- Time and date: Saturday, October 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Dix Stadium — Kent, OH
- Spread: Buffalo (-7)
- Over/under: 45
- All-time series: Series tied, 14-14
- Last meeting: Kent State 30, Buffalo 27 — November 26, 2022
- Current streak: Kent State, 2 (2021-22)
Setting the scene
Dix Stadium plays host to a matchup between MAC East opponents that desperately need another notch in the win column.
Kent State (1-6, 0-3 MAC) remains on a quest for its first FBS win in Kenni Burns’ inaugural season at the helm. The Golden Flashes endured a difficult schedule up to this point, and this will be the only sub-.500 opponent they’ve faced so far besides Arkansas. It’s only the third home game of the Burns era as well, and Kent State owns a 1-1 record in its natural habitat this season. Last week was the Golden Flashes’ closest call against an FBS opponent this season and perhaps that momentum can be leveraged into something greater this Saturday.
Buffalo (2-5, 2-1 MAC) features a winning record in MAC play after a tumultuous non-conference start. But the Bulls were handed their fifth loss of the season last Saturday as Bowling Green posted 24 unanswered points en route to a 24-14 victory. Buffalo entered the season with high expectations after winning seven of its last 10 a season ago, but the Bulls are one slip-up away from tying their loss total from a year ago. This matchup presents the perfect opportunity to regain footing and keep bowl hopes on the table.
Buffalo Bulls outlook
Buffalo started the season with a calamitous non-conference showing, finishing 0-4 and burdened by a loss to an FCS team. But the Bulls bounced back tremendously, knocking off Akron in overtime before stunning Central Michigan 37-13 the following week. Last week, Buffalo shed its perfect MAC record, falling 24-14 to Bowling Green.
In the Bowling Green game, the passing attack was uncharacteristically brutal. Buffalo entered that contest with the MAC’s leading gunslinger in Cole Snyder, but neither Snyder — nor the backup CJ Ogbonna — could spark the aerial movement in last Saturday’s loss. Snyder completed 5-of-15 attempts for 30 yards and two interceptions while Ogbonna connected on just 4-of-14 passes for 41 yards, one touchdown, and two picks. This facet is usually a strong-point for a Buffalo offense which airs the ball out 36 times per game, ranking 26th in the FBS in that category.
Snyder likely retains the starting role, as one data point doesn’t undo all of his progress, but head coach Maurice Linguist is prepared to utilize Ogbonna should things go south with the offense again. Ogbonna provides increased mobility from the quarterback spot which was seen against Bowling Green and back in September in a near-comeback at Louisiana.
Buffalo usually moves the ball on the ground with its 1-2 punch of Ron Cook Jr. and Mike Washington. Each member of the veteran tandem complements the other well, as Cook brings a degree of speed to the table while Washington is more of a tackle-breaking power back. Both thrive in their role and average north of 4.0 yards per carry this season. Even Jacqez Barksdale has broken into the rotation, and the JUCO transfer is an explosive back responsible for Buffalo’s longest run in two of the past three weeks.
If Snyder is manning the quarterback spot, Buffalo will favor the pass more. That gives more opportunities for options like Darrell Harding Jr., Marlyn Johnson, and Cole Harrity — the three receivers responsible for the bulk of the production this year. Harrity is the reliable short-yardage and red zone threat, averaging 7.5 yards on a team-high 26 catches. Harding is the go-to option on downfield shots — which Buffalo isn’t afraid to take. The Duke transfer leads the Bulls with 239 receiving yards, and his usage slowly increases as the season progresses.
Defense was Buffalo’s Achilles heel in non-conference play, but it’s turned into somewhat of a strength against MAC competition. The Bulls surrendered 44.5 points per game to out-of-conference competition, but they’ve grown from those lapses, stifling MAC foes to only 15.7 points per game. Forcing turnovers at an exorbitant rate is one item that has shifted Buffalo into a respectable defense. Buffalo generated four takeaways two weeks ago against Central Michigan and then followed it up with three versus Bowling Green. The problem with the Bowling Green game is the Bulls coughed up the ball five times themselves.
The coverage has been particularly stellar recently. Free safety Devin Grant was showered with Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week honors two weeks ago for his 3-interception outing against the Chippewas. Then Jayden Oliver and Co. kept that interception party rolling against Bowling Green. Although the Bulls aren’t getting to the quarterback at a high rate, they’re applying enough pressure to force errant throws, and the opponent completion rate has dropped significantly since non-conference play.
