Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
December 21st 5:30 PM EST
Buffalo (8-4, 6-2) vs. San Diego State (7-5, 6-2)
For the Bulls the season started with two tough losses to AQ conference teams in Ohio State and Baylor by a combined score of 110-33. After the the two road losses, the Bulls returned home for three straight wins which were eventually apart of a seven game winning streak, including a 5-0 start in the MAC Conference. The streak ended with a 10 point loss at Toledo, but the Bulls were able to pick up one last win at Miami. In the regular season finale the Bulls were outscored 21-0 in the second half and fell to Bowling Green 24-7, and missed out on a spot in the MAC Championship. Though Buffalo missed on a shot at the MAC Championship, it’s the school’s first winning season and bowl appearance since 2008, and the second bowl appearance in school history.
For Buffalo’s offense, consistent play from sophomore quarterback Joe Licata has been key to the program’s successful season. Though Licata has completed just under 60 percent of his passes, the sophomore has a 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio and has only thrown three interceptions in the last month of the season. Licata has good talent around him, including senior’s Branden Oliver, runningback, and Alex Neutz, wide receiver. Oliver has broken the 1,000 yard mark twice in his career, and can break into the 4,000 career rushing yardage milestone with 65 yards on Saturday. Oliver not only has the yardage to his resume, but has also recorded 33 career rushing touchdowns, and is a receiving threat out the backfield with 22 receptions this season, placing him third on the team. Neutz is a big target, 6’3″, and has also had a successful career as a receiver for the Bulls. With his 58 receptions, 1,421 yards, and 15 touchdowns this season, Neutz has now recorded over 3,007 yards and 30 touchdowns on his career. The Bull’s offensive line took a big hit when senior guard Jasen Carlson went down with a season ending injury. Though the new offensive line post-injury included all junior’s and a freshman, the Bulls have been able to improve their total yardage and rushing yardage since.
Defensively, senior linebacker Khalil Mack has become one of the most hyped up names in college football and the NFL Draft. Mack led the defense in tackles, tackles for a loss, sacks and forced fumbles this season. Mack’s play this season earned him MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Jack Lambert Award, and Second Team All-American from Walter Camp. Mack holds the NCAA record for career tackles for loss (75) and forced fumbles (16) and has the potential of a top ten pick in May’s draft. Another key played in Buffalo’s front end is senior defensive end Colby Way. Though he doesn’t have as high as production as Mack, Way is able to provide backfield pressure, five sacks and two tackles for loss this season. Buffalo has a pair of cornerbacks in junior Courtney Lester and senior Najja Johnson that will pose a threat San Diego State quarterback Quinn Kaehler.
Passing: Joe Licata 220-372, 2,628 Yards, 21 TD, 7 INT
Rushing: Branden Oliver 282 Attempts, 1,421 Yards, 15 TD
Receiving: Alex Neutz 58 Receptions, 947 Yards, 11 TD
Tackles: Khalil Mack 94 Tackles, 19 TFL
Sacks: Khalil Mack 10.5 Sacks
Interceptions: Mack, Najja Johnson, Cortney Lester 3 INT
San Diego State Preview
The start of the 2013 season was a rough one for the Aztecs as they suffered blowout losses to FCS Eastern Illinois and Ohio State. San Diego State then saw themselves staring at an 0-3 record after a close 34-30 loss at Oregon State. Following the three game skid, the Aztecs were able to pick up a three game win streak and a 2-0 start in Mountain West Conference play. After a bye week the Aztecs welcomed then #15 Fresno State to Qualcomm Stadium. San Diego State had the Bulldogs on the ropes at the end of regulation, but had their game-winning field goal attempt blocked, and later fell 35-28 in overtime. Following the tough home loss to Fresno State, San Diego State won four straight games, including two overtime wins and all four coming by one score. The regular season ended on a low note though, falling to UNLV 45-19. This will be San Diego State’s fourth straight season with a bowl appearance, but the team is looking for its first bowl win since 2010 and the first under head coach Rocky Long.
