- Time and Date: Saturday, October 2 at 2:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Dix Stadium — Kent, OH
- Spread: Kent State (-16.5)
- ESPN FPI: Kent State has 83.3% chance to win
- All-time series: Bowling Green leads, 60-22-6
- Last meeting: Kent State 62, Toledo 24 — November 28, 2020
Setting the scene
A rivalry trophy is on the line as MAC play kicks off in the East division. The Anniversary Award was first handed out in 1985 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of two Ohio-based academic institutions — Bowling Green State University and Kent State University. The Falcons and Golden Flashes battle for the trophy on an annual basis.
While Bowling Green has a stranglehold on the all-time series, Kent State is presented with an opportunity to achieve a feat its never done — beat Bowling Green in four consecutive matchups. The Golden Flashes and their high-flying offense are considerable favorites, but they must be wary of an upstart Falcons defense which suffocated Minnesota en route to a monumental upset last weekend.
Bowling Green Falcons outlook
Nobody outside the confines of Bowling Green’s locker room saw this coming. In year three of the Scot Loeffler era, Falcons football is finally back.
Bowling Green entered the 2021 season with eight consecutive losses by 28 points or greater. The defense deteriorated every year since the 2015 MAC title season, finishing as low as the second worst scoring defense in the FBS in 2020. The Falcons’ rushing defense was stuck at the absolute bottom of the barrel less than a year ago. With a horde of key contributors departing the program this offseason, it appeared things could get even drearier for a team that hasn’t finished better than 4-8 in six years. Instead, the opposite story arc unfolded in non-conference play.
Surprise of the year: a dominant defense
By means of a relentless defense, Bowling Green repeatedly shut down Minnesota and pulled off a stunning 14-10 upset in Minneapolis — college football’s largest upset in terms of the point spread since 2012. The Falcons held the Golden Gophers to five completions on 13 passing attempts, picked off two passes in crunch time, and reasonably contained a Minnesota ground attack spearheaded by a top 10 rusher in the FBS. As a result, the Falcons now ride a 2-game win streak entering MAC play after their best non-conference showing since 2015.
The ingredient behind the sudden breakthrough of Bowling Green lies within the defense. First-year defensive coordinator Eric Lewis has done a masterful job of play calling since his offseason promotion from his role as cornerbacks coach. From the blitzes to the coverages he draws up, Bowling Green consistently executes perfect plays and the unit hasn’t revealed many weaknesses since the opener at Tennessee. Only four touchdowns have been scored on this defense over the last three weeks.
Darren Anders serves as the leader of the unit. The junior outside linebacker has been a menace to opposing offenses all season. He currently leads the team with 36 tackles, and he is writing a cover letter for the MAC Defensive Player of the Year candidacy with three tackles for loss, a sack, a pick six, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery through four games. Another havoc raiser on defense is cornerback Davon Ferguson. Coach Lewis has shown an affinity for calling the corner blitz, and that play is paying dividends. Ferguson recorded two pivotal third down sacks against Minnesota and he ranks first on the roster with 5.5 tackles for loss — an extremely high number for a cornerback.
Ferguson is joined by other defensive backs Devin Taylor and Jordan Anderson in one of the most productive secondaries in the country. Bowling Green stifles opponents’ aerial attacks to a 53 percent completion rate and 148 passing yards per game, while forcing an average of two interceptions. The strides this defense has made since 2020 cannot be overstated, and this caliber of defensive play can turn any MAC game into a winnable one.
Long way to go offensively
In order for Bowling Green to pull off the stunner in Minnesota last weekend, the defense had to chase perfection. The Falcons didn’t quite receive that assistance from their offense. As dominant as the defense played, Minnesota still out-gained Bowling Green, 241-192, suggesting there’s work to be done on the other side of the ball.