Elsewhere on the defense, Buffalo may continue to operate without star linebacker Shaun Dolac, who led the FBS in solo tackles last season. Joe Andreessen has stepped up in his absence with team-highs 47 tackles and 6.0 tackles for loss on the year.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
It’s predictably been a difficult season for a rebuilding Kent State program that was zapped of the majority of its coaching staff and veteran talent in the offseason. The Golden Flashes recorded a commanding victory over an FCS opponent in Week 3, but other than that, it’s been a series of struggles.
In six games against FBS competition this year, Kent State’s slimmest margin of defeat is 14 points, which occurred last Saturday at Eastern Michigan. The Golden Flashes haven’t scored more than 17 on an FBS team this season, totaling five touchdowns and averaging 9.3 points per in six matchups.
What’s preventing Kent State from scoring? The passing offense ranks 10th-to-last in the FBS, collecting 152 yards per game and the rushing attack isn’t making up for it. Kent State is one of 12 teams averaging under 3.2 yards per run this year, and that number is certainly affected by the high volume of sacks allowed. With a young offensive line, Kent State hasn’t been pristine in pass protection by any means, tying Akron for a MAC-worst 3.7 sacks yielded per contest. When gathering all of those stats together, the result is a team which struggles to move the sticks and ranks in the bottom five in first downs attained. Last week the team was plagued by pressure and drops, resulting in six three-and-outs in a 28-14 loss to Eastern Michigan.
Look for in-game adjustments to be made as Kent State is currently tinkering with everything in order to find an offensive spark. The Golden Flashes are expected to play two quarterbacks in this contest — just like they did last week — rotating between Mike Alaimo and Tommy Ulatowski. Alaimo has been the more potent pocket passer, featuring 881 yards on a 55.4 percent completion clip, but Ulatowski moves the ball in other ways. He’s a more dangerous runner as exhibited by 73 rushing yards on 18 attempts and he’s taken care of the ball with a 3-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Also, Ulatowski was instrumental in lifting Kent State to a 30-27 overtime victory in Buffalo last November, coming off the bench midgame.
The turnover battle hasn’t been too crushing for the Golden Flashes this year, featuring a -1 on the season. But they lost 3-1 last week and the failure to hold onto the ball undid the progress of a tremendous defensive performance.
The defense performed at a commendable enough level to win last week, and that performance must be replicated Saturday. Kent State forced eight three-and-outs last Saturday at Eastern Michigan, and seven of the 28 points allowed were via special teams. The Golden Flashes limited a 6-1 Miami (OH) squad to 23 points several weeks ago and also held Arkansas below 30 points. This is the more veteran unit of Kent State’s team, featuring standouts like Missouri transfer outside linebacker Devin Nicholson (team-high 47 tackles, 3.0 TFL) and free safety Bryce Sheppert (36 tackles, five pass breakups).
This unit has demonstrated marked improvement since the August opener at UCF, primarily in the pass defense. Kent State only allows 218 passing yards per game, and this is not merely a result of teams opting for run-heavy offenses on the Golden Flashes. They’re showing active hands and breaking up passes on a routine basis, holding opponents to a commendable completion percentage of 59.5. Eastern Michigan managed to complete just 9-of-25 passing attempts on Kent State, and the Eagles’ run game wasn’t too effective either, managing 100 yards on 2.7 per carry.
Both offenses are struggling to generate points in MAC play, but the edge in this game goes to Buffalo. While both defenses have shown some promise in recent weeks, the Bulls generate more havoc. They rank near the top of the FBS leaderboard with 13 takeaways on the year while Kent State is closer to the bottom with six.
Additionally, Buffalo brings a veteran defensive into this matchup featuring All-MAC selection Daymond Williams in the middle and a talented pass rusher in Max Michel on the outside. Given Kent State’s o-line struggles, Buffalo should create a strong enough edge here to force a few crucial sacks and counter Kent State’s runs out of the shotgun with much success.
Don’t expect a barrage of points in this one, but Cole Snyder redeems himself through the air to get Buffalo a multi-score victory in Kent, OH.
Prediction: Buffalo 27, Kent State 13