- Time and date: Wednesday, November 9 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: CBS Sports Network
- Location: Doyt Perry Stadium — Bowling Green, OH
- Spread: Kent State (-2.5)
- ESPN FPI: Kent State has 59.8% chance to win
- All-time series: Bowling Green leads, 60-23-6
- Last meeting: Kent State 27, Bowling Green 20 — October 2, 2021
- Current streak: Kent State, 4 (2018-21)
Setting the scene
Bowling Green State University was founded in 1910. Kent State University was also founded in 1910. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of each institution’s founding, the Anniversary Award was created as a trophy bestowed annually to the superior Northern Ohio rival. The Anniversary Award is up for grabs Wednesday night at Doyt Perry Stadium.
Recently, this trophy has become a staple on Kent State’s campus, as the Golden Flashes have retained it for a program-record four consecutive years. But this season, the setting of the game moves to Bowling Green’s residence, and the Falcons entered with a 5-4 record superior to Kent State’s 3-6 mark.
This midweek MACtion showcase will be an important one for both rivals’ bowl eligibility prospects.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
Kent State was in this position before, almost exactly three years ago. In head coach Sean Lewis’ second year at the helm, the Golden Flashes stared down a 3-6 record heading into a weeknight matchup with Buffalo. Kent State overcame a 21-point deficit that night and never looked back, winning four consecutive games including a bowl to finish the year 7-6. The Golden Flashes haven’t experienced a losing season since, but they must accomplish the same feat they did in 2019 in order to sustain that streak.
Kent State’s success starts with its offense. The Golden Flashes returned starting quarterback Collin Schlee a week ago after he missed the Week 8 Akron game with injury. While the majority of Schlee’s games feature under 200 passing yards this season, the first-year starter is a proven gunslinger when needed, surpassing the 300-yard threshold in back-to-back MAC games to start the month of October. Schlee also provides mobility to Kent State’s high-powered run game as the roster’s second-leading rusher with 381 yards on 4.8 per carry.
The run game is Kent State’s preferred method of attack, and they love running out of the shotgun at an up-tempo pace. Marquez Cooper is the team’s unquestionable No. 1 running back, and he is fresh off his third 130+ yard showing. Cooper is second in the MAC in rushing yards and one of 13 FBS players already past the millennium mark. He’ll receive some support from Bryan Bradford, but expect Cooper to be the workhorse back testing Bowling Green’s 80th ranked rushing defense.
Injuries recently plagued the Golden Flashes’ talented receiving corps. Only two players on the roster have more than 20 receptions this season — Dante Cephas with 47 and Devontez Walker with 42. Both are currently battling injury and Lewis suggested in his weekly press conference that many of the injury statuses outside of safety Dean Clark are “day-to-day,” without further specification for the receivers. Cephas, who has posted 10 games of 100+ yards in his 19 outings, is an all-around threat with strong hands, decent speed and size, and a knack for breaking tackles. Meanwhile, Walker is an emerging speed threat and a perfect go-to on tunnel screens and fly routes.
But if neither of Kent State’s top two receivers are able to crack the lineup, Ja’Shaun Poke becomes the preferred option of Schlee. Poke was the overwhelming recipient a week ago hauling in 13 of Schlee’s 25 completions, converting those catches to 87 receiving yards. Despite Poke’s impressive numbers, it was clear Kent State’s offense lost a degree of verticality without Cephas and Walker, and the Golden Flashes amassed just 183 passing yards on 41 attempts in the prior outing against Ball State.
While Kent State isn’t renowned for being one of the MAC’s defensive specialists, the Golden Flashes have quietly held 80 percent of the conference competition they’ve played below 30 points. A rigorous non-conference schedule featuring the likes of 9-0 Georgia, 7-2 Washington, and 6-3 Oklahoma certainly skewed some of the team’s defensive numbers, and while there’s still plenty of construction to be done, the 2022 Kent State defense is a markedly improved version of the 2021 unit.
The secondary is the area which needs the most work, as demonstrated by the team’s ninth-to-last ranking in pass defense. Losing safety Antwaine Richardson hurts, but Lewis hinted Dean Clark is probable to make his season debut at the same position. Clark produced a team-high 116 tackles in 2021 so his veteran presence will resonate throughout the unit. Against a pass-heavy Bowling Green team, another veteran playing a significant role is cornerback Montre Miller, who leads the team interceptions for the second straight year.
