AMHERST, N.Y. — For the first time, well maybe ever, the Bobcats decided to stay in Grand Island, N.Y. during their football field trip to Buffalo this season.
Typically, Ohio has stayed overnight closer to the UB campus and UB Stadium. This time, the night-before-destination was tucked away in the northwestern edge of Erie County. Buffalo is a little drive to the south and east, and Canada is across the water the other way.
So why the change to an island stay? And yes, Grand Island is an actual island.
Maybe the Bulls’ Homecoming plans this weekend booked up the usual accommodations. Or maybe the Bobcats just wanted a change of venue in the search for a change in luck.
Ohio (1-3) faces UB on Saturday, beginning at 3:30 p.m. at UB Stadium, in a critical MAC East showdown. The Bulls won the division in 2018, and the Bobcats are the 2019 favorite.
It’s not an ideal MAC opener for OU, which has lost four straight road games at Buffalo. Ohio is 2-5 at UB under head coach Frank Solich.
And in terms of ‘weird’ it’s hard to find another MAC destination where OU has encountered more of it.
“Seems to be a little higher there at Buffalo for one reason or another,” Solich admitted on Thursday.
Ohio’s last win at Buffalo was 2009. Here’s a look at the off-kilter happenings at UB in the last decade.
— Ohio won 27-24 in 2009 thanks to Matt Weller’s field goal with 1:25 left, into a stiff wind. A key early score came when true freshman Tyler Tettleton, as a Wildcat quarterback, scored on a called QB run. OU, by the way, hasn’t really used the Wildcat since ’09.
— In 2011, the teams engaged in a classic #MACtion shootout with big plays and lead changes galore. When the dust settled, Branden Oliver had 222 total yards and three touchdowns in UB’s 38-37 win.
— In 2013, the game changed irrevocably against the Bobcats early on when Tettleton — now a fifth-year senior — was called for a safety on an intentional grounding call from the four-yard line. The safety was upheld after a replay review. The safety made it 5-0, and Ohio lost 30-3.
— Two years later, a rash of injuries at the linebacker position left Ohio with no healthy options among the top four or five at the depth chart. That resulted in RB A.J. Ouellette playing game reps at both RB and LB in the same game. The Bobcats, under a swarm of turnovers, were handled 41-17.
— And the last trip north, in 2017, featured blistering winds that the Bulls mined for a handful of big plays early. A strip sack, and a big punt return, helped the Bulls surge out to a 24-7 lead. Ohio tied it 24-24, and had the ball in the red zone at the end, but lost 31-24.
You mention weird, and Buffalo, in the same sentence around the Ohio coaching staff and talk immediately turns to the safety call in 2013. Even six years later, it remains the signature ‘weird’ moment in a series in which the home team has won every meeting since 2009.
“That was weird, that was strange, that was different in a ‘coaching career kind of event,’” Solich said.
All of which serves as a backdrop to this trip for the Bobcats. Ohio enters with a three-game losing skid, and zero wins over FBS teams this season, but still wears the mantle of MAC favorite.
The ‘Cats are coming off a bye, and face a game that is nearly in proverbial ‘must-win’ territory if it wants to win the division this season. All it has to do is break a 10-year winless stretch against a good club in a venue where weird things have been known to occur.
Ever pragmatic, Solich said it’s all part of the job.
“Whether that will take place again, we’ll see. But we’ve got to be good enough to overcome a lot of of those things that go against you. That’s true of any football team,” Solich explained.
“You’re not going to have perfect days. You’re not going to have everything go the way you want it to go. And yet, you’ve got to find a way to win football games when they’re not going your way.
“That’s what we’re working on with this team.”
Ohio (1-3, 0-0) vs. Buffalo (2-3, 0-1 MAC)
Ohio Offense vs. Buffalo Defense
Ohio is coming in after a needed bye week that should act as a bit of a reset. For starters, the Bobcats will be as healthy as they’ve been since the opener.
The depth at RB will be dramatically improved with O’Shaan Allison back in the mix, De’Montre Tuggle back to full strength, and possibly Julian Ross — pending a game-day decision — back in the rotation as well.