Most of the offensive lapses were recurring issues in the run game — a discouraging theme which has resonated since Week 1. In three matchups against FBS opponents this year, Bowling Green has attained 32, 9, and 22 rushing yards as a collective unit. On two of those occasions, the Falcons averaged below one yard per rush. Even in their strongest outing against Murray State of the FCS, they still were limited to 2.7 yards per carry. Bowling Green unsurprisingly ranks last in the nation in rushing offense with a mere output of under 49 yards per game. Other than Nick Mosley’s 24-yard run against Tennessee, no Bowling Green running back has attained more than eight yards on a handoff against FBS competition this year.
Last season, the run game was the one thing which kept Bowling Green afloat. The Falcons lost 62-24 to Kent State last November, but halfback Terion Stewart served as a bright spot that night with a breakout performance of 162 yards on 14 carries. Bowling Green amassed 260 team rushing yards on the Golden Flashes, but due to defensive woes, Kent State cracked the 60-point threshold and collected 667 yards of offense.
Bowling Green quarterback Matt McDonald completed six of 20 attempts that game and struggled to move the ball against Kent State’s secondary. Hovering below a 44 percent completion rate was a concern for the Boston College transfer last season, but the 2021 iteration of McDonald is on a different level. McDonald is more poised in the pocket and with a knack for connecting on quick slants, curls, and drag routes, he is firing on 66.9 percent of attempts.
Washington transfer Austin Osborne, McDonald’s high school teammate in California, has become a dominant short yardage threat and he currently ranks No. 1 in the MAC in receptions. With strong-armed targets Tyrone Broden and Christian Sims completing the unit, Bowling Green’s offense matriculates through the air with a considerably higher success rate this year.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
Bowling Green was picked to finish last in the MAC East in the preseason media day poll. Meanwhile, Kent State was selected to win the division. But entering MAC play, Bowling Green’s 2-2 record reigns superior to Kent State’s 1-3 mark.
The Golden Flashes faced one of the most brutal non-conference schedules in all of college football. Three road trips to Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland left Sean Lewis’ team with three losses by more than 20 points. Of course, those programs combine for an 11-1 record, and Kent State reasonably hung with all three of them for two quarters before second half collapses struck.
MAC play signifies a clean slate for the Golden Flashes, where hopes of punching a ticket to Detroit for the conference title game are at their highest point since 2012.
Rediscovering the Flash Fast offense
Kent State’s priority should be amending its 101st ranked scoring offense. The Golden Flashes were brutalized by the country’s elite defenses in non-conference clashes, and upon returning to MAC play, they aim to revert to last year’s unit which posted an FBS-best 49.8 points per game.
Quarterback Dustin Crum was the lead engineer behind Kent State’s astronomical output in the fall of 2020. The First Team All-MAC quarterback threw 32 touchdown passes compared to just four interceptions in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Although he tossed two picks in the opener against Texas A&M, he has yet to throw one since. Crum shook off the tough showing in College Station to deliver highly efficient showings against VMI and Iowa. Last week at Maryland, Crum surpassed 300 yards through the air for the first time this year.
What makes Crum a unique talent is beyond his efficient passing numbers. Crum is one of the craftiest runners from the quarterback position in college football. His expertise in zone reads and ability to scramble make him a lethal threat to all defenses. Crum exhibited his mobility in 60 and 70-yard rushing performances in the first two games of 2021. However, a struggling offensive line is preventing Crum from receiving the space he needs to create such plays. The star quarterback has taken 12 sacks in the last two weeks against Big Ten competition. After absorbing three sacks in a 4-game schedule in 2020, defenses have taken down Crum in the backfield 16 times through four games in 2021.
With Crum’s mobility lending a hand, Kent State ranked second in rushing offense last season. The potential within the unit still lingers, as evidenced by the Golden Flashes’ 494-yard, 7-touchdown output against VMI in Week 2. However, the running backs were slowed down by the front sevens of Maryland and Iowa, and no rusher attained 50 yards in those outings. Lead halfbacks Marquez Cooper and Xavier Williams must regain their composure from the first two games to provide the spark needed to fly past Bowling Green’s vastly improved run defense.
