On the first play from scrimmage, quarterback Dustin Crum connected on a deep ball to fifth-year wide receiver Keshunn Abram for a 54-yard gain.
That play would set the tone for the Kent State football team’s 48-38 win over the University at Buffalo.
“That’s who we are,” Crum said. “It’s a big part of our offense, and it’s something that we believe in. So it’s something that we invest a lot of time in. It’s really cool to see these guys start to grow up, develop, mature and to be able to see guys take that next step and be big playmakers.”
The opening drive ended with a 10-yard rushing touchdown by Crum, a play where he ran through several Bulls’ defenders on his way into the end zone.
Crum finished the day with a career-high 407 passing yards and three touchdowns. He’s the first KSU quarterback since Jose Davis in 1997 to throw for over 400 yards in a single game.
Crum also added 72 yards on the ground with two touchdowns.
“We put together a really good gameplan,” Crum said. “A lot of guys invested some extra time this week, which led us into some success early on. We made some adjustments, which slowed us down for a little bit, and we were able to get back into gear and get our momentum going.”
Coach Sean Lewis called Crum “the straw that stirs the drink.”
“He makes us go,” Lewis said. “His decisions are unbelievable. He’s efficient and takes care of the football. We give him a lot of freedom, he makes the right decisions, and he’s a leader. We wouldn’t be where we are at as a program without him.”
The Flashes’ looked like a team out for revenge in the first half.
It was only last season when the Bulls blew out the Flashes 70-41 and put up 515 rushing yards. The game ultimately cost the Flashes’ a spot in the Mid-American Conference Championship.
The Bulls drove deep into KSU’s territory on their opening drive, but quarterback Kyle Vantrease threw an incomplete pass on fourth down thanks to pressure by redshirt senior safety C.J. Holmes.
The Flashes’ defense forced the Bulls to go three-and-out on their next possession, and they forced them to punt again on their third drive.
While the defense kept Buffalo off the scoreboard, KSU’s offense went to work.
Crum’s 39-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Dante Cephas to put the Flashes up 14-0 on their ensuing drive was just the start of a dominant connection for the duo.
Lewis said the pair spend a lot of time together.
“They’ve put in a lot of work,” he said. “When you work really hard at something, you’re going to find the benefits of it. They communicate with one another well, they realize that this doesn’t come easy, and they lean into the work.”
Cephas had a career-high 186 receiving yards along with three touchdowns. He was Crum’s favorite target all day, having 13 receptions.
Cephas said that Lewis told him that the team needed a receiver to step up.
“He told me to ‘just be that guy,’” Cephas said. “[Be] consistently good, not occasionally great. We practice [the deep ball] all day in practice. Especially Wednesday, we call that deep ball Wednesday.”
Lewis said that he saw Cephas step up following the Maryland performance, where he had 151 receiving yards.
“He’s really been practicing at a higher level,” Lewis said. “It’s been great to see his preparation and his work ethic. And not getting frustrated with the lack of success early in the season. It’s not surprising that he has another productive night.”
Graduate student wide receiver Nykeim Johnson had 85 yards on just three receptions. The other receivers had similar statistics, as Crum had several successful deep passes.
Abram had 74 yards on two receptions, and junior Ja’Shaun Poke had 54 yards on three catches.
Lewis had a simple reason for all the deep shots.
“No risk it, no biscuit,” he said. “We knew that our line was going to do a great job protecting. We knew that we were going to get great, calculated shots down range. We had high confidence in our kids as they continue to grow and develop.”
Crum scored on a 5-yard touchdown run, and sophomore running back Marquez Cooper finished KSU’s first half scoring with a 19-yard rushing touchdown.
Cooper led the Flashes’ in rushing yards with 112 yards, and KSU finished with 226 yards on the ground.
KSU leads the MAC in rushing yards per game with 239.5.
Lewis said that the run game played a key part in their ability to pass.
“If you’re able to rush the ball consistently, then you have to make a choice defensively,” he said. “Where you’re going to put your people, how you’re going to distribute them. And with how successful we've been rushing the ball, it means that people need to commit numbers down to the box and because of that we get isolation and one-on-ones downfield.”