The wide receiver group will be at full strength. And on the offensive line, starting center Steve Hayes will be a game-day decision after missing each of the last two weeks.
“It’s been a long couple of weeks, but we’ve put it to good use with a healthy football team,” said offensive coordinator Tim Albin.
But being healthy, and being consistent are two different things. Ohio hasn’t been terrific in the first four games, but has shown flashes. And finding more consistency will be tough to do against a Buffalo defense that has re-loaded in the front seven.
The Bulls lead the MAC in total defense, rushing defense (96.6 yards per game), yards per carry allowed (2.7 per attempt) and third down defense (29.4 percent). It stems from that front seven that has controlled the line of scrimmage, even in losses to nationally-ranked Penn State, and Liberty, and in a home upset over Temple.
Defensive tackles Eddie Wilson (6-4, 320) and Chibueze Onwuka (6-0, 290) are a load inside. On the edges, ends Malcom Koonce and Ledarius Mack (yes, the younger brother of NFL star Khalil Mack) have three sacks apiece.
Safeties Joe Banks and Tyrone Hill are involved in the run game as much as any pair of safeties in the league.
All it all together, and it’s clear UB has moved on nicely despite stiff graduation losses.
“Other than missing their (middle linebacker from last year), they’re as good if not better everywhere else,” Albin said.
“Their strength is that front seven. They get after the quarterback,” he continued. “Call Penn State and ask them about the d-line. Ask Temple.”
With all that mind, this could be a week when Ohio leans on Nathan Rourke and tries to use the passing game to set up the run game. The Bobcats are a run-first team, but selective deep shots with play-action or early down quick throws, could be the route for OU to stay ahead of the chains (or ‘on schedule’) and avoid giving the Bulls a chance to use their biggest strength as often as they’d like.
Ohio’s first team offense had its first turnovers of the season in the Louisiana loss. Unfortunately for OU, there were four of them — all in the second half — of a winnable home game.
There’s little concern, yet, that the turnovers are sign of things to come. Rourke (187 rushing yards, 857 passing yards, 57.1 percent completions) hasn’t been as sharp yet this season as in his first two years as a starter, but again he’s working with a drastically different supporting cast in 2019.
And there is potential across the board. Belief remains high in Peden that the offense is close, or overdue, for a big breakout. Ohio needs that breakout to happen against Buffalo.
And part of this is the process of OU trying to figure out what it does best, and then honing in on that. Those answers are surely closer to being on firm ground after the bye week than before.
And that might include a more even play call split, or fewer straight runs and more throws. It might include more hard play-action, or more RPO actions, or fewer ’11’ personnel groupings.
I’m interested to see what Ohio decided was its best plan of attack against Buffalo, and how it works out.
Who to watch: One of the breakout players in the first four games for Ohio has been TE Ryan Luehrman. With Buffalo’s preference on pressure and man coverage, there will be opportunities there to be had for a Luehrman, who is showing flashes of being a vertical threat and a red-zone match-up issue.
Luehrman, as the top Ohio TE, has been targeted 15 times in four games. He’s got nine receptions for 133 yards and a team-high two touchdowns, and has accounted for four ‘chunk’ plays. In 2017, OU’s top tight end (Troy Mangen) was targeted just 18 times during the course of 12 regular-season games. In 2018, the top TE (Connor Brown) was targeted just 13 times during the regular season.
For Buffalo, keep an eye on the defensive line. Onwuka (19 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) is capable of wrecking the Bobcats’ inside zone/belly series. On the edge, the Bulls have two proven sack specialist in Mack and Koonce. If OU is to stay on schedule, avoiding negative plays up front is essential.
Buffalo offense vs Ohio defense
This is a put-up week for OU. The Bobcats have been hurt by the inside run in each of the last two games, and with the Bulls featuring one of the best run games in the country you can expect that to be a huge focal point again.
First, the Bulls are legit on the ground. Sophomore Jaret Patterson (109.2 yards per game) is a star in the making in the MAC, and Kevin Marks (84.0 per game) gives UB as potent a 1-2 ground punch anywhere in the MAC this side of Toledo.
