The Golden Flashes become the favorite this season after falling in a 70-41 shootout to the Bulls last November.
- Time and Date: Saturday, October 9 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Dix Stadium — Kent, OH
- Spread: Kent State (-5.5)
- ESPN FPI: Buffalo has 56.5% chance to win
- All-time series: Buffalo leads, 14-12
- Last meeting: Buffalo 70, Kent State 41 — November 28, 2020
Setting the scene
How could you forget last year’s record-setting meeting between the teams? Buffalo bested Kent State in a 70-41 shootout, and the matchup was defined by two words — Jaret Patterson. The All-American halfback nearly shattered the FBS record for rushing yards in a single outing, only falling short of former Oklahoma halfback Samaje Perine in a 409-yard clinic. He tied the all-time touchdowns record, however, matching Howard Griffith and Kalen Ballage for eight touchdowns in the victory.
This year, Kent State (2-3, 1-0 MAC) turns into the betting favorite in the MAC East matchup. The Golden Flashes dropped three games against a tough non-conference schedule, but they remain perfect in MAC play after pulling ahead of Bowling Green in the fourth quarter at Dix Stadium last Saturday. Kent State remains in its home nest in hopes of nabbing the division torch from the reigning MAC East champion. Buffalo (2-3, 0-1 MAC) dropped another close game to a worthy opponent last week but signs of a solid team are evident. Despite holding Western Michigan’s offense in check, the Bulls couldn’t generate enough points to take down the Broncos. They’ll have the opportunity to rebound on the road in hopes of taking down the Golden Flashes for the second consecutive year.
Buffalo Bulls outlook
Other teams do circle the wagons like the Buffalo Bulls, as suggested by the team’s 2-3 record. But Buffalo doesn’t go down without a fight, as evidenced in close, one-score defeats to the Sun Belt’s best team in Coastal Carolina and to the current MAC frontrunner in Western Michigan. The 2021 Bulls, after finishing ranked last January, now serve as the pesky underdog that gets into lower-scoring rock fights with even the highest caliber of offenses.
Outside of the second half of the Old Dominion game, this defense has been rather immovable in defensive-minded Maurice Linguist’s first year as head coach. James Patterson might hold the title for the MAC’s best inside linebacker, and he proved it by stuffing Western Michigan ball carriers a season-high 14 times last Saturday. Patterson is piecing together another All-MAC résumé with a team-high 48 tackles to complement two forced turnovers. And he’s not the only one making waves on this unit.
Defensive end Taylor Riggins returned to the lineup last week after sitting out Week 4 in Norfolk. The 2019 first team all-conference selection registered multiple sacks in two separate games this year, and due to Riggins’ presence, Buffalo ranks second in the conference in sacks this season at 3.2 per game.
Flip the field around, and Buffalo is just as productive in preventing sacks as it is in producing them. However, the Bulls finally allowed their first sack of the 2021 season last Saturday. Still, since Kyle Vantrease became the starter in October 2019, the team has only yielded three sacks over the 18-game span. The trend of durable offensive line play withstood an entire coaching staff change and three departed starters over the offseason, so it’s become a defining feature of the program.
Of course, Buffalo does not drop back to pass as often as most FBS teams and Kent State is certainly familiar with this style. Vantrease only threw 21 times in the 70-41 bashing last November, while the running game did the heavy lifting with 515 yards and 10 touchdowns. With the loss of Jaret Patterson and several key offensive linemen, Buffalo’s ground attack hasn’t been as stellar this year, but the team is still tied for 15th nationally in average yards per rush.
Buffalo is still awaiting the “Kevin Marks game.” Marks surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing threshold in 2019 and averaged over 100 per game in 2020, but he has yet to eclipse the century mark in 2021. Stopping the talented halfback has been a focal point of defenses, and opponents have limited the star to under 3.3 yards per carry in three consecutive games. Marks will look to ramp up the production against a familiar foe after piling on 97 yards and two touchdowns on the Kent State defense last November. But his supporting cast of Dylan McDuffie (262 yards, 5.2 average, 4 TD) and Ron Cook Jr. (250 yards, 7.8 average, 2 TD) has stepped up to keep the run game afloat this season.
The aerial offense certainly takes a backseat to the rushing game, but that doesn’t mean Buffalo’s receiving corps is devoid of talent. Throughout Vantrease’s tenure at Buffalo, the passing game seems to be centered on one dominant receiver. That premier target transitioned from Anthony Johnson to Antonio Nunn in the late 2010s, and now, Eastern Michigan transfer Quian Williams holds the honors. Williams leads the conference in receiving yards and is responsible for 49.3 percent of all of Vantrease’s yardage. Buffalo ranks toward the lower end in the FBS in dropbacks, but when the Bulls air it out, the preferred option is definitely not a question.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
Kent State resolved its most glaring issue last Saturday, beefing up its offensive line to allow zero sacks against an improved Bowling Green defense. Better protection opened up the offense, and although 27 points pales in comparison to the team’s 2020 scoring outputs, the Golden Flashes strung together their best performance against FBS competition this season.
