For the first time in the 2021 MAC season, a matchup featured rivalry trophy stakes. Kent State and Bowling Green have battled for the Anniversary Award since the trophy’s inception in 1985, and the trophy arrived at Dix Stadium in Kent, OH this weekend courtesy of the reigning champion Golden Flashes.
The 2021 iteration of the MAC East rivalry certainly brought more anticipation than expected. College football’s greatest surprise, Bowling Green, came into weekend fresh off registering the largest upset college football has seen since 2012 in terms of the points spread. The Falcons’ defense clobbered Minnesota en route to a 14-10 win — the team’s first non-conference FBS victory since 2015.
Meanwhile, Kent State lost three of its first four contests against a challenging schedule which consisted of Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland. The Golden Flashes were searching for the explosive offense they showcased throughout the 2020 season — the same offense which racked up 62 points on Bowling Green in the win last November. With the Anniversary Award on hand, Kent State was granted the opportunity to defeat the Falcons four consecutive times, a feat which the program never accomplished before.
Despite trailing by a touchdown in the middle of the third quarter, Kent State emerged victorious in a 27-20 final to win its fourth straight over Bowling Green. Here are several takeaways from the contest at Dix Stadium, as both programs moved to 2-3 on the season.
Kent State’s rushing attack will dominate MAC play
Heading into the year, and even after the first two games, this statement seemed obvious. After all, Kent State finished second in the FBS in 2020 in rushing yards as its 289 yards per game and only trailed Air Force’s triple option-based ground game in the category. But concerns certainly swelled as each week passed. Not a single rusher attained 40 yards against Iowa’s immovable defense in Week 3, and the Golden Flashes averaged 1.9 yards per carry in Iowa City. In the following matchup, Kent State couldn’t register a single 50-yard rusher against Maryland, and the team hardly skated above 3.0 yards per carry in a lopsided loss to the Terrapins.
After watching Bowling Green hold Minnesota in check, it appeared the Falcons could continue their successes against Kent State, but all question marks quickly subsided on the first drive of the afternoon. Marquez Cooper, demonstrating patience in the backfield, fought his way down the entire gridiron and finished with a 4-yard touchdown run. Cooper served as the workhorse back Saturday, and his 31 carries sliced Bowling Green like 31 paper cuts. He attained a season-high 120 yards, while secondary halfback Xavier Williams contributed 49 yards on 11 attempts.
If the Golden Flashes’ bulldozer halfback Bryan Bradford (254 rushing yards, 6.9 average in 2020) returns from injury, the unit will be even deeper and more loaded. After all, when pitted against FCS competition, the wealth was spread in the backfield and seven different rushers scored a touchdown to complement a 494-yard performance vs. VMI. And while the backfield is stacked, you can’t discount Dustin Crum’s input to the running game. Behind the best performance by the offensive line of all year, the star quarterback burst for a season-high 93 yards and a touchdown with his crafty running ability.
It was refreshing for Kent State faithful to see the run game revert to its previous stature after a pair of rough outings. Knowing what we’ve seen from Bowling Green’s defense thus far, if Kent State is able to generate 262 yards and three touchdowns on the Falcons, this unit should be able to replicate the work it did in 2020 as MAC play enters full swing.
Bowling Green’s aerial defense remains among the elite
For a team which garnered a reputation of poor defenses from 2016 through 2020, Bowling Green did a remarkable 180-degree turnaround in one offseason. The Falcons promoted cornerbacks coach Eric Lewis to defensive coordinator and the staffing decision clearly changed the complexion of the program.
After working out the kinks in the opener at Tennessee, the Falcons responded by allowing just four touchdowns in its next three contests. Bowling Green has been especially stout in the secondary, and teams haven’t been able to generate much through the air on the Falcons. To grasp how impressive Bowling Green’s passing defense has been, check out the numbers:
- Week 1, @ Tennessee (season average 219.6 passing yards): 12/24, 144 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
- Week 2 vs. South Alabama (season average 231.8 passing yards): 29/46, 257 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
- Week 3 vs. Murray State (FCS): 13/28, 132 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT
- Week 4 @ Minnesota (season average 141.8 passing yards): 5/13, 59 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT
- Week 5 @ Kent State: 15/28 (season average 188.2 passing yards), 134 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
That’s right. Only one touchdown pass has flown over the heads of the Bowling Green defensive backs this season. South Alabama was the only team to eclipse its season average in passing yards and complete more than 60 percent of attempts on this unit in 2021.
Tennessee completed exactly 50 percent of its throws, while Murray State and Minnesota finished below that threshold. Also the latter two teams added two interceptions apiece to the Falcons’ collection. Overall, Bowling Green sports an incredible ratio of one touchdown to five passes intercepted this year. Coastal Carolina is the only team in the FBS to allow zero aerial touchdowns this year, so the Bowling Green’s success in countering the air is nearly unmatched.