UB is stout on the offensive line. The Bulls return four starters there from a year ago, and have a starting five with three seniors, and a junior.
The Bulls are 18th in all of FBS in rushing yards per game, have more rushing attempts this season than any other FBS team in the country and lead the MAC in time of possession.
Forget about the fact that the Bulls are passing for less than 70 yards a game, or might have a backup quarterback in the lineup as starter Matt Myers missed substantial practice this week. That’s all window dressing to the fact that unless the Bobcats show up against the run, or force turnovers — there’s been just two in four games — then the Bobcats will be in for a long afternoon.
Ohio is last in the MAC in yards allowed per carry (5.5) and turnovers forced. But that’s merely prologue at this point. The Bobcats have spent two weeks reviewing gap integrity, run fits and tackling fundamentals.
It’s time to see if the work paid off.
“There’s no take backs here,” said Ohio defensive coordinator Ron Collins. “We have to learn from our mistakes in those games and move forward.
“We’re looking at this as 0-0. We’re at ground zero. We’re done with our non-conference,” he said. “It’s the start of league play. It’s time to go.”
Besides some minor changes — DT Kai Caesar might edge out Brian Arp in the starting lineup, and the CB rotation is firmly at three now with Ilyaas Motley joining Jamal Hudson and Marlin Brooks — Ohio is banking on the defense returning to the form it showed in the last half of the 2018 season. And in truth, that form has been largely in place for most of the last half-decade.
Getting gouged on the ground is new territory for Ohio, and it’s a trend they don’t expect to continue. Collins said he’s not going to dramatically change what the Bobcats are trying to do.
They just need to do it better.
“We have a defense that we feel good about, that we’re hanging our hat on. We want our guys to play fast, and through that we can correct mistakes we have during the game,” Collins explained.
“If we start doing all this funky, funky stuff, I’m not sure where those corrections come from.
“We’re getting back to basics. And I feel good about where we’re at right now.”
If Ohio can be better against the ground game, it will open the door for more havoc-play opportunities. The Bulls have been limited in pushing the ball down the field vertically — thanks to transfers and steep graduation losses — so the opportunity is there for OU to more aggressive in pushing the line of scrimmage.
Who to watch: Middle linebacker Jared Dorsa has been effectively neutralized the last two weeks. Part of that has been the traffic on the interior, and the displacement at times of the interior of the Ohio DL. Part of the issue has been lapses in gap coverage.
The point is, if Ohio is contesting the point of attack better and covering those gaps reliably, then Dorsa should have better lanes to run down and track down ballcarriers. If he’s leading OU in tackles, or close to it, then the defense is doing the job up front.
For the Bulls, it comes down to Patterson. Low to the ground, Patterson is lethal as he picks his way to cut-back lanes. He’s tough to find, tough to bring down, and the catalyst for a huge chunk of the UB offense.
If Buffalo is able to get Patterson, and Marks, on track, it will open up the RPO and play-action game. After giving up control of the LoS in each of the last two games, it’s essential OU contests that stretch of real estate better in the MAC opener.
Around the MAC
Beside Ohio-Buffalo, the other huge MAC game on Saturday is West Division favorites Western Michigan (3-2, 1-0) and Toledo (3-1, 0-0) facing off in the Glass City.
Toledo has been as good as anyone in the MAC so far this season but the Broncos already have a conference game under their belt.
In other conference games, Eastern Michigan (3-1, 0-0) travels to Mount Pleasant with a chance to show it can be a contender by taking out CMU (2-3, 1-1 MAC). Ball State (1-3, 0-0) goes to NIU (1-3, 0-0); the Huskies have been hit by injury and like Ohio is struggling a bit to find its offensive identity.
In non-conference bouts, two MAC East teams are set up to be patsies against ranked opponents. Kent State (2-2) is a 38-point underdog at Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin.
And in South Bend, Bowling Green (1-3) is a 45.5-point underdog to Notre Dame. According to ESPN, the spread is the largest in an FBS game in 30 years.
And lastly, Akron (0-5) and Miami (2-3, 1-0 MAC) are on a bye week.