UB faces toughest regular season test tonight

Northern Illinois receiver Trayvon Rudolph is brought down by UB linebacker James Patterson during the first half of a game Wednesday in DeKalb, Ill.

The first game played at UB Stadium in this unusual year will be a bellwether to forecasting the peaks Buffalo’s bullish college football stock could reach in the coming months.

UB hosts defending Mid-American Conference champion Miami tonight (8 p.m., ESPN) in a MACtion showcase matchup between the preseason co-favorites to win the East division.

The Bulls opened up with a 49-30 win last week at Northern Illinois. With only divisional contests remaining, another victory would give UB an edge in the race to qualify for the MAC title game and secure a third straight bowl game bid.

Table stakes include the growing potential for the Bulls to run the table for the first time in school history. But a loss in the home opener would put UB behind Miami in the division standings and further blocked by the head-to-head tiebreaker, likely lowering the ceiling for this season.

Fans will not be permitted to attend games at UB Stadium this season, but they can take part in a distanced tailgate gathering and watch the game at the Transit Drive-In.

“We appreciate those people,” UB coach Lance Leipold said. “Supporters, I think, are starving for opportunities to do things that are as close to normal as possible. I haven’t seen any video from out there to see if any Bills fans were maybe working on their tailgating skills and table-breaking. But I won’t discourage it. It’s great to see. Actually, my wife and I went out to the drive-in, to one of the concerts they had broadcasted. It’s a great environment. We appreciate that they wanted to do that for our fans and our program.”

UB has won its first two MAC contests twice before, starting 5-0 in 2013 and 6-0 in winning the East division two years ago. Last season, UB began MAC play with a 34-20 loss at Miami. That game marked a transition for the Bulls as quarterback Kyle Vantrease replaced injured starter Matt Myers. Despite a flourishing finish with Vantrease under center, the Bulls never caught the RedHawks in the division race.

Miami lost starting quarterback Brett Gabbert to a head injury early in last week’s 38-31 win against Ball State. Gabbert, the MAC Freshman of the Year in 2019, is questionable to return tonight. AJ Mayer came in and led the RedHawks back from a 21-10 deficit, passing for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

That performance earned Mayer a share of the MAC East Offensive Player of the Week award with UB running back Jaret Patterson, who continued his run through the Bulls’ record books.

Patterson broke Niagara Falls native James Starks’ record with his 35th career rushing touchdown last week and is one score shy of match Starks’ record for total TDs (37). Patterson also needs 51 yards to become the fastest UB player to reach 3,000 for his career, and he is 191 yards away from passing Starks for second on the Bulls’ all-time rushing list.

Vantrease had another efficient outing in the opener, throwing175 yards and a touchdown to Antonio Nunn (six catches, 102 yards). Vantrease also ran for a touchdown, but threw an interception under duress and had a fumble that the Bulls recovered. UB’s offensive line, with three new starters, didn’t allow a sack for the fifth straight game. That could prove to be a pivotal matchup, as Miami registered six sacks in its opener.

UB’s opportunistic defense generated five turnovers and scored three touchdowns on those takeaways last week while recording three sacks. Playing without three starters, the Bulls used those momentum-swinging plays to atone for allowing 397 yards and 30 points. Defensive end Taylor Riggins and cornerback Ali Abbas are questionable to return this week, while cornerback Aapri Washington is doubtful.

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