Kent State’s top receiver Ja’Shaun Poke went down with an injury in Week 1, but the Golden Flashes still trot out a horde of effective targets for Crum. It seems like a new face emerges each week from this corps. Last Saturday, Dante Cephas ran free with 10 catches and 151 yards. The week prior, Keshunn Abram posted career numbers with 138 yards on six receptions. Syracuse transfer Nykeim Johnson has also been a steady option past the sticks and on jet sweeps. Bowling Green’s secondary hasn’t allowed a 100-yard receiver this season, so one of these names hopes to become the hot hand Saturday and contradict the trend.
An opportunistic secondary
The 95th ranking attached to the scoring defense may not tell the whole story, but Kent State looks like it has sharply refined the unit in 2021.
The primary area of growth resides in the secondary, which sits among the nation’s top in forcing turnovers. Kent State’s opportunistic defense is tied for the FBS lead in interceptions per game and the group ranks second overall in total takeaways. Cornerbacks Elvis Hines and Montre Miller have made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks by corralling three interceptions apiece thus far. Hines and Miller are gifted with quick sets of hands and both ballhawks are renowned route-jumpers. Facing a Bowling Green offense which delivers quick, calculated passes like its Amazon Prime, the opportunity to anticipate these throws will definitely be on the table for the Kent State defensive backs this Saturday.
Kent State’s run defense was the main attribute holding the Golden Flashes back in 2020. Only four teams, including the Falcons, manufactured more porous run defenses than Kent State did a year ago. Bowling Green was one of three teams in a 4-game slate to send out a 160-yard rusher on the Golden Flashes’ defense. However, similar to its MAC East rival, the Kent State is witnessing improvement in this category in 2021. While the group is far from perfect, Kent State currently yields approximately 63 fewer rushing yards per game.
Inside linebacker A.J. Musolino has been a member of the roster since 2017, yet he never started prior to the opener at Texas A&M. The veteran linebacker has been a pest in backfields this season, recording a team-high 5.0 tackles for loss and ranking second on the roster in solo tackles. His increased presence is one of the key features bolstering the run defense this season.
One of the main contrasts between these teams’ defenses is displayed within their pass rushes. Bowling Green sits comfortably in the nation’s upper quartile by registering 3.5 sacks per game. On the other hand, Kent State falls toward the cellar after recording just five sacks in four contests.
Nobody saw Bowling Green’s upset over Minnesota coming, even if it was clear earlier in the season that this wasn’t the Bowling Green of yesteryear. In order to sustain the momentum and win their third straight, the Falcons must experience an offensive epiphany and especially figure out the run game.
If this matchup enters shootout territory, that will unquestionably favor Kent State. If Bowling Green hopes to pull off another road upset as double-digit underdogs, it is essential to record frequent stops and win the turnover battle. The Falcons’ passageway to a victory likely involves neither team scoring more than three touchdowns.
Minnesota runs a much more traditional offense than Kent State, and the Sean Lewis’ versatility in his play calling will make this a tougher opponent for the Falcons to counter. Kent State offers complex zone reads, frequent RPOs, quick screens to spaced out receivers, and occasional deep shots in its signature Flash Fast offense. Also, Dustin Crum will serve as the best quarterback the Bowling Green’s defense has been pitted against this season. Most importantly, Kent State plays at incredibly high tempo, so the Falcons must issue their defensive play calls and make adjustments in a much more timely manner.
Even if it didn’t show in three of the four non-conference games, Kent State’s explosive offense is still capable of scoring fast and often, and Sean Lewis’ squad will win a fair share of battles against the Bowling Green’s relentless defense. Bowling Green does not enjoy the same luxury of an explosive, big play offense, and the lack of offensive production will cause the Falcons to play from behind in Kent.
Prediction: Kent State 30, Bowling Green 16