The last time the Kent State football team played the University at Buffalo, they were blown out 70-41, and running back Jaret Patterson had an NCAA record-tying eight touchdowns to go along with his Mid-American Conference record 409 yards.
The loss ended up costing the Flashes a trip to the MAC Championship.
It was the kind of loss coach Sean Lewis hasn’t forgotten about.
“We got embarrassed last year,” he said. “Let’s call it what it was. We knew what they were going to do, and we came up a little bit short.”
This Bulls team is a bit different this time around.
Lance Leipold, who led Buffalo to back-to-back bowl victories, left to become the head coach of the University of Kansas.
Maurice Linguist is now the head coach. And he’s brought in his own staff, meaning the team also has a new offensive and defensive coordinator.
Lewis doesn’t look for these changes to be a major factor for Buffalo.
“They’re still very talent rich,” he said. “And that new staff that came in is experienced and very sound. They’ve done a very smart job. In a lot of ways they’ve put their own stamp on it, but they know and have a great feel for what those kids are successful at.”
KSU is 1-0 in MAC play (2-3 overall) after it’s 27-20 comeback win over Bowling Green University last week.
“Probably not our best effort in all three phases,” Lewis said. “But we found a way to get a win. That’s what good teams do.”
Buffalo is 0-1 (2-3) and coming off a 24-17 loss to Western Michigan University. After holding a three-point lead for three quarters, the Bulls gave up 17 points in the fourth quarter.
Buffalo started the season with a 69-7 blowout of Wagner College, an FCS team, then had two close losses against the University of Nebraska and No.16 Coastal Carolina University. They squeaked out a one-point victory over Old Dominion University.
The Bulls are tied for first in the MAC in rushing touchdowns (14). While they have a solid running game, they don’t have the game-changing running back that they had in Patterson.
Senior Kevin Marks is only averaging 57.6 yards per game this season. Buffalo is fourth in the MAC in rushing yards, with 189.2 per game.
And no running back has had a 100-yard game this season.
Last season, the Bulls only had one game where they didn’t have at least one 100-yard rusher.
Although, they do have a deep running backs group with two other players rushing for over 200 yards this season, juniors Dylan McDuffie and Ron Cook.
Last season, the Bulls only had one game where they didn’t have at least one 100-yard rusher.
The Bulls’ offensive line was key in last year’s victory. All-MAC right tackle Jake Fuzak returns alongside right guard Jack Klenk. Both started all seven games last season to help the offense rank second in the nation in rushing yards per game (287.4).
Buffalo has only allowed one sack this season, the least in the MAC.
The Flashes’ defense are fourth in the MAC in rushing yards allowed per game, with 168.8. Graduate student linebacker A.J. Musolino has a team-high six and a half tackles for a loss this season.
“[There were] some critical situations where he came up huge,” Lewis said. “We’re really pleased with his performance.”
Musolino had an interception against BGSU in the fourth quarter while the Falcons were driving into the redzone. The Flashes scored the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing drive.
Lewis called Musolino “an embodiment of our program.”
“Day in and day out he continues to get better,” Lewis said. “He’s a really smart football player. He puts himself in the right positions. He consistently does his job at a really high level.”
Buffalo’s offense is led by senior quarterback Kyle Vantrease. He is fourth in the MAC in passing yards per game with an average of 188.6 yards per game. But he is last in passing touchdowns, only throwing two so far this season.
KSU’s defense had a season-high five sacks against the Falcons.
“Their attitude and effort, the way they’re flying to the ball and their physicality is tremendous,” Lewis said. “It starts with that mindset that we’re not going to give up an inch, we’re going to fly to the ball, and good things happen when you work really, really hard.”
Graduate student wide receiver Quian Williams, who transferred from Eastern Michigan, leads the Bulls’ receiving core.
Williams is second in the MAC in yards per game (93). That average would be even higher if not for his poor performance in Buffalo’s loss to Coastal Carolina, where he only had 23 yards. He is coming off of back-to-back 100+ receiving yards games.
