The Broncos move to 4-1 and establish themselves as one of the teams to beat in the MAC
The last time Western Michigan and Buffalo met on the football field, the result was one of the wildest games you will ever see. After finishing regulation tied at 31, these two teams took seven overtimes to determine a victor on October 7, 2017. Western Michigan ultimately prevailed 71-68 in what was one of the most memorable MAC games of the past decade, and neither fanbase had forgotten this contest entering this week.
While both teams entered this game with high hopes, the WMU Broncos (4-1, 1-0 MAC) ultimately proved to be the more complete squad on this day, using a surprisingly strong defense and an efficient offense to pull out a 24-17 victory at UB Stadium over the Buffalo Bulls (2-3, 0-1 MAC.)
The two teams took some time to feel each other out at the onset.
Western Michigan opened the game with a three-and-out, and the Bulls first drive was derailed by penalties. After the drive stalled out at the Broncos 41, Buffalo punter Jackson Baltar pinned the Broncos at their own five yard line.
Western Michigan’s ensuing drive was a thing of beauty. Spanning over eight minutes, the Broncos marched 95 yards in 16 plays using a great mix of the run and the pass. QB Kaleb Eleby capped the drive off with an incredible throw to WR Skyy Moore in the back corner of the end zone, and the Broncos held a 7-0 lead with 1:40 to go in the first quarter. It was the third Eleby/Moore connection on the drive, including a 19 yard completion on 4th and three to extend the drive.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, their lead was short-lived. The Bulls needed only two plays to answer, as Ron Cook, Jr. went 55 yards to the end zone on the second play of Buffalo’s ensuing drive. Big plays have long been a problem for the Broncos defense, however most of those breakdowns have come through the air.
Western Michigan’s next drive was promising, as the Broncos moved the ball 55 yards before stalling out just outside the Buffalo red zone. After a nine-play drive, Parker Sampson missed a 37 yard field goal and the score remained knotted at seven. The kicking game has been an issue all season, as Sampson has now made just two of his six field goal attempts.
On the ensuing Bulls’ drive, the Western Michigan defense reverted to the script it used last week to slow down San Jose State: relentless pressure. On third-and-eight at the Broncos 18-yard line, Buffalo QB Kyle Vantrease dropped back and was sacked for the first time this season by LB Zaire Barnes and fumbled. The Broncos recovered the fumble, their seventh takeaway in the last three contests.
After taking possession, the Broncos offense put together another long drive, taking 8:49 off the clock and marching all the way down to the Buffalo two-yard line. The offense stalled out once again, and a fourth and goal call which saw Eleby scramble and extend the play ultimately failed when he was unable to find an open man in the end zone. The Broncos turned the ball over on downs with 30 seconds left until half time.
The Broncos dominated time of possession in the first half, having held the ball for over 22 minutes, yet their inability to finish drives hampered them. The game would enter the halftime break at 7-7.
The Bulls got the ball to open the second half and put together one of their best drives of the day. Dylan McDuffie ran the ball six times for 26 yards on the drive, and Kyle Vantrease completed all three of his pass attempts. Backup QB Matt Myers entered the game as the Bulls reached the red zone, and was dropped for a three yard loss on third-and-four from the Broncos 12-yard line. Alex McNulty’s 37 yard field goal was right down the middle, and the Bulls had their first lead of the game at 10-7.
Once again, the Broncos inability to finish drives hurt them on their next possession. Starting at their own 25-yard line, Skyy Moore and Corey Crooms each caught two passes from Eleby to lead WMU deep into Buffalo territory. An incompletion on third-and-11 forced the Broncos to try another field goal, and Parker Sampson missed his second field goal of the day, sailing the kick wide left. The tally remained 10-7 in favor of the Bulls.
With a chance to create some separation, the Bulls offense was unable to sustain anything, moving backwards and having to punt without being able to pick up a first down. Jackson Baltar shanked the ensuing punt, and it traveled only 12 yards. All of a sudden, Western Michigan had the ball back at the Bulls 33-yard line.
