Make no mistake about it. It’s UB that comes into today’s Black Friday showdown with Bowling Green as the team with something to prove.
The Bulls are the ones who’ve lost two straight in the series. The Bulls are the ones who rank behind the Falcons, usually subtly so, in almost every major statistical category. Even the oddsmakers are casting a wary eye on UB’s rise from the doldrums. They’ve installed Bowling Green as a small favorite for the 1:30 p.m. start in Ralph Wilson Stadium that will determine the Mid-American Conference champion.
It’s no surprise Bowling Green finds itself in position to wear the crown. The Falcons were this year’s No. 2 pick in the East preseason poll after going 6-2 in conference last season. A switch at quarterback and new wheels at running back have elevated the offense. And the defense remains one of the stingiest in college football despite the graduation loss of last year’s MAC Defensive Player of the Year, current New England tackle Chris Jones.
“First and foremost, when you talk about Bowling Green it all starts with their defense,” Toledo coach Matt Campbell said this week. “They’re extremely talented and extremely well-coached defensively. They do a great job of eliminating the big play and really do a great job of suffocating the running game. So I think it’s got to start there when you talk about them.”
“Let me first say Bowling Green’s the best defensive team we’ve played all year long,” said Stan Parrish, Eastern Michigan’s interim head coach. “They just completely took us out of everything. ... We just simply got overwhelmed. We were three-and-out every series of the first half.”
UB got a taste of the bitter medicine BG’s defense force-feeds opponents in last year’s 21-7 Black Friday loss in Columbus. The Bulls rushed for just 29 yards that day and amassed a scant 197 yards of total offense. Quarterback Joe Licata, a redshirt freshman making just his fourth career start, went just 13 of 30 and fell victim to seven sacks.
But this is a different UB team. Licata will be starting the 16th game of his career and is the only MAC QB to have thrown a touchdown pass in every game this season. Running back Branden Oliver is fully healthy and leading the conference in rushing. The Bulls have struck a balance in their passing attack, finding ample alternatives when they can’t get the ball to wideout Alex Neutz. And this time the best defensive player in the conference is on the other side of the field in UB linebacker and Butkus Award finalist Khalil Mack.
“When you talk about Buffalo I think you talk about three things,” Toledo’s Campbell said. “You talk about offensively, two dynamic football players in their tailback and Alex Neutz, I think, is as good as any receiver in our conference. And then the defensive side I think everything revolves around Mack. He’s as good as there is in our conference, a tremendous football player. So I think it’ll be a great football game.”
Turnovers have played in integral part in UB’s success this season. It ranks fourth nationally at plus-15. But can the Bulls be as opportunistic against the Falcons, who are tied for No. 1 in the nation in fewest turnovers lost? BG has fumbled the ball away just twice all year long while being intercepted only six times.
“They place a great deal of emphasis on defense as we do,” said UB coach Jeff Quinn. “They take a great deal of pride that their defense can rise to the occasion, and they’ve been able to do that. I think on the flip side offensively, they take great care of the ball.”
The running game has been UB’s identity ever since Quinn canned the hurry-up spread early in his tenure and committed to Oliver as a workhorse back. The Bulls have passed the ball much better this season under Licata’s direction. In fact, he’s just four TD passes shy of Drew Willy’s single-season record of 25. But it stands to reason they’ll need to penetrate BG’s defense on the ground with far better results than a year ago.
“They have a very sound scheme,” Quinn said. “They’re always going to add another player in the box. So they’re going to constantly challenge you interiorly to win those one-on-one match-ups. And that’s what they did last year. They were able to control the line of scrimmage. This year it’s important for us up front, on both sides of the ball for that matter, but mainly on our offensive side.”
Is UB ready to take the next step? Can the Bulls recapture the magic of 2008? Or is this when Bowling Green’s program atones for the 20-point fourth quarter lead squandered under similar circumstances in ‘08, when UB rallied to win in double OT and claim the East title?
“I’m not surprised that these are the two best teams in the East, squaring it off, as it should be, for 60 minutes,” said UB head coach Jeff Quinn. “And it may go into overtime. So you better bundle up.”