Detroit – It’s been 10 years since Buffalo made its lone appearance in the Mid-American Conference championship game, pulling off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the title showdown at Ford Field.
It was then when Buffalo coach Turner Gill took his Bulls to the game as a 14.5-point underdog to Brady Hoke’s No. 12 ranked and unbeaten Ball State team. But Buffalo scored 28 points off five forced turnovers en route to a 42-24 victory.
Buffalo (10-2, 7-1 East) is back and this time in the role of the favorite, taking on West Division champion Northern Illinois (7-5, 6-2 West) Friday night at Ford Field.
Buffalo has won a program-best 10 games this season, averaging 35.2 points and 419.4 total yards, led by 6-foot-7, 245-pound junior quarterback Tyree Jackson of Norton Shores, Mich., and standout receivers in Ypsilanti native K.J. Osborn (46 receptions, 769 yards, 6 TDs) and senior Anthony Johnson (45-820, 9). Osborn played at Ypsilanti Lincoln for three years before transferring to IMG Academy.
Jackson will finally get the opportunity to play at Ford Field, something that didn’t happen in 2014 when he led Muskegon Mona Shores to the Division 2 state championship game, but didn’t play due to an injury.
Jackson is healthy and playing at a high level, throwing for 2,605 yards and 25 TDs and is looking forward to going back to his home state to play for the MAC championship.
“It’s been a very fun season and we’re definitely blessed to be in the situation that we are in,” said Jackson, pointing out that Buffalo was 2-10 in 2016. “It’s going to be nice to have family and friends be able to come out to a game and it will be a short trip for them, and I know for K.J. it’s the same as well.
“It’s just been nice to see him (Osborn) come on and make a lot of plays this season because we all knew what he was capable of, and for him to have a breakout year is real special. That’s one of the guys that I came in with as a freshman so it’s been a real special year to see that happen.”
Buffalo has an explosive offense, but the Bulls will be going up against the MAC’s No. 1 defense in Northern Illinois and defensive end Sutton Smith, who has 21 TFL, including 13 sacks while forcing four fumbles and recovering three, one he returned 85 yards for a TD in last week’s 28-21 loss to Western Michigan.
Northern Illinois has 46 sacks, eight by defensive end Josh Corcoran, while Buffalo’s offensive line has given up just eight sacks all season.
“They have a very talented defense,” said Jackson of Northern Illinois. “Their defensive ends play hard and are very physical and they do good job of getting to the quarterback, so it will be a challenge for our offense. We’re definitely going to have to have a great week of practice and come prepared when we play at Ford Field.”
This will be Northern Illinois’ seventh MAC championship game appearance this decade – winning in 2011, ’12 and ’14 – but the Huskies have stumbled into Ford Field this time around, losing its last two games to Miami of Ohio and Western Michigan, and Corcoran will miss the first half Friday after being ejected from the WMU game for targeting.
Detroit native and Northern Illinois senior cornerback Jalen Embry (Detroit King) will be tested by Jackson & Co. Embry has had a much-traveled career since playing at Detroit King, redshirting at Iowa in 2014, then moving on to Iowa Central Community College in 2015, redshirting at Northern Illinois in 2016 before playing in all 13 games last season, including a start in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field in a loss to Duke.
Embry has played well this season, getting in on six tackles in a 17-6 loss to Utah and making five solo tackles, including a TFL on a third-and-goal play to force a field goal try in a 7-6 win at BYU.
“We’re very excited, worked so hard both on and off the field to get to this point and represent the West side of the MAC,” Embry said. “We’re just so pumped up for this game.
“They have two deep-threat receivers. Johnson is the vertical threat who likes to go deep and that quarterback will throw it out there for him to make those one-on-one jump balls. You just have to communicate on defense and eliminate those big plays.”
Embry is thrilled to have the chance to play in the title game in his hometown.
"There's going to be a lot of family and friends that I have to represent, as well as this team," said Embry. "They're a lot of people counting on me to make those big plays and execute those big plays for our team and I'm just very excited to play at home."
Buffalo senior linebacker Khalil Hodge (130 tackles) has been the Bulls’ best defensive player since another Khalil was playing for them five years ago – Khalil Mack, who has been a force in the NFL with the Raiders and now Bears.
Hodge and former Southfield High defensive end Chuck Harris (six sacks) have helped give Buffalo a strong front seven.
Kickoff: Friday, 7 p.m., Ford Field, Detroit
Records: Buffalo 10-2, Northern Illinois 7-5
Line: Buffalo by 3.5