With around eight minutes left in the first half, the Bulls scored on a 2-yard run by senior running back Kevin Marks.
It was the start of eight straight scoring drives for Buffalo, as KSU’s defense allowed the Bulls to run for 312 yards.
The Flashes’ defense came into the game only allowing 168.8 rushing yards per game.
“We did a great job tearing off, winning our one-on-ones, and violently knocking the ball back in the first half,” Lewis said. “For whatever reason, it didn’t look like we won as consistently in our one-on-ones [in the second half.] We weren’t tackling as physically.”
KSU went into halftime leading 31-10, and they looked to be firmly in control of the game.
The Flashes would end the third quarter trailing 38-34 after being outscored 28-3.
After only having 167 yards of offense in the first half, the Bulls had 273 yards in the third quarter alone.
“They’re a good team,” Crum said. “They’re never going to come out and just roll over in the second half. They’re going to come back out and give us their best shot. So you just have to be able to take that and respond the right way and not roll over ourselves.”
In 2019’s matchup, KSU had a huge comeback after trailing 27-6 in the fourth quarter and ultimately beat the Bulls 30-27.
The Flashes were determined to not let it happen to them, and Crum led the team on a 75-yard scoring drive in a little over a minute to put them back in front 41-38 early in the fourth quarter.
KSU’s defense stepped up after Buffalo drove into the red zone, keeping the Bulls out of the end zone and forcing them to send out junior kicker Alex McNulty, who missed the 24-yard field goal.
Crum said seeing the defense come back like that was big.
“The defense stepped back up there in the fourth quarter,” Crum said. “They made some big stops for us, forcing long field goals. To see us respond in that way was definitely a good sign.”
Crum connected with Cephas on passes of 14 and 24 yards, before finding him for a 40-yard touchdown pass that put the Flashes up by 10.
“In the second half, their game plan was to pin their ears back and make us win one-on-ones,” Crum said. “And we started to do that. We started to find our rhythm again there in the second half, and Dante was able to create separation and get open for me. So, I just kept coming back to him and some of the other guys that were winning.”
Graduate student defensive lineman Antoine Cook recorded his first sack of the year, setting up a third-and-long the Bulls failed to convert. They once again sent McNulty out, but he missed the 45-yard field goal wide to the left.
KSU sacked Buffalo, who has only been sacked three times in its last 18 games, twice.
The other sack came on Buffalo’s ensuing drive, when redshirt junior Matt Harmon sacked Vantrease as the Bulls drove into Flashes’ territory with under two minutes remaining.
On the next play, Harmon intercepted Vantrease after the pass was tipped, sealing the victory for the Flashes.
“We sure like to make it interesting, don’t we? It was a great win,” Lewis said. “Great resiliency by our kids. A year ago against those kids we went inward, there were some things we needed to adjust, and there were some things we needed to change in house. We did. And as critically important as a cultural win that 2019 was, tonight was equally important.”
The Flashes’ comeback win against Buffalo in 2019 turned their season around. They won the next two games to become bowl eligible, and won the first bowl game in program history.
That game was also the start of a seven home game winning streak that is currently still active.
Vantrease finished the day with 229 passing yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He had a career-high 49 rushing yards.
KSU is now 2-0 (3-3 overall) and alone in first place in the MAC East. The only other undefeated team in the MAC is Northern Illinois University, which is in first place in the West.
Buffalo falls to 0-2 (2-4) and is tied for last place with Bowling Green State University.
Cephas said the early conference wins were important for the team.
“It’ll keep us on a good path,” he said. “It’ll keep our momentum up, keep us focused. We still have things to clean up offensively, defensively and on special teams.”
Crum said the 2-0 conference start is huge.
“As long as you’re undefeated in the conference, you control your own destiny,” he said. “That’s where we want to be, it’s our mindset, and how we want to go about our business day to day.”
The Flashes next play Western Michigan University, which is 1-1 (4-2), in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Saturday Oct. 16 at 3:30 p.m.
Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com.