One of the hottest teams in the MAC rolls into Dix Stadium, with sights set on an accomplishment not yet attained by the program.
The Buffalo Bulls have been a member of the Mid-American Conference in the FBS since 1999, but they’ve never appeared in bowl games in back-to-back seasons. Buffalo was snubbed from a bowl invite in 2017 despite a 6-6 record, but the Bulls rallied in 2018 with a program-best 10 wins and a trip to the Dollar General Bowl. At 5-4 and winners of three-straight, Buffalo can clinch bowl eligibility for the third consecutive season with a win over 3-6 Kent State.
Kent State is 3-6, but the Golden Flashes aren’t the glorified bye week they were for years. Sean Lewis has already transformed the program into a competitive bunch in a massive rebuilding project, and the results suggest teams should respect Kent State. While winning three-straight to finish 6-6 and achieve bowl eligibility seems unlikely, the Golden Flashes have poised a threat in every MAC game this season. They started 2-0 in conference play, skating to decisive wins over Bowling Green and Akron. In their last three, they’re 0-3 with one-touchdown losses at Ohio and against Miami (OH) and a 2-point loss on the road at Toledo.
Kent State’s offense is one to be reckoned with, especially due to the accelerated development of quarterback Dustin Crum. Crum nearly threw more touchdown passes (3) than incompletions (4) last week in the Glass Bowl, and his 67.9 completion percentage is among the elite in the country. Not only is Crum accurate, he avoids costly decision making. Out of all quarterbacks with 12 or more touchdown passes in 2019, only Crum and Ohio State’s Justin Fields have as few as one interception. Crum is also a notable threat in the running game, racking up 282 rushing yards in his last four contests as the team’s leader in the category.
The Golden Flashes no longer have running back Jo-El Shaw on the team, but Will Matthews has been a solid breakout player for the offense. Matthews averages 4.7 yards per attempt and has produced 318 yards in just four games of seeing the field.
Buffalo struggled putting points on the board at the start of MAC play, but the Bulls’ offensive woes have settled down in recent weeks. In consecutive games, Buffalo has pulled off 43-point performances against Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan, rolling to landslide victories. After an 0-2 conference start, Buffalo has rattled off three-straight conference wins by a combined score of 107-34.
The masterminds behind Buffalo’s recent offensive surge are sophomore running backs Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks. Patterson is inching on 1,000-yard territory, sitting with 995 yards at the moment, while Marks isn’t far behind at 730. Both running backs have great stamina, and are the subjects of many play-calls in Buffalo’s run-heavy offense. Patterson has been a workhorse as of recent, rushing for 149 and 160 yards in back-to-back weeks — two of his four games with 130+ rushing yards this season. Marks has three 100 yard games of his own, and Kent State’s 128th ranked run defense must be on alert for the duo.
Buffalo switched quarterbacks from Matt Myers to the more experienced Kyle Vantrease at the beginning of October, and so far, the transition has worked. Vantrease, who also served as Buffalo’s punter for several weeks, has posted a 3-1 record as a starter in 2019. He’s thrown five touchdown passes and just one interception this year, and has thrown several dimes to Buffalo’s No. 1 wide receiver Antonio Dunn.
Dunn will draw an intriguing matchup against Kent State’s star cornerback Jamal Parker. Parker hits like a safety and has blanketed receivers all year long. Parker is on pace to finish top 10 in the MAC in interceptions for the third-straight year, and his eight passes defended rank fifth in the conference.
One disparity between the programs is their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Buffalo excels in this field and is 12th in the nation in sacks recorded per game (3.22), even managing to force a safety in the Eastern Michigan game. Kent State averages two per game and must battle an offensive line which is one of five nationally to allow under one sack per contest.
Time and Date: Thursday, November 14 at 7 p.m. ET
Network: CBS SN
Location: Dix Stadium — Kent, OH
Spread: Buffalo (-6)
ESPN FPI: Buffalo has 56.4% chance to win
All-time series: Buffalo leads, 13-11
Last meeting: Buffalo 48, Kent State 14 — November 6, 2018
Buffalo is riding a 2-game win streak over Kent State headed into Thursday night’s matchup. Since 2005, the series has mainly gone in favor of the Bulls, who have won eight games and lost three during the stretch.
Never count out Kent State. The Golden Flashes are competitive game-in and game-out, and Thursday night at home should be no exception. It’s a joy to watch how improved this team is under Sean Lewis and it’s a joy to watch a pass-happy Kent State offense thrive after years of struggling with the option.
But, Buffalo seems to have the edge, and they’re the hottest team in the MAC right now (along with Miami (OH)). The Bulls are winners of three in a row, and none of those matchups were close. Buffalo’s offensive line, led by senior All-MAC left tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk, is the best in the MAC, and the unit has been able to impose its will on opponents in the trenches lately. Backed behind a strong offensive line, the work for Patterson and Marks has been easier and the running backs are shredding the stat sheet. Given how Kent State handled Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (186 rushing yards, 4 TDs), Toledo’s Shakif Seymour (175 yards, 2 TD), or even Miami’s Tyre Shelton (14 carries, 148 yards), Buffalo gains a massive advantage with its star-studded run game.
Five of seven midweek MACtion games have been decided by four points or fewer, and the other two games featured Akron and Bowling Green, so Kent State still keeps it close at home.
Prediction: Buffalo 33, Kent State 30