For every Ohio football game, Speakeasy Sports will be going into the den of the opponent to get first-hand analysis. By reaching out to team beat reporters, Speakeasy provides a unique look-in at how the ‘Cats will fare against their adversaries. In a question-and-answer format, Speakeasy chats with another team’s reporter to gain a new perspective on Ohio’s opponents. Also, after the Q-and-A, make sure to listen to this week’s edition of the Know Your Enemy podcast where Speakeasy chats with players from the opposing team.
This week, Speakeasy talks to The Spectrum editor-in-chief Aaron Mansfield. You can follow him on Twitter at @aaroncmansfield.
Speakeasy Sports: Buffalo had a big win last weekend, especially with Bowling Green going down. Now the Bulls have now taken over sole possession of first place in the MAC East. With Ohio coming to town next Tuesday, how big of a game is this for Buffalo?
Aaron Mansfield: I think a big question that was looming around the Bulls was if they could beat anyone who was a legitimate contender. Before they went against Kent State, their opponent’s combined wins against Division I programs was one. People were really questioning, “Yeah, they have won five straight, but are they legit?” And I really think Kent State tougher than its record indicates. I think last weekend went a long way to proving that [the Bulls] are a bonafide contender, and this week against Ohio is the real question. Because I think everyone is in agreement that Ohio is one of those top two teams to beat in the conference.
SS: The Buffalo defense this season has been stellar, led by guys like Khalil Mack, who is No. 1 in sacks in the MAC and in the top tier with three picks as well. That’s a big reason why the Bulls lead the league in opponent’s third-down percentage. How big of a total impact does Mack have on this defense?
AM: It’s really tough for me to put into perspective how great he’s been this year. It’s been pretty special to watch his emergence this year. The thing that he does that I think is so special is that he can get around blockers at will, so when he comes off the edge, we haven’t seen an offensive tackle this year who could hang with him. He’s also great, as you mentioned, at pass coverage. He’s been dropping back. Mack is the guy who opposing teams really have to stop if they want to have a chance against this Bulls defense, which has been pretty dominant this year.
SS: Last season the offense really struggled to find a consistent starting quarterback, but it looks like they have their man this year in sophomore Joe Licata. How have things been working out with him?
AM: The outside perception was that the Bulls struggled to find a starter, but I think the only person who really struggled with it was [head coach] Jeff Quinn. All the fans and all the people covering the team were clamoring, “Hey, give it to Licata.” He’s made Quinn look pretty smart now that he’s finally put him in. He doesn’t put up huge stats, at least at this point in his career, but he goes out and gets the job done. He doesn’t turn the ball over very much; he’s more of an efficient, short-passing quarterback, kind of like a Chad Pennington.
SS: Who do you think could be a potential x-factor on Buffalo that could ruin Ohio’s day on Tuesday night?
AM: Boy, I think the most underrated player on the Bulls is, without a doubt, Alex Neutz. He’s their leading wide receiver, so some people know about him. He’s just a tremendous athlete and he’s pretty deceiving too because he doesn’t look that fast, he doesn’t look that freakishly athletic, but he’s tremendous in the air. He was a volleyball player before he was a football player, and he can really get up. He wins jump balls and has the surest pair of hands that I have covered as a reporter. He’s been questionable the past few weeks with a concussion, but when he’s healthy and the Bulls are looking for him, he’s an incredibly dangerous threat.
SS: Ohio’s defense stood strong against the Miami RedHawks last week, holding their rivals to less than 100 yards rushing after three weeks of a stagnant run defense. The front sevens for both of these teams have been tops in the MAC so far, but what makes the Buffalo front seven so special?
AM: Buffalo’s got a great front seven. I think the real key that could define this team is Adam Redden. He’s a hybrid safety linebacker. What I mean by that is he played safety and corner his whole career then this year the Bulls decided, “Hey, we need another speed guy to come opposite Khalil on the other end.” They moved him to this position where he roams around the field, and he’s been having a monster year. But he got hurt last week against Kent and he spent the second half on the sideline on crutches. If the Bulls don’t have him, that’s a monumental loss. There would be a big drop off if Redden isn’t able to go. The other question mark is Colby Way, and he’s probably the Bulls second or third best defensive player. If the Bulls don’t have those guys, they are in big trouble holding down Beau Blankenship and the Ohio offense.
SS: Can I get a score prediction for the pivotal MAC East contest next Tuesday at 8 p.m. in Buffalo?
AM: Boy, that is a tough question, and this is a really crucial matchup for both of these teams. If this game were in Ohio, I’d give it to Ohio, but because it’s in Buffalo, I give it to Buffalo. I think it’s going to be a very close game. The Bulls have just played exponentially better at home; they’ve been so much better at UB Stadium then they have on the road this year, and I think that Danny White — he’s the second-year athletic director — he’s been making this huge push to make UB a bigger brand and that’s why he has New York state on everything now. I think the Bulls will win, 24-21.
On the second episode of the Speakeasy Sports Know Your Enemy podcast, host Zak Kolesar chats with Buffalo wide receiver Alex Neutz: