Famous Idaho Potato Bowl breakdown

The key players and matchups for today’s game between San Diego State and Buffalo.

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comDecember 21, 2013 

Buffalo wide receiver Alex Neutz needs 53 yards for a second 1,000-yard year.

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com

San Diego State with the ball

The Aztecs want to establish the run with Adam Muema (1,015 yards) and freshman Donnel Pumphrey (750). Quarterback Quinn Kaehler will take his shots downfield in the passing game with Ezell Ruffin (63 catches) and Colin Lockett (49) as his primary targets. One key for San Diego State will be neutralizing Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. “There’s certain times when you’ve got to hope your guys win the battles, but there’s certain times when you’ve got to stay away from him because he creates havoc,” San Diego State offensive coordinator Bob Toledo said.

Mack’s presence helps other Bulls’ defenders, notably linebacker Adam Redden (11.5 tackles for loss). Buffalo has a big-play defense. The Bulls have 85 tackles for loss, 36 sacks and 15 interceptions.

Buffalo with the ball

Running back Branden Oliver has the two highest single-season rushing totals in Buffalo history, including his record-setting 1,421 this season. He is a tough runner with good vision who finds holes behind Buffalo’s massive offensive line. Sophomore quarterback Joe Licata has thrown seven interceptions. Senior receiver Alex Neutz is Licata’s top target. Neutz has 11 touchdowns.

The Aztecs’ defense can cause problems for teams with its unique 3-3-5 alignment. Safety Nat Berhe plays the “Aztec” position — the most important spot in the defense — and leads the team with 94 tackles. Senior linebacker Nick Tenhaeff leads San Diego State with 13 tackles for loss and five sacks. Licata must look out for junior corner J.J. Whittaker in the secondary (3 INT, 11 breakups).[0X0B]

Special teams

San Diego State punt returner Tim Vizzi can change the game, as Boise State fans no doubt remember. Vizzi has two returns for touchdown this year. Both teams have solid kickoff return men, Colin Lockett for SDSU (24.7 yards per return) and Devin Campbell for Buffalo (23.9 yards per return). Both should have opportunities for returns.

The biggest advantage rests with Buffalo’s kicking game. Kicker Patrick Clarke has made 12-of-19 field goals, including eight of his last 10. San Diego State has missed its last seven field goal attempts and has largely abandoned field goals. The Aztecs have not attempted one since missing two against San Jose State on Nov. 9. Kicker Wes Feer started the year 8-for-8 before missing his next three and being benched. Feer will kick in the bowl game.

Key matchup: Turnover battle

In a game between two relatively even teams, this might be what decides Saturday’s game.

“The two teams and two seasons are as equal as you can get,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. “The one stat that jumps out at us is their turnover ratio is much better than ours.”

Buffalo has made a living on turnovers this season, ranking 13th in the country in turnovers gained and fifth in turnovers lost. The Bulls have turned it over 12 times and forced 27 turnovers. At plus-15, Buffalo is tied for fourth in the country in turnover margin.

“We are always constantly creating a culture of how to strip the ball, how to take the ball away, how to create those takeaways, whether it’s interceptions or forced fumbles,” Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn said.

The Bulls ranked 95th in the country last year in turnover margin at minus-6 during a 4-8 campaign. They recovered just three fumbles in 2012. So it’s not exactly a repeatable skill.

But Buffalo has been brilliant in 2013, and San Diego State’s turnovers have been plentiful — and costly. During its 0-3 start, San Diego State turned the ball over 11 times. The Aztecs rank 111th in the country in turnovers lost (28) and 103rd in turnovers gained (16). At minus-12, the Aztecs are 118th in the nation in turnover margin.

“I’ve noticed that, too,” Long said. “We have to protect the ball. ... Whenever you have two teams that I see as pretty equal, it’s going to be a great football game, and a turnover is going to change the momentum one way or another.”

San Diego State players to watch

CHAD YOUNG, FB

San Diego State has used two running backs in each of the last three seasons. All have had success. “Guess what the only constant in that whole deal was?’’ coach Rocky Long said. “Chad Young.” The bruising 5-foot-10, 240-pound senior walked on to the team. He quickly found a role in the Aztecs’ pro-style offense, which uses a fullback much more than most teams. He’s paved the way for Ronnie Hillman, Walter Kazee, Adam Muema and Donnel Pumphrey. “I’ve been fortunate to have really good running backs my entire career here,” Young said. Long believes Young will join Hillman in the NFL next season. “He’s one of the best competitors that I’ve ever been around. He takes pride in what he does, which is something that you don’t really get credit for,” Long said. He does occasionally get the ball. Young has 18 carries for 109 yards and two touchdowns on the season. He’s also caught 14 passes for 66 yards and a touchdown.

BRYCE QUIGLEY, LT

Quigley began his San Diego State career at tight end, playing in 24 games and making 12 starts in 2010 and 2011. He moved to left tackle in the spring of 2012 and has started the past two seasons at that spot. He was a second-team All-Mountain West selection this year. Quigley (6-5, 300 pounds) will have his hands full with Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. But Quigley, who caught 14 passes at tight end, has the athleticism and experience (26 consecutive starts) to compete with Mack.

NAT BERHE, S

Like Quigley, Berhe is a senior captain. He plays the “Aztec” position in the SDSU defense, the same spot Brian Urlacher played under Long at New Mexico. “The most important position in our defense,” Long said. Berhe led the Aztecs with 94 tackles and was named All-Mountain West. “He’s saved so many plays this year by playing that position as well as any DB-type guy has ever played that position,” Long said. Berhe set career highs in tackles, tackles for loss (five) and pass breakups (six).

Buffalo players to watch

ALEX NEUTZ, WR

One of seven Bulls to be named first-team All-Mid-American Conferene, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior leads Buffalo with 58 catches, 947 yards and 11 touchdowns. He needs 53 yards to become the second player in school history with two 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Neutz is already Buffalo’s all-time leader with 30 touchdown catches. He had one FBS scholarship offer, but Neutz, from nearby Grand Island, N.Y., ranks third in school history in receptions (191) and yards (3,017).

JOE LICATA, QB

A high school legend from nearby Williamsville, N.Y. — “You can’t go anywhere with that kid without people talking to him,” Neutz said — Licata was a decorated two-sport athlete, setting Western New York all-time records for touchdown passes (87) and 3-pointers in basketball (more than 300). “It was my dream growing up to play at UB,” Licata said, whose first love was basketball. Licata started Buffalo’s final four games in 2012 as a freshman, leading the Bulls to three wins, and has started all 12 games this season. The finish gave teammates and Licata confidence. He has thrown 21 touchdowns and seven interception this year. “From the day he came in, you could see it in his stature, in his eyes, he’s made to play quarterback,” Neutz said. “The biggest thing this year is his leadership has taken off. He’s commanding the offense.”

ADAM REDDEN, LB

With star linebacker Khalil Mack often drawing double- and triple-teams from opposing offenses, other Bulls’ defenders have capitalized. Redden, a 6-foot-1, 202-pound junior, has taken advantage. Playing opposite Mack, Redden has 11.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in nine games this season. Another New York native, Redden missed three games late in the season, but played in the regular-season finale against Bowling Green. He had 17 tackles in the Bulls’ victory against Stony Brook and earned third-team All-MAC honors.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444; Twitter: @murphsturph

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