|International Bowl Preview: Buffalo vs. Connecticut|
|Written by Dave Ruthenberg|
|Friday, January 02 2009|
Offense: Buffalos steady offense is powered by senior QB Drew Willy who ranks 25th nationally in passing efficiency. Willy has tossed 25 TDs this season and thrown only five interceptions while completing nearly 65 percent of his passes. Willy, over the course of his career, has re-written the Bulls passing record books and is currently ranked number 5 by ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper among quarterbacks for the 2009 NFL draft. Willys favorite target this season has been Naaman Roosevelt. The junior WR was a unanimous first-team All-MAC selection in 2008. Roosevelt was the only receiver in the MAC to average better than 100 yards receiving per game (100.9 ypg) and topped the league with 13
Defense: The Bulls have been fairly generous in the yardage department this season, giving up an average of 408.3 yards per game. Teams have been able to move the ball via the air especially, as the Bulls have allowed nearly 250 yards (249.5) passing per game but the Bulls have some playmakers that require attention. One of the players that have stepped to the fore this season has been sophomore LB Justin Winters who leads the Bulls with 117 tackles this season and is second on the squad with 7.5 tackles for loss. His per game average of 9.1 stops per game is good for 5th in the MAC. DB Davonte Shannon has earned All-MAC accolades the last two seasons. The sophomore strong safety has 106 tackles this season after recording 123 tackles in his freshman season. Another player to watch is junior free safety Mike Newton. Newton was named the MVP of the MAC Championship Game when he returned a fumble 92-yards for a touchdown and racked up nine tackles in Buffalos 42-24 upset win over Ball State. Newton tallied 108 tackles on the season. The Bulls were also a ball-hawking bunch on defense this season, topping the MAC in turnover margin (+15). In their last seven games alone, the Bulls forced 22 fumbles with sophomore CB Domonic Cook leading the way with a league-best four fumble recoveries. Cook also has a team-leading three picks this season.
Special Teams: WR Ernest Jackson tops the Bulls with an average of 25.4 yards per kick return which includes a 97-yard TD return earlier this season against Missouri. PK AJ Principe has been solid from inside 40 yards, connecting on 9-10 tries but is only 1-5 from 40 yard or beyond this season with a season-long of exactly 40 yards. Punter Peter Fardon has averaged 38.3 yards this season and has placed 18 of his 55 punts inside the opponents 20-yard line.
Defense: The Huskies own the top defense in the Big East, entering the International Bowl with a Big-East leading defense that has given up only 281.4 yards per game. UConn has been especially stingy through the air, giving up only 164.5 yards per game which is nearly 30 yards per game fewer than the Big Easts next-highest rated passing defense (Rutgers 191.3 yards). Among those leading the way for the Huskies has been senior DE Cody Brown who has 10 sacks this season (2nd Big East 21st nationally). Brown is also second in the Big East in tackles for loss (15). Sophomore LB Scott Lutrus has had a solid season, leading the Huskies with 100 tackles and also has five pass break-ups. The Huskies playmaking secondary has picked off 17 passes this season and is led by sophomore cornerback Jasper Howard with four interceptions and junior cornerback Robert McClains three picks, including two returned for touchdowns. The Huskies defense has not been slowed down at all by its relative youth either as four of their seven top tacklers are only in their second year of eligibility.
Special Teams: CB Jasper Howard tops the Big East in punt returns, averaging 11.8 yards per return and recorded his first career TD return when he returned a punt 69-yards for a TD against Syracuse. Darius Butler has averaged a solid 23.5 yards per kick return. PK Dave Taggert assumed a starting role Oct 25 against Cincinnati when he tied a school record by going 4-4 in FG attempts in a 40-16 victory. Taggert made the first 11 attempts of his career and was 12-13 this season with a long effort of 47 yards. P Desi Cullen has averaged 39.7 yards per punt this season and has placed 22 of 56 punts inside the opponents 20-yard line.
The Huskies come in on a different streak, having lost three of their last four games and five of their last seven after starting the season 5-0. A large part of the Huskies struggles can be traced to injuries at QB with UConn losing starter Tyler Lorenzen and backup Zach Frazer to injuries. Lorenzen is back in the starting fold however after recovering from a broken foot.
This game will feature two of the nations top RBs with UConns Donald Brown (the nations leading rusher) and Buffalos James Starks (the MACs second-leading rusher) likely to provide plenty of offense but the game could come down to the passing game and Buffalo has the edge with Drew Willy being a sharp, decisive, strong-armed performer.
While the Bulls are giving up about 250 yards passing per game, they have been one of the top teams in forcing turnovers which could come in handy facing a UConn team that has tossed 17 interceptions this season.Expect a close game (would the Bulls have it any other way?) with the MAC finally securing its first bowl win of the postseason.
Prediction: Buffalo 27, Connecticut 24.