Offensively for the Aztecs the team has turned to junior Adam Muema and freshman Donne Pumphrey to carry the load behind an offensive line led by senior tackle Byrce Quigley and junior tackle Terry Poole, both named to the Mountain West All-Conference teams. The running back combination has combined for 351 carries, 1,765 yards and 20 touchdowns. After struggles in the first two games from returning starting quarterback Andrew Dingwell, Long turned to junior Juco-transfer Quinn Kaehler in the Ohio State game, and hasn’t turned back since. Kaehler’s favorite target this season has been junior wide receiver Ezell Ruffin, who has totaled 63 receptions, 1,061 yards and three touchdown scores in his honorable mention All-MWC season. Alongside Ruffin is senior wide receiver Colin Lockett, who was also named to the honorable mention All-MWC team and has 49 receptions, nearly 700 yards, and five touchdowns.
The defensive heart beat of the Aztecs is three year starting safety, Nate Berhe. The team leader in tackles and fumble recoveries, Berhe has found himself as an all-conference performer for the third straight season and is clearly the leader of the defensive unit. Senior linebacker Nick Tenhaeff has proved to be a force in the front end of the defense, leading the team in both sacks (5) and tackles for loss (13), while totaling 64 tackles this season. Battling injuries in his three season’s at San Diego State, junior cornerback J.J. Whittaker has had quite the coming out season, finishing with three interceptions and 14 passes defend, while earning All-MWC honors. Key an eye on junior linebacker Josh Gavert next to Tenhaeff as another linebacker who can provide pressure to Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata. Opposite of Whittaker is junior cornerback King Holder, who has quietly recorded 60 tackles and eight passes defend, as the duo of junior cornerbacks looks to solidify themselves as lock-down corners before their senior season’s.
San Diego State Leaders
Passing: Quinn Kaehler 217-361, 2,796 Yards, 17 TD, 9 INT
Rushing: Adam Muema 228 Attempts, 1,015 Yards, 12 TD
Receiving: Ezell Ruffin 63 Receptions, 1,061 Yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Nat Berhe 94 Tackles, 5 TFL
Sacks: Nick Tenhaeff 5 Sacks
Interceptions: J.J. Whittaker 3 INT
Keys to Victory
The Mack Attack. Outside Linebacker Khalil Mack has the ability to change the game at any moment. Mack is a force in the offense’s backfield and can really cause problems for the offense. For Buffalo they should be expecting Mack to go out with a bang in his last college football game. For San Diego State containing Mack and keeping him off Kaehler as much as possible should be top priority. Quigley and Poole have had good season’s, but they’ve yet to have seen a talent this season like Mack. Can they slow down Mack and give Kaehler time in the pocket?
Costly Turnovers. Defensively Buffalo has been able to force turnovers and take care of the football on offense, leading to a positive 15 turnover ratio, one of the best in the country. San Diego State on the other hand has one of the worst turnover margins in the country and has struggled to take care of the football. If Buffalo can get Mack going early, Kaehler will be forced to get rid of the ball quickly and continue to force turnovers.
Controlling the Run Game. Both teams enter the game with good offensive lines and a solid rushing attack. San Diego State comes in with a two back attack in Muema and Pumphrey. Buffalo has a special talent with Oliver and should turn to the run to aide the young Licata. Though both teams rank highly in rush defense, whichever team can use their rushing attack effectively early in the game will have the ability to open up the field vertically as the game progresses.
National Rankings Offense
Total: Buffalo 401.8 (70th), San Diego State 422 (57th)
Passing: Buffalo 229.9 (67th), San Diego State 262.3 (35th)
Rushing: Buffalo 171.9 (66th), San Diego State 159.8 (74th)
Scoring: Buffalo 30.8 (57th), San Diego State 28.2 (70th)
Redzone: Buffalo .867 (35th), San Diego State .717 (117th)
National Rankings Defense
Total: Buffalo 376.3 (43rd), San Diego State 392.6 (55th)
Passing: Buffalo 216.6 (38th), San Diego State 259.7 (103rd)
Rushing: Buffalo 159.8 (58th) , San Diego State 132.9 (22nd)
Scoring: Buffalo 22.3 (27th), San Diego State 32.3 (96th)
Redzone: Buffalo .722 (10th), San Diego State .951 (123rd)
Turnover Margin: Buffalo +15 (4th), San Diego State -12 (118th)
Top NFL Draft Prospects
Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo, Senior
Nat Berhe, Safety, San Diego State, Senior
Bryce Quigley, Tackle, San Diego State, Senior
Branden Oliver, Running Back, Buffalo, Senior
Alex Neutz, Wide Receiver, Buffalo, Senior
Featured Image via Paul Hokanson/ UB Athletics