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Five Things to Watch: UB vs. NIU for MAC Championship

Five things to watch: UB vs. Northern Illinois Mid-American Conference Championship

Where: Detroit’s Ford Field

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where to watch/listen: ESPN2, Radio 1520

1. Can UB’s freshman running backs get going?

If UB can stay out of third-and-long situations, then it will be hard for Northern Illinois to stop the Bulls’ downfield passing game. But if Northern shuts down the run, UB offense could have problems. Northern Illinois ranks No. 1 in the MAC and No. 13 in the nation in rushing yards allowed, at only 99 a game. No runner has hit 100 yards on the Huskies this season. UB has the top freshman rushing tandem in the nation in Jaret Patterson (874 yards) and Kevin Marks (733). If Patterson gains 100 yards, it’s over. UB wins. The less Patterson and Marks do, the more the burden falls on Tyree Jackson to make exceptional plays.

2. Keep Sutton Smith from destroying the game

The speedy Huskies edge rusher is a game breaker. He leads the nation in sacks over the past two years (with 27), and he has four return touchdowns (three off fumble recoveries and one off a blocked punt). UB should use a running back to chip on Smith or slide the protection his way most of the game. One plus for the Bulls: The Huskies’ other starting defensive end, Josh Corcoran, must sit out the first half because of a targeting penalty he incurred in the last game. Corcoran has eight sacks.

3. Get the ball to A.J.

It’s the last MAC game in the career of UB star receiver Anthony Johnson. He’s headed to the NFL as a likely first-round draft choice. Johnson burned NIU for seven catches and 140 yards in the game last season. Northern Illinois’ defensive secondary is not exceptional. But few teams can exploit it because the pass rush gets to the quarterback so quickly. If UB can max-protect in the right situations, Johnson can make plays downfield.

4. Contain the QB run game

The NIU offense enters Friday’s game stumbling – 15 first-downs in a 13-7 loss to Miami, 16 first downs in a 28-21 loss to Western Michigan. The pass game is 127th out of 129 in yards per attempt. All the passes are to the flat, swings, screens, bubble screens. If UB does a decent job defending the run, 24 points wins the game for sure, and 21 might be enough.

5. Don’t lose on special teams

A clean special-teams game alone pushes UB’s win chances above 50 percent. Can they get it? Punting and place-kicking has not been a strength. UB Nation holds its collective breath when Adam Mitcheson lines up to kick.

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