DETROIT — Keeping star quarterback Tyree Jackson upright will be a big worry for the University at Buffalo offense in Friday’s Mid-American Conference championship game.
Northern Illinois ranks No. 1 in the nation in sacks with 46, and star defensive end Sutton Smith leads the nation over the past two seasons with 27 sacks.
“Our tackles are going to have big challenges,” said UB coach Lance Leipold. “We have to find ways to help them. You have to rise to the occasion and establish a running game.”
Smith is Northern Illinois’ best player. He knocked UB quarterback Drew Anderson out of last year’s meeting between the teams with a second-quarter sack. Northern Illinois went on to edge the Bulls, 14-13.
Smith is a speed rusher who is expected to be an NFL draft pick in 2020, despite a lack of ideal size. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior runs the 40-yard dash in better than 4.5 seconds, according to Northern Illinois. He led the nation as a sophomore with 14 sacks and stands fourth this year with 13. He’s also sixth this year in tackles for loss with 21.
“Every time I say his name, I want to say sudden,” said UB coach Lance Leipold. “He’s a sudden player. He’s sudden in his movements. He counters how he’s blocked. He uses his hands well. He doesn’t get himself in bad situations. He stays at the quarterback’s level. … He deservingly is an All-American and defensive player of the year.”
Pass protection is a UB strength.
The Bulls rank third in the nation in fewest sacks allowed at only eight, despite the fact they throw downfield a lot.
Smith rushes from either side of the line. There’s an expectation he might rush more off right tackle against UB because Jackson is so dangerous escaping the pocket to the right and throwing downfield.
UB’s right tackle is 6-5, 300-pound sophomore Kayode Awosika, who has played well in his first season as a starter. The left tackle is 6-6, 315-pound Evin Ksiezarczyk, a standout junior from West Seneca East. Ksiezarczyk has made 24 career starts for the Bulls.
Northern Illinois typically brings a lot of pressure in passing situations because it so often gets opposing offenses in third-and-long situations. The Huskies rank No. 1 in the MAC and No. 13 in the nation in rushing yards allowed at 99 a game. They have not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.
That stoutness up front allows Smith to use his explosiveness off the edge.
Smith was a 2,000-yard rusher with 32 touchdowns as a high school senior in Missouri. Both Missouri and Indiana “flirted with him” in recruiting. But Northern Illinois was the only top-level Division I school to offer him a scholarship.
Part of the reason he went under the radar was he missed the summer camp circuit the offseason of his junior year due to injury. The other factor was top colleges questioned whether he was big enough to play running back.
In a practice his first fall at Northern Illinois, Smith raced down and walloped a defensive player who had picked up a fumble and was running downfield.
NIU coach Rod Carey made the decision on the spot to switch him to defense.
“On that play, it wasn’t just that he went down and tackled him, it’s how fast he did it, really,” Carey said. “We needed a pass rusher, and we certainly found one.”
Two years later, Smith was terrorizing quarterbacks.
“I had to get bigger,” Smith said. “That first year I was like 210 pounds soaking wet. During spring ball of ’17, I was in the 224 range. Now I’m 235. It was a big move. I never thought I would play defensive end in college just because of my stature.”