Vantrease’s slow start may help a struggling Flashes’ secondary. They are the second-worst in the MAC in passing yards per game, with 259.4 per game. The secondary is ninth in opponent completion percentage (63.9).
While the secondary struggles to contain a team’s passing game, they step up big in turning the ball over. The defense is second in the FBS with 10 interceptions and fourth in the NCAA with 14 forced turnovers.
Redshirt junior cornerback Montre Miller and fifth-year cornerback Elvis Hines are tied for fourth in the NCAA with three picks each.
Several of those turnovers have come at crucial times, such as when a team is driving into Flashes’ territory. The defense’s ability to get the ball back to the offense was a big reason for their win over Bowling Green and why they kept pace with so many elite teams in non-conference play.
Lewis said the Bulls have a very talented defense.
“Dynamic. Long. Athletic,” he said. “They can cause a whole bunch of chaos. They’re holding really good offenses. It’s going to be a great college football game.”
Buffalo is ninth in the MAC in passing yards allowed per game (222). They have allowed over 200 passing yards in four straight games.
The Bulls only have two interceptions this season.
The Flashes are only averaging 188.2 passing yards per game (10th in the MAC) and only have three passing touchdowns this season.
Quarterback Dustin Crum is seventh in the MAC in passing yards this season (896) and 10th in completion percentage (58.3).
KSU only has three passing touchdowns this season.
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dante Cephas leads the team in receiving with 298 yards, including a 151-yard performance against Maryland.
Fifth-year wide receiver Keshunn Abram (241) and graduate student receiver Nykeim Johnson (189) are the only other receivers with over 100 yards.
The Flashes’ offense is second in the MAC in yards per game, with 430.4. And a lot of that yardage comes from their running attack.
KSU averages a MAC-best 242.2 rushing yards per game.
Sophomore running back Marquez Cooper is fifth in the MAC with 367 rushing yards this season, an average of 73.4 per game.
The Flashes have three other running backs with over 100 yards this season. Graduate student running back Xavier Williams is second with 246, Crum is third with 211, and junior Joachim Bangda is fourth with 135.
Buffalo’s run defense is very similar to KSU, both teams have allowed nine rushing touchdowns this season, and the two teams are next to each other in the rushing yards per game category. The Bulls have allowed 169.6 yards per game this season.
Lewis said every player on the Bulls’ defensive line is good.
“They’re long, they’re twitchy, and they’re explosive,” he said. “When you create those one-on-one matchups, you have the ability to work an edge with speed, you can convert to power, you have a nice spin move to compliment the way these guys do, it’s going to be a challenge.”
Fifth-year defensive end Taylor Riggins is the team’s star on defense. He leads the team in sacks with four and in tackles for a loss with six.
Riggins has also forced two fumbles this season.
Buffalo is second in the MAC in sacks with 16 this season.
Lewis said the Flashes’ offensive line play will be critical.
“If we can’t control their front four with our front five, it ain’t going to be good,” Lewis said. “And our kids know that. It’s a great challenge and a great opportunity.”
A big reason for KSU’s win over BGSU was capitalizing in the red zone. They were five of six, with a missed field goal keeping them from being perfect.
In their losses this season the Flashes went four of seven, zero of one, and two of four in the red zone.
Lewis said his strategy in the red zone changed in conference play.
“That level of talent, that gap was a little bit different,” Lewis said. “We put our big people in. Big people beat up little people, and we ran the ball in for touchdowns.”
The Flashes’ offense saw similar improvement in third-down conversions. After going seven of 18, three of 13 and four of 16 in their three losses, they converted on 10 of their 19 attempts.
Lewis said the team had better efficiency on first and second down.
“That allowed us to be in better, manageable mixed-down situations on third down,” he said. “Of those conversions, there weren’t many that were over eight yards. That gives you an opportunity as a play caller.”
The Flashes will face the Bulls Saturday at 7 p.m. at Dix Stadium.
“The key to victory is we gotta stop the run,” Lewis said. “We all know what it is, it’s a personal vendetta. We’ve been talking about it for a long time. We gotta stop the run. We gotta run the ball. We gotta be disciplined. We gotta score touchdowns. Field goals aren’t going to win it.”
Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com