MAC Championship game preview: UB vs. NIU

The Bulls continue their historic season Friday night in Detroit with the Conference Title on the line

Jon Simon
November 29, 2018 - 11:42 am

Photo: Paul Hokanson -


On Friday night, the UB football team will be playing in the program’s second-ever Mid American Conference championship game at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan.

The Bulls (10-2, 7-1) will take on the MAC West Division-champion Northern Illinois Huskies (7-5, 6-2) for the first time this season.

UB’s 2018 season has been a historical one, but also, kind of expected. The Bulls were projected to be one of the top teams in the MAC when polls came out over the summer. Many writers believed they could be the best team in the conference. There was also a lot of hype surrounding the NFL-caliber talent on the roster, that being quarterback Tyree Jackson, wide receiver Anthony Johnson and linebacker Khalil Hodge.

UB has certainly lived up to the hype this fall; their 10 wins are the most for a single season in program history. Their 7-1 record in the MAC this season was also their best since joining the conference in 1999. Now, they have a chance to win the program’s first conference title in over a decade.

“It’s about the players first of all, that’s what’s always most important,” Bulls head coach Lance Leipold said on Tuesday. “To me, we’ve taken a big step towards building the consistent winning program we want to. As I’ve told our players multiple times, especially down the stretch, ‘I’m very proud of them and I’m fortunate to be their head coach.’ Now, as we approach this game, getting to Detroit was a goal, not the goal, and I think that’s important to keep in mind as we prepare this week.”

The goal was really established a year ago when the Bulls, despite finishing 6-6 and being bowl-eligible, were snubbed from postseason play. Since then, the program has played with a chip on its shoulder and has come together as one cohesive unit, fueled by last season’s disappointing finish.

“It’s a team thing,” Tyree Jackson said. “And the team comes from the trainers, coaches, everyone in the locker room, guys on scout team, etc. It’s bigger than any person or any group of people. I think that a lot of people involved in this don’t get recognized. But that’s the big thing with this team, everyone has such a love for each other and love for this team that it’s made us an unselfish group.”

The junior will be returning to his home state of Michigan for the game. Friday’s contest also won’t be the first time Jackson played inside Ford Field. In 2014, Jackson played in the Division-II State Championship game for Mona Shores High School, but came up short to Warren De La Salle, 44-8.

“It was a good experience,” Jackson said. “I’ve always wanted to get back there and get another shot.”

While Jackson is looking forward to seeing old coaches, friends and family, he’s putting all that aside until after the game. Despite playing in front of his home state fans, and playing for a conference title, Jackson has the same mindset as his head coach. He wants to approach the championship game like every other game this season.

“We just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing, we can’t really change anything just because it’s the championship game,” Jackson said. “We have to keep working on the little things and listening to our coaches because they know what they’re talking about. We have to continue to work and get better each day.”

This week, the Bulls will be prepping for a solid opponent in NIU. Jackson and the rest of the offense in particular will be in for a tough test against the Husky defense. Northern Illinois was first in the MAC in scoring, total and rushing defense.

“They have a very talented defense and we just have to go out and execute our game plan and trust our coaches,” Jackson said. “I think that if we do that we’ll be able to have some success. But as I said they have a very talented defense, so we need to come out ready to play.”

The leader of NIU’s defense is Sutton Smith, a 237-pound defensive end from Missouri. The red-shirt junior holds a number of program records, has won MAC defensive player of the week five times in his career and last season he was a consensus All-American and a finalist for MAC defensive player of the year.

“Sutton Smith probably gets the most notoriety out of anyone on their defense, and deservedly so,” Leipold said. “He’s a special defensive end with a special skill set. They’re well coached, fundamentally sound and what impressed me is that they’re where they’re supposed to be, keeping the ball at the right leverage and they’re physical. It’s just an excellent defense that plays to their strengths very well.”

The UB offense has been able to find success this season, even against good defenses, by being able to beat them in numerous ways. Jackson and the Bulls receiving corps have been great all year, but the freshman running back duo of Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks have also played a major part in UB’s offensive success.

“Our offensive philosophy from the start has been to be as balanced and as multiple as we can be for the given circumstances,” Leipold said. We’ve tried to build our offense to become more athletic, faster and able to stretch the field, and we think we have the guys that can do that now. The ability now to balance ourselves in the run game has really given us this opportunity.”

The NIU offense wasn’t at the top of many statistical categories in the MAC, but they do have a strong rushing attack. The Bulls have defended the run fairly well this season, if they can keep the Huskie running backs in check on Friday night, it could be the key to a win.

“It’s extremely important for us to slow down the run,” Leipold expressed. “Northern Illinois has an extremely physical offensive line and we didn’t stop the run well in either of our losses. They have every game of ours and we have every game of theirs, so that’s going to be a huge challenge.”

There’s been a number challenges that the Bulls have overcome this season and in Leipold’s four-year tenure, but this group has gotten past each one and now find themselves on the verge of history.

When it comes to the 2008 Bulls and this year’s group, there will always be comparisons. By no means has it ever been a competition, but if UB can get a victory Friday night, improve to 11-2 and clinch a conference title, it’d be hard not to say they’re the best team in the program’s history.

“The only thing I’ve told this group from the start, from the seniors and upperclassmen to our young guys, it’s that I always felt they had a great opportunity to be a special group and leave a legacy of some sort,” Leipold said. “There was an opportunity here to do things that maybe hadn’t been done before or hadn’t been done in a while. I wasn’t here [in 2008] to see what that group went through. This group has gone through some special circumstances and I think that no matter what happens these last two games this group is pretty special and has done a lot of great things. I want them to embrace that, but keep forging forward.”

Kickoff from Ford Field is scheduled for 7 p.m. You can listen to the full game, along with pre-game and post-game coverage on ESPN 1520. The game will also be televised on ESPN2.

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