With more time and space, quarterback Dustin Crum finally made an imprint on the running game, breaking free for a season-high 93 yards and a touchdown — a sharp contrast to enduring 12 sacks across the previous two outings. Running backs Marquez Cooper and Xavier Williams ran the ball with considerable success, combining for 169 yards and two touchdowns in the victory. Even without a key piece of its halfback rotation in Bryan Bradford, Kent State progressed closer to its 2020 identity as a lethal rushing attack, after finishing second in the FBS in the category a year ago.
Kent State’s status as an offensive juggernaut is no secret to Buffalo. Although the Bulls were responsible for the Golden Flashes lone loss of the 2020 season, Sean Lewis’ team amassed 40 points and 578 yards on the MAC East champs. Crum was a significant reason why, firing for 343 passing yards and adding 76 yards with his legs. Now that the rushing numbers are finally filing in for the dual-threat quarterback, it’s time for the 2020 First Team All-MAC honoree to amplify his passing stats.
Crum’s completion percentage is down to 58.3 percent after finishing with an accurate 73.5 last fall. His 308-yard showing at Maryland was the only time he crossed the 200-yard barrier this year. Wide receiver Ja’Shaun Poke recently returned to the lineup and his presence adds another viable weapon to Kent State’s versatile corps. There’s no clear-cut No. 1 receiver, but a few members in this group have enjoyed breakout games this year, notably Keshunn Abram vs. Iowa (6 receptions, 138 yards, 1 TD) and Dante Cephas vs. Maryland (10 receptions, 151 yards, 1 TD).
Ever since a tough opener against Texas A&M, Crum has taken solid care of the ball with zero interceptions in his last four starts. Delivering smart passes remains one of his greatest attributes, and since 2019, his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 35-to-6.
Kent State may not throw many interceptions, but the team is no stranger to picking off passes. Both starting cornerbacks, Elvis Hines and Montre Miller, added three interceptions to their name in the first two games alone and this secondary can be a force to be reckoned with. Iowa stands as the only team in college football to intercept more passes per game than the Golden Flashes.
Even the linebackers are getting involved in the passing defense with active hands and great reads in zone coverage. Inside linebacker A.J. Musolino is Kent State’s most notable rising star on defense. Entering the year as nearly a special teams-exclusive player, Musolino became a starter in Week 1, and last week, he recorded a pivotal red zone interception in the fourth quarter to usher in the win over Bowling Green. Musolino will have a major role in stifling Buffalo’s heavy rushing attack Saturday, as he is situated first on the roster with 6.5 tackles for loss.
Kent State’s rushing defense is miles better than the unit which allowed 409 yards to Jaret Patterson in 2020. Last week, the Golden Flashes limited Bowling Green to 2.1 yards per carry on 26 attempts and they haven’t been overwhelmed by a 160-yard rusher after allowing three running backs to achieve that number in 2020. But unlike Bowling Green, Buffalo’s offensive identity lies within the run game. Thus, this game serves as a barometer to determine exactly how improved this Kent State run defense is against MAC competition as league play enters full swing.
The past two matchups between these talented MAC East squads were memorable. In 2019 — the last meeting at Dix Stadium — Kent State roared back from a 27-6 fourth quarter deficit to topple the Bulls in regulation. That win changed the course of Kent State history, as the Golden Flashes’ retained bowl eligibility prospects and won their next three games including the 2019 Frisco Bowl.
As stated earlier, last year’s meeting was also iconic because of its place in history as the Jaret Patterson game, where the Buffalo legend accumulated over 400 yards and a record amount of touchdowns in a thrilling shootout.
What should we expect from these opponents this year? Probably not 111 combined points, as neither team’s offense is producing explosive plays at the rate it did in 2020. Buffalo is averaging just 20 points per game against FBS teams, and shockingly, Kent State is averaging 15 points per game against FBS teams after boasting the nation’s highest scoring offense in 2020.
Kent State diminished some of its offensive output this season but the Golden Flashes considerably improved their run defense and Buffalo won’t trample them like they did in the previous meeting. Still, the Bulls’ signature run game remains the best option to attack Kent State because the Golden Flashes secondary is routinely making quarterbacks pay with costly interceptions.
Even though Buffalo has the advantage in the trenches on both sides of the ball, Kent State’s skill position players will create the difference in this one. In a much lower scoring bout than last year, Crum takes it to the air to defeat the Bulls in a relatively close matchup.
Prediction: Kent State 28, Buffalo 21