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The NI-5: What to watch as the Huskies take on Buffalo

Northern Illinois freshman defensive lineman Pierce Oppong tries to tackle freshman wide receiver Keion Battle as members of the defense look on during a drill at practice Friday afternoon at Huskie Stadium.
Northern Illinois freshman defensive lineman Pierce Oppong tries to tackle freshman wide receiver Keion Battle as members of the defense look on during a drill at practice Friday afternoon at Huskie Stadium.

Better late than never for fans of MACtion, as the Mid-American Conference becomes the second-to-last Football Bowl Subdivision conference to start its fall season with a full slate of games.

NIU will take on Buffalo at Huskie Stadium in front of families of coaches and players only. Kickoff is 7 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN2.

Here are five things to watch in the matchup.

How will the freshman-heavy NIU lineup fare against the experience of what's expected to be one of the best teams in the conference?

The Huskies have 14 true freshmen on their two-deep roster and five slated to start. Buffalo has exactly zero true freshmen on its two-deep roster.

Trayvon Rudolph is listed as the third receiver for the Huskies, Pierce Oppong and Rashien Thomas as starting defensive ends, and Jordan Hansen as a starting safety. The other safety will be Devin Lafayette or C.J. Brown, both true freshmen as well.

Meanwhile, the Bulls return seven starters on defense, all three players who attempted a pass, six of seven players who had a carry and 12 of 14 players who recorded a reception.

"We've put them in a high-stress situation where they have to prove themselves to their teammates," NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. "Obviously, I couldn't be more proud of those guys. The only thing lacking is experience, but [after] Nov. 4, that will no longer be a problem."

How will the defense handle either Buffalo quarterback Matt Myers or Kyle Vantrease – or both?

Myers started the first five games last year, threw six touchdown and four interceptions with a 46.7 completion percentage and 602 yards.

When he got hurt, Vantrease took over, completed 58.7% of his passes, 1,193 yards, eight TDs and two picks.

Buffalo coach Lance Leipold hasn't indicated his starter yet. Hammock said he wouldn't be surprised to see both get some game action.

"We've seen enough on both quarterbacks," Hammock said. "[Myers] was a guy who played early in the season and got hurt. [Vantrease] finished the year off. So I think we've got enough information. ... Obviously, they've got two quality quarterbacks, and they may play both of them. So we've got to be prepared for all scenarios."

How will tackles Marques Cox and Nolan Potter – both redshirt sophomores for the Huskies – fare against Taylor Riggins and Malcolm Koonce, who were 1-2 in sacks in the MAC last year?

Cox played 12 games last year and started 10 despite his youth. Potter did play in every game, but mostly on special teams.

Koonce had nine sacks last year, and Riggin had 8.5 to lead the conference.

"They create tremendous pressure on the quarterback," Hammock said. "They have a variety of moves. They can beat you up the field with speed. They can get to the level of quarterback and spin back inside. They can bull rush. So our tackles are going to have a tough job. We're going to have to make sure we put our tackles in a position they have success."

Hammock said that may take many forms – including double teams at times and quick passes from quarterback Russ Bowers. He also said extended drives to tire out the defense will be important.

What can the NIU defense do about a pair of 1,000-yard rushers?

Jaret Patterson needs 188 yards to become the school's fifth 3,000-yard rusher, and another touchdown will tie the school record with 34.

Then there's Kevin Marks, who ran for 1,035 yards a year ago and crossed the 100-yard mark five times.

"I think we have to acknowledge the fact they have two really good backs," Pugh said. "But as far as I'm concerned, our mentality as a defense, it doesn't really matter who we line up against. We're very competitive, hate to lose. ... It's not really about the name on the back of the jersey."

Does 2018 matter?

That was the last time the two teams met, and it was the MAC Championship Game. Patterson opened the second half with a 9-yard touchdown run to give the Bulls a 29-10 lead.

Buffalo didn't score again. The Huskies went on to win, 30-29, to take the MAC title in coach Rod Carey's final game with NIU before leaving for Temple.

"I'm sure they remember it. We remember it, so I'm sure they remember it," Pugh said. "But as far as this year, I think everybody is just looking to start with a fresh slate."

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