It’s evident that the defensive coordinator has an extensive background in coaching defensive backs, because they have been blanketing opponents all year and flying to the ball at the instant of a quarterback’s release. Cornerbacks Davon Feguson and Devin Taylor combine for eight pass breakups and they have been particularly excellent in winning their man coverage matchups this year.
The prowess of the secondary drew many headlines in the Minnesota game by holding quarterback Tanner Morgan to 5/13 and intercepting two passes in the final three minutes. After consistently delivering the same results week after week, that performance was clearly no fluke. It’s the standard at Bowling Green in 2021.
A.J. Musolino is molding into one of the best MAC linebackers
When brainstorming the conference’s best defenders in August, A.J. Musolino certainly wasn’t a name many had on their radar. In-game experience for the senior from Struthers, OH was practically limited to special teams in his prior three seasons. Listed as a third-string inside linebacker on Kent State’s preliminary 2021 depth chart, Musolino unexpectedly made his first collegiate start at Texas A&M in Week 1.
Recording six tackles and his first sack as a Golden Flash in his long-awaited moment, it was clear Musolino’s tenure in the starting lineup wasn’t temporary. Now, he’s started all five games and none of those performances were more special than the one he concocted against Bowling Green. In the second quarter, Musolino charged into the backfield to record a 16-yard sack on quarterback Matt McDonald. The lengthy loss pushed the Falcons to a 3rd and 24 situation, and although they managed to nail a 52-yard field goal on the drive, Musolino effectively prevented a touchdown with his efforts.
That wasn’t the only touchdown opportunity he thwarted. With the score tied at 20 apiece in the early fourth quarter, McDonald threw a series of lasers to maneuver Bowling Green’s offense into the red zone. Back against the wall, Musolino ensured the game would remain tied. On a critical third down, he backpedaled into zone coverage and snagged McDonald’s throw toward the end zone for Kent State’s lone interception of the contest — the first pick in Musolino’s five years at Kent State.
After the career performance, Musolino ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 23 and tied for first on the team in sacks with 2.0. But most notably, the former special teamer turned starter leads Kent State in tackles for loss by a country mile with 6.5. It’s been a quite a story to watch his rise this year, and All-MAC status is certainly on the table for the Golden Flashes’ newest star.
Will the Falcons ever fix the run game?
It’s a valid question — is Bowling Green ever going to leave a game averaging 3.0 yards per rushing attempt in 2021? Here’s a look at the Falcons’ progress this season on the ground:
- Week 1, @ Tennessee: 23 rushes, 32 yards, 1.4 YPC, 0 TD (leading rusher Nick Mosley - 26)
- Week 2 vs. South Alabama: 19 rushes, 9 yards, 0.5 YPC, 0 TD (leading rusher Terion Stewart - 16)
- Week 3 vs. Murray State (FCS): 43 rushes, 118 yards, 2.7 YPC, 2 TD (leading rusher Nick Mosley - 48)
- Week 4 @ Minnesota: 25 rushes, 22 yards, 0.9 YPC, 2 TD (leading rusher Jaison Patterson - 20)
- Week 5 @ Kent State: 26 rushes, 55 yards, 2.1 YPC, 1 TD (leading rusher Jaison Patterson - 60)
The positive news is that a rusher broke 50 yards for the first time this year on Saturday. Also, for the first time since the Tennessee game, a running back accumulated more than eight yards on a carry, and it happened twice. Mosley ran for a 12-yard touchdown and Patterson broke away for a 21-yard gain, so hints of progress were displayed.
But still, if 2.1 yards per carry is your best output against an FBS opponent this year, the passing game must be immaculate in order to offset the damage caused by a lack of rushing ability.
Kent State’s run defense currently allows 170 yards per game (91st in FBS) and last season, Terion Stewart rushed for 162 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the unit. If there was a week to figure it out, it felt like this was it. But Bowling Green’s running backs were met immediately at the line of scrimmage on almost every handoff and the entire afternoon felt like Groundhog Day. There needs to be more creativity to bolster the run game and the play calls have been rather predictable for defenses. Also, the blocking at the line of scrimmage certainly needs to improve considering FBS teams are collecting 8.0 tackles for loss per game on Bowling Green.
The offense is at its best when substituting the running game for a series of quick slants and out routes, which has worked substantially well this year. If Bowling Green is rushing around 25 times in a game this year with hardly any effectiveness, it’s not far-fetched to suggest the Falcons might alleviate pressure off the halfbacks and go full-fledged into an air raid, similar to Mike Leach’s philosophy at Mississippi State.