The Buffalo defense was not phased. Facing a third-and-five at the Buffalo 28, Eleby was sacked by Draymond Williams, creating a fourth-and-13 at the Bulls 36. Instead of opting for a long field goal, Tim Lester opted to go for it. For the second time in as many attempts, the Broncos were thwarted and were unable to take advantage of the short field.
Buffalo once again went three and out on their next drive, and the Broncos got the ball back at their own 24 yard line with just over a minute to go in the third quarter. WMU went 67 yards in 13 plays, but once again stalled out after reaching the red zone. This time, the Broncos gave backup kicker Nick Mihalic the chance at the field goal, and his 26-yard kick was true. We were once again tied, 10-10, with just over 10 minutes to go in the game.
The Broncos defense once again stepped up, causing a third straight three and out for Buffalo. After getting the ball back, the WMU offense produced what would turn out to be the turning point in the game.
On the first play after the Buffalo punt, Eleby found Skyy Moore down the right sideline for a 64-yard score. Just like that, the Broncos were back in control.
The Bulls offense could not get anything going at this point. Their next drive saw the same result as the last three, and Buffalo was forced to punt after just three plays. The Bulls, at this point, had not picked up a first down since their first drive after half time. After their fourth straight three and out, the Bulls punted yet again and gave the ball back to the Broncos at the WMU 34-yard line.
With just over eight minutes remaining in the game, the Broncos offense embarked on what would be the drive that put the game out of reach. A run-heavy drive, bolstered by seven carries for La’Darius Jefferson, was capped off by a one-yard Jefferson touchdown run to put the Broncos up 24-10 with just two and a half minutes left in the game.
The Bulls put together a nice drive in response, going 65 yards in just seven plays to cut the deficit back to seven thanks to Kyle Vantrease’s one yard QB sneak. With the game back within striking distance at 24-17 and just over a minute left to play, the Bulls tried an onside kick but were unsuccessful. Western Michigan recovered the kick and were able to run out the remainder of the clock. 24-17 would prove to be your final tally.
This was a highly competitive game between two of the better teams in the conference. Western Michigan did end up winning the box score, outgaining the Bulls 457-282, but this game was close throughout. Buffalo’s defense shut down the Broncos offense unlike anyone else, with the exception of Michigan.
(Personal aside: Entering the year, I didn’t think the Bulls had enough talent to qualify for a bowl game. They have proven me wrong thus far.)
The Bulls have nothing to be ashamed of from this performance, but Western Michigan has officially established themselves as a MAC title contender with this victory.
The offense, as always, was the star of the show here. QB Kaleb Eleby had another efficient day, completing 21-of-33 passes for 279 yards and two TD’s. WR Skyy Moore was the recipient of both scoring passes and finished the day with 11 catches for 163 yards and those two TD’s. RB La’Darius Jefferson added 96 yards and a score on his 23 carries.
Buffalo struggled to get anything established offensively in this game, especially in the second half. Kyle Vantrease finished 12-of-22 for only 151 yards, and the Bulls normally potent ground game was only able to manage 131 yards on 29 carries. For a team averaging over 200 yards per game on the ground, this was a disappointing performance. In the passing game WR Quian Williams had his second straight solid performance for the Bulls, leading the team with six receptions for 119 yards.
The star of the day was Western Michigan WR Skyy Moore, who finished the day with 11 receptions for 163 yards and two scores. Through five weeks, he has proven to be one of the best receivers in the MAC.
Somebody had to win this game. Regardless of the outcome, these are two very good, well coached football teams. With the victory, the Broncos have firmly established themselves as a MAC title favorite, while the Bulls still have a clear path to Ford Field from the East division.
WMU will be back in action next Saturday as defending MAC champ Ball State visits Waldo Stadium at 3:30. For the Bulls, they travel to northeast Ohio to take on Kent State at 7:00. Both teams have reasons to be hopeful after this contest.