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Prime-time MAC games mean higher scoring conference contests

The last time the University at Buffalo and Miami (Ohio) football teams met, a weeknight game on national television turned into a high-scoring affair. It was emblematic of a typical weekday league game: high scoring, defense optional and record setting – better known in college football circles and Twitter as "MACtion."

The Bulls defeated the RedHawks, 51-42, on Oct. 30, 2018. Former UB wide receiver Anthony Johnson set a school record for receiving yards in a single game by catching eight passes for 238 yards, but the Bulls made two defensive stops in the final 2 1/2 minutes to preserve the win in the highest scoring Mid-American Conference game last season.

UB (2-2) and Miami (1-3) meet in their MAC opener at noon Saturday at Yager Stadium in Oxford, Ohio. If they follow a recent trend, odds are less points will be scored in the game.

The News analyzed scoring in every conference game over the last three seasons and found that, on average, weekday MAC games have been higher scoring than Saturday MAC games.

In 2018, teams combined to score an average of 50.71 points per game on Saturdays. Teams combined to score an average of 64.2 points in weeknight conference games.

In 2017, the average points scored in weeknight games beat the average points scored in Saturday games, 61.56 to 49.08. In 2016, it was 56.38 to 52.4.

Those statistics surprised UB coach Lance Leipold.

“I never knew that,” Leipold said. “Maybe you have to give Bob Gennarelli (MAC deputy commissioner and chief operating officer, who creates the football schedule) credit, that he was picking matchups that are going to be exciting, and the MACtion hashtag is paying dividends.

“It’s interesting, but also, there might be some fact that young men like to play on national television and play under the lights, and there’s something about that, where there’s probably a few more eyeballs on them, and maybe people are rising to the occasion.”

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, however, was aware of the upward scoring trend in weeknight MAC games, but hasn’t crunched the numbers or dissected the reasons why scoring averages continue to increase in those games.

“I don’t know for a fact, why that occurs,” Steinbrecher said. “But the question is, do you have good competition? That’s the question. Is it entertaining football? The coaches haven’t complained about that. The student-athletes haven’t complained about that.”

Going prime-time

The MAC has been playing midweek conference games since 1999, but there seemed to be something unconventional about playing college football games in the middle of the week. If traditionalists had their way, every college football game would be played on Saturday.

But the midweek, prime-time MAC games became frenetic affairs involving state schools, and in a way became must-see TV.

Then, the MAC capitalized on quirkiness. In 2014, the MAC and ESPN agreed to a 13-year contract, reported by multiple outlets to be worth more than $100 million. Each year, the deal distributes roughly $8 million to the conference, and about $670,000 to each school. The original television contract, signed in 2009, reportedly paid $1.4 million a year to the conference, which came to a distribution of about $110,000 per year to each of the league’s schools.

The new contract granted ESPN exclusive television and digital distribution rights for all MAC sporting events. The pay bump was a benefit, but midweek football games became a crown jewel. The MAC drew more eyeballs on a marquee product, and players liked playing on prime-time broadcasts.

“It might be because those are the only games being played at the time, so everybody wants to show what they can do a little more,” said Vince Calhoun, a defensive back at Eastern Michigan. “On Saturday, everybody in the country is playing. That definitely gets our team looked at more. It’s way more exposure.”

Yet, like Leipold, none of a handful of players surveyed at the MAC football media day in Detroit in July realized that midweek MAC games were higher-scoring than weekend games.

No one could isolate a specific reason. Maybe it’s the crunch of having a full day of classes and meetings prior to a game as opposed to a Saturday game. A midweek game puts players in a different frame of mind, as coaches and players adapt their schedules to mimic a week that ends with a Saturday game.

“Preparation is a little different,” Miami defensive lineman Doug Costin said. “You have prepare as much as you can, but because it’s a weekday game, you also have to think about an exam that you have to study for, or some homework you have to do on the road, and you try to prepare as much as you can, but you have a few more things that might derail your preparation or might change how much you prepare.

“Usually, during the week, I’m like, 'What do I have to do school-wise?' and you know you have that practice coming up. But it’s Tuesday, and there’s a game, and then you think, ‘Wait, I have a game today and I have to shift my focus.’ ”

Adjusting to a different structure

Adam McClintock, the co-founder of Matrix Analytical Solutions and a consultant who analyzes and grades coaches for college football websites and athletic departments, found a biological and psychological correlation: the amount of rest and preparation each team gets leading into weeknight games.

“Some teams are coming off 10 days rest/preparation playing a team who is coming off five days (rest),” McClintock told The News in an email. “That is going to lead to some mismatches in preparation, both physically and mentally.”

UB had 10 days off after a win Oct. 20 at Toledo, prior to beating Miami last fall. The RedHawks also had 10 days off after a double-overtime loss Oct. 20 at Army.

Six teams, however, had five-day windows between their last Saturday games and their first weeknight games: Ball State, Northern Illinois, Akron, Ohio, Toledo and Western Michigan.

Ball State linebacker Jacob White says there’s more structure during the week, which lends itself to burning off more tension during a weeknight game.

“Playing on a Tuesday or a Wednesday or a Thursday is not normal,” White said. “Everyone plays on a Saturday. It naturally affects your preparation. You go to class on a game day if you’re the home team, you have a lot more schoolwork during the week, and it’s in the middle of the week. It throws a big wrench in how you prepare, outside of your normal schedule. You have to adapt. And if you don’t adapt, the preparation standpoint suffers.”

UB running back Jaret Patterson said the structure of a condensed game day schedule helps get him into a frame of mind, much like in high school, when he played Friday night games. But, he added, “You’re on the go. You don’t have a lot of time to relax for a weeknight game.”

McClintock added that coaching staffs, players and coaches are creatures of habit – they thrive on routines during the course of a week.

“There isn't much room for establishing a routine in a lot of those (mid-week MAC) schedules,” McClintock said. “This could lead to some defenses being unprepared for the offenses they are matching up against and vice versa leading to more points during short or long weeks.”

November MACtion

The MAC’s weeknight conference schedule begins Nov. 5, when Western Michigan hosts Ball State and Toledo hosts Kent State. They’re the first of 18 weekday MAC games currently scheduled to be broadcast on the ESPN platforms or on CBS Sports Network. UB plays only three weekday games this season: 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at Kent State, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20 against Toledo, and then closes the season Nov. 29 against Bowling Green.

Midweek MAC games don't get the national attention as a matchup between Ohio State and Penn State or USC and Oregon. According to SportsMediaWatch.com, which tracks sports television viewership, Northern Illinois' win against Toledo on Nov. 7 – an 8 p.m. kickoff on a Wednesday night on ESPN2 – drew the largest television audience (500,000 viewers) for a midweek MAC game in 2018.

Despite not having the same viewership as other college football games, the MAC continued to have high-scoring finishes in its weekday games. Toledo defeated Kent State, 56-34 on Nov. 15, one of four weekday games in which the Rockets scored at least 45 points, and Ohio played in four weekday MAC games in which it scored at least 49 points.

While Costin never really paid attention to the day of the game, the crowds or the ESPN camera crews on the sidelines, he’s suddenly become a little more attuned to the energy of MACtion.

“Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m going to notice it!” Costin said, laughing. “I’m going to keep track of the scores a little more.”

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