Preview: CMU looks to remain bowl eligible with win over Buffalo

Freshman running back Jake Tafelski celebrates with his teammates after scoring a touchdown Saturday, Oct. 22, in Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Looking to right the ship, Central Michigan football traveled to DeKalb, Illinois for its first mid-week conference game of the season last week and came out with a win. 

In doing so, the Chippewas (3-6, 2-3) kept their bowl game eligibility alive against a Northern Illinois team less than a year removed from a Mid-American Conference Championship. 

However, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, CMU faces another test as it welcomes Buffalo to Kelly/Shorts Stadium at 7 p.m.

Indeed, the team stepped up in some critical moments. The defensive unit continued its largely consistent play and was responsible for the game-sealing score via a strip-sack from junior defensive end Thomas Incoom in the Huskies’ end zone, leading to a touchdown fumble recovery by linebacker Kyle Moretti. 

The sack gave Incoom 8.5 on the season. 

With the defense rolling over the course of the long season, the offense has mostly sputtered. 

Against NIU, the Chippewas found success with a three-quarterback rotation, and it appears that head coach Jim McElwain is sticking to that plan.

“We’ll play all the quarterbacks,” McElwain said. “(We’ll) see how that goes with the flow of the game.”

For an already-struggling offense, the litany of injuries on that side of the ball has been nearly impossible to overcome. Just when it seemed like the offense was finding its way, the unit took another crushing blow with tight end Joel Wilson going down with an ankle injury on a touchdown reception against NIU.

“We’ll be without (Wilson) for the rest of the season,” McElwain confirmed on Monday. 

The Chippewas will have to find another source of production to make life easier for the quarterbacks, as Wilson currently leads the team in receptions (44) and touchdown receptions (6). 

Meet the opponent

While the quarterback rotation yielded positive results against NIU, Buffalo’s defense presents a tougher challenge for CMU. 

The numbers don’t necessarily jump off the screen in terms of yardage allowed (opposing offenses have averaged just over 400 yards per game on UB’s defense), but the Bulls’ defensive unit boasts several playmakers capable of making life difficult for any offense - especially an injury-ridden unit lacking consistency. 

The first name that sticks out is fifth-year linebacker, James Patterson. Holding down a starting linebacker position for Buffalo since his freshman year in 2018, he and junior linebacker Shaun Dolac pace the team in tackles with 82 and 95, respectively. 

In the defensive secondary, junior safety Marcus Fuqua leads not only Buffalo but the entire MAC with five interceptions. He is one of four defenders to have reached 40 tackles this season. Expect him to be a thorn in the Chippewas’ side on Wednesday. 

The Bulls' defensive unit ranks fifth in the MAC in yards allowed per game, but welcomes a favorable matchup, as CMU’s offense ranks eight out of twelve MAC teams, and averages fewer yards per game than Buffalo’s defense gives up. On paper, the Bulls certainly hold the advantage on that side of the ball.

Buffalo’s offense is firmly average in the MAC in terms of offensive yards per game, coming in at sixth. The rushing attack has averaged over 140 yards per game, while  their passing offense is just above average at 241.6 yards per game, which ranks fifth in the MAC.

Buffalo’s offense is led by junior quarterback Cole Snyder, who ranks fourth in the MAC in passing yards with 2145, to go along with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Snyder is in his first season as the Bulls' starter, after he serving as a backup at Rutgers in 2021. 

His transition to the MAC has been smooth and has found a favorite target through nine games in graduate transfer receiver Justin Marshall, who transferred in from Louisville this season and leads the team in yards (595) and touchdown receptions (6).

Big question: Can CMU’s offense weather the storm?

The fact that CMU’s offense has struggled to adjust throughout the season has been well-documented. 

Much has been made of it, but truly, last week was the first time the offense was able to step up and play well both in big moments and throughout the entire game. Now that there is film on CMU’s quarterback rotation, Buffalo will have had a week to prepare for the different looks provided by the three quarterbacks expected to see snaps.

It all starts with Richardson, who saw the bulk of the passing snaps against NIU. While Jase Bauer and Bert Emanuel provide their own unique skill sets, Richardson needs to have a good performance to put CMU in a position to win.  

If Richardson’s level of play defaults back to what it’s been the majority of this season, then McElwain will likely lean on Emmanuel, who has yet to throw a pass in an NCAA football game for his career. In all likelihood, this would spell trouble for the Chippewas’ offense. While Emmanuel may be tabbed as the potential long-term solution for CMU as a quarterback, he may not be ready to position the team to win against a very solid MAC team.

If Richardson can build off of his performance from last week, then the Chippewas should be able to make some things happen on offense. He was much more poised in the pocket than he had been in past weeks. Last week’s version of Richardson gives CMU a much better chance to pull off the win than the Richardson of previous contests this season.

Key to victory: Big guys up front

Last week, the Chippewa offensive line didn't allow a sack, leading to the confidence we saw in Richardson. This hasn’t been the case for much of the season as CMU has struggled to replace tackles Bernhard Raimann and Luke Goedeke, now in the NFL. 

Junior interior offensive lineman Deiyantei Powell-Woods is one of the holdovers from last season. He knows what it’s like to play along a high-level unit and he also knows the importance of building off of solid performances. 

“I mean, when you get on a roll, you’re on a roll,” Powell-Woods said of the line’s performance last week. “It’s easy to get things going. It’s like everything’s just clicking for you at the moment. So yeah, when you go up 21, you get that morale boost. Everybody’s feeling good, everything’s flowing right. But yeah, it definitely affects how the team plays.”

Central Michigan (3-6) vs Buffalo (5-4)

All-time series: 7-3 Central Michigan

Time: 7:00 p.m. ET

Date: Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022

Stadium: Kelly/Shorts Stadium

Location: Mount Pleasant, MI

Odds: UB -1.5

Over/Under: 54.5


Radio: 98.5 WUPS (Adam Jaksa, Brock Gutierrez)