defensive end Chuck Harris, who has missed some action because of injury as late as the Toledo game Oct. 20.
NIU’s offense comes in having been inconsistent at times throughout much of the season, the past two weeks included. The Huskies’ offense is ranked 10th out of 12 teams in the MAC in yardage a game (318), 11th in passing offense (141.3 a game) and 11th in scoring offense at 19.9 points a game.
The Huskies are coming off consecutive losses after they already had clinched the title-game berth.
“I wouldn’t necessarily that we lost focus or anything with those two games, I would just say it was a little it of lack of execution with the gameplay,” Tears said.
Christopher Perez will miss his third game out of his past four with lingering ankle trouble. Tifonte Hunt was described as “50-50” in terms of playing in Friday’s game. Others who are banged up include Trayshon Foster, Marcus Jones and Mitchell Brinkman, all of whom Carey intends to play, according to what he said Tuesday.
“It’s a great feeling to go back to Detroit,” NIU redshirt junior linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis said. “Obviously, we’ve got a bad taste in our mouth from the last time we were there in our bowl game. We want to get a victory in Detroit this time.”