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November 8, 2012

Five keys to Buffalo

As we approach Saturday's matchup with East Division foe Buffalo, BroncoBlitz.com takes a look at five factors that will decide which way the game goes.

1. Will the running game continue to produce?

Throughout the week, a lot of the talk from the Western Michigan camp has centered on the strength of Buffalo's front seven. Indeed, the Bulls have a talented unit led by their star at linebacker, Khalil Mack.

Perhaps the most underrated part of the whole team, though, is the secondary. The Bulls have given up just 191 yards per game through the air, third in the conference. If they're able to have success against the Bronco passing attack, WMU may again have to turn to the running game to get offensive production.

This isn't such a bad thing as it's been in years past, but running the ball could be more challenging against a Buffalo team that's giving up a very respectable 4.2 yards per carry.

If the 4.2 yard average doesn't impress you all that much, remember that the Bulls have faced Northern Illinois, Kent State, Toledo, and Ohio-- who happen to have the top four rushing offenses in the conference. Western Michigan, ranked eighth, is going to have its work cut out.

2. What effect will Eric Monette's hand injury have on the passing game?

Two days after catching 11 balls for 196 yards and a touchdown against Central Michigan, Eric Monette came out in Monday's practice sporting a cast on his left hand. As it turns out, he was the latest Bronco to break a bone in his hand, with the injury occurring in the third quarter of Saturday's game.

If this limits Monette, it could be a huge blow to the passing game unless Jaime Wilson is able to go at full strength. In Wilson's absence, Monette has been the top target WMU has needed in the last couple of games, going for over 300 yards and three scores over the past two weeks.

It's unclear if Wilson will be at 100%, although he is expected to play. Head coach Bill Cubit admitted that it was a mistake to bring the freshman back against CMU, saying he was held out in the second half not because he was injured further but simply because he never should have played to begin with.

Even when it seems the receiving corps is getting healthier, their status continues to be a story line each and every week.

3. How does WMU force the Bulls to throw?

As Khalil Mack is the star of Buffalo's defense, Branden Oliver is his counterpart on the offensive side of the football. Oliver, at 5-foot-8 and 202 pounds, has picked up right where he left off after missing four weeks, posting 101 and 199 yards against Toledo and Miami, respectively.

WMU has faced good running backs in previous games this season, but Oliver may be the most complete. He'll provide a bit of a new look to a rushing defense that's been much improved, as he's a workhorse on a level the Broncos haven't seen. Besides the Kent State game in which he suffered an injury, he's carried 30, 25, 24, and 32 times in his four full games. He also leads the MAC with a 145 yard average.

The passing game for Buffalo, on the other hand, is led by Alex Zordich, who has been up and down all season. Zordich has completed just 51% of his passes for 1254 yards, nine touchdowns and seven picks. Combined with backup Joe Licata, the Bulls passers rank just 10th in yardage and 12th in efficiency in the conference.

It may be easy to overlook a team that's currently 2-8 and 1-4 in MAC play, but taking into consideration the murderer's row schedule they've played along with Oliver's four-plus missed games, this is still a dangerous club. Western Michigan needs to find a way to limit Oliver and force them to utilize their weaker passing game.

4. Can WMU take advantage of Buffalo's turnover issues?

Western Michigan seems to have taken care of some of their turnover problems the past couple of weeks, with just two in the last two contests. This comes at a good time, as they have a great opportunity to at least partially turn around their -8 season margin.

Buffalo is currently worst in the conference at -12, and it's a combination of a two turnover per game average and an anemic six forced on the entire year. While the Buffalo defense doesn't give up a whole lot of yardage, they aren't by any stretch a big play defense.

This is good news for Western Michigan, who hasn't had so much trouble moving the football but has had a lot of issues holding on to it. While WMU is 4th in the league in total offense at 445 yards per game, they've still turned the ball over 24 times, which is the most in the MAC.

Much like Buffalo, the Broncos have played a tough schedule, which includes three of the top four turnover-inducing teams in the MAC. They'll need to play a mistake-free game this week to prove they can take care of the ball against a defense that doesn't force so many errors.

5. Can the Broncos keep Neutz from breaking a big play?

The past couple of games, WMU has given up momentum changing long pass plays. Against Central Michigan, Titus Davis' 58 yard touchdown put the Chippewas up 23-14, and for Northern Illinois, a 62 yarder to Martel Moore set up a score that essentially put the game away at 38-21.

On both occasions, a Bronco cornerback was burned in man coverage, giving the opposition an easy big play. While Buffalo isn't known for their passing game, they do have a top big play threat in Alex Neutz. Neutz' 707 yards have come on just 41 catches, an impressive 17.2 yard average.

Neutz also has nine touchdowns, well over half of the Bulls' 14 total passing scores. It's not unreasonable to think that if the Broncos contain Neutz, they've got a great chance to avoid any huge passing plays.

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