But in order to thrive in coverage, Kent State must amplify its pressure — an element of its game that has taken a step back since Khalib Johns suffered an injury in non-conference play. Expect defensive end Zayin West, who boasts 8.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks, to lead an attempted backfield invasion against a stout defensive line.
Bowling Green Falcons outlook
Is it time to put the ‘bowl’ in Bowling Green? It’s been a long time since the Falcons qualified for the postseason. Dino Babers, now coaching his seventh year at Syracuse, was the last Bowling Green head coach to lead the program to the promise land in 2015. But after winning four of its last five, the Falcons have the momentum necessary to revert to bowl eligibility and possibly contend for a MAC title.
Entering the season, Bowling Green appeared to be one of the conference’s defensive juggernauts, as evidenced by its top 10 pass defense a year ago. The Falcons could not have started the season in a rougher manner on the defensive side, but the unit has considerably improved in recent weeks — the main reason Bowling Green turned its 1-3 start into a 5-4 record.
The Falcons staved off Western Michigan 13-9 in a defensive struggle last Wednesday, signifying the third consecutive game they’ve stifled an opponent below 20 points. Western Michigan completed passes at a 59 percent clip and averaged 3.5 yards per carry against Bowling Green’s defense, which played a complete game from start to finish. The Falcons rank 105th in passing defense and still allow the nation’s fourth highest completion rate, but this aspect continues to improve on a week-by-week basis. Strong safety Chris Bacon is an essential star on this unit as the team’s leading tackler, and the Georgia State transfer recorded his first interception in Falcon colors last Wednesday.
The strongest element of Bowling Green’s defense is the pass rush. Only Liberty collects more sacks on a per game basis than the Falcons. Many of the sacks can be attributed to soon-to-be First Team All-MAC selection Karl Brooks. The defensive end is fifth nationally in individual sacks with 8.0 on the season, and despite the attention he consumes from opposing lines, he continues to get his numbers without issue. Brooks is further supported by the inside linebacker duo of Darren Anders and DJ Taylor, who schedule the most meetings with opposing running backs on the roster.
On offense, Bowling Green prefers to air it out often, but as the year progresses, more balance can be observed within the unit. Quarterback Matt McDonald has been the model of efficiency lately with an 80 percent completion rate in his last two starts. Overall, it has been a sensational season for the third-year starter, who wields a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 16-to-3. McDonald’s smart decision-making has kept Bowling Green a player in a crowded MAC East race, but the team must do a better job of protecting him. After a strong showing to start the year, Bowling Green’s line has surrendered 16 sacks to its starting quarterback in a 4-game span — a disturbing trend which must be amended going into this final stretch of the regular season.
In terms of skill position players, Bowling Green doesn’t exactly inflict damage with a single star like a Marquez Cooper or a Dante Cephas, but rather, the Falcons disperse the ball across a bevy of running backs and receivers when on offense. Odieu Hiliare is the No. 1 receiving threat with 442 yards on 36 receptions in 2022, but the Falcons send out four other receivers with between 20 and 30 catches and 200 to 330 yards under their belt. Among these is reigning First Team All-MAC tight end Christian Sims, an established blocking and red zone threat who ranks second on the Falcons in receptions.
At running back, Jaison Patterson and Ta’ron Keith should split the bulk of the load. Two games ago, Patterson became the first 100-yard rusher for the Falcons all season and he built on that performance by averaging 5.6 yards per carry last week. Keith is Bowling Green’s receiving back as suggested by his 25 catches this year, but still, he churns out a respectable 4.6 yards per rush in a secondary back role.
This one has the potential of an exciting back-and-forth contest, especially when considering the strides Bowling Green has taken offensively this year. The Falcons enter with the better overall record, yet are pegged as the underdog in this contest.
Kent State’s offense will be somewhat dependent on the health of wide receivers Dante Cephas and Devontez Walker. If not available, we’ll see a more grounded version of this team — which isn’t exactly an issue considering they ranked top three in rushing yards per game in 2020 and 2021. Both teams have aspects of their defense which are exploitable, which could put this one into moderate shootout category.
Bowling Green won’t make it easy for the visitor, but overall, Kent State’s extra degree of offensive firepower will be the deciding factor which keeps the Golden Flashes in the hunt for their third bowl game in four years.
Prediction: Kent State 38, Bowling Green 34