Wednesday night #MACtion presented a million dollar matchup — literally, at least to one college football fan. Prior to kickoff Wednesday, Pickswise reported one bettor at Hard Rock Casinos placed seven figures on underdog Kent State to cover 10.5 points against Bowling Green. But even beyond that heavily-invested bettor, the stakes remainder high under the Wednesday night lights at Dix Stadium in Kent, OH.
Kent State and Bowling Green compete for the Anniversary Award on an annual basis — an award that has been shelved within the Golden Flashes’ trophy case for five-straight meetings. And to add fuel to the rivalry game, bowl eligibility was also on the line for Bowling Green — a postseason-starved program which had only claimed one bowl appearance since 2016.
The Falcons captured both of those accomplishments in one night and did so in commanding fashion. Bowling Green left zero doubt in a 49-19 evisceration, claiming its fourth-consecutive victory to reserve a spot in the postseason.
“I want another opportunity to play,” Bowling Green head coach Scot Loeffler said regarding bowl eligibility. “I want another month to be around these guys. I love these guys. They’re great guys, great people, and want to spend the holidays with them.”
Bowling Green running back Ta’ron Keith was the clear-cut MVP of Wednesday night. Last year, the versatile talent cemented himself into legendary status in midweek MACtion by running in a 42-yard touchdown reception with nine seconds remaining to knock off Toledo and clinch bowl eligibility. With bowl eligibility at stake once again, Keith unleashed his heroics. He attained 103 yards as a rusher and 130 as a receiver, finishing with two total touchdowns in the victory.
“He’s just a nifty football player,” Loeffler said. “He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the fastest, he just finds ways to make plays. Very, very intelligent football player. He works at it. He’s in the office all the time. He loves football and he’s just got a knack for the game.”
Keith’s stellar night did not end in ideal fashion, however. In the late fourth quarter, he had a wide open lane for his third touchdown of the night with nobody in front of him, but opted to run out of bounds due to an injury sustained on the run. He was assisted off the field by trainers, effectively concluding his dominant performance. Loeffler did not have an update on Keith, nor on leading rusher Terion Stewart who missed the entirety of Wednesday night’s contest.
“We had to do this last year but I think we’re a little bit older, a little bit more mature and handled him not being in the game much better than we have,” Loeffler said about Stewart’s absence. “He’s a great player, good kid, and we missed him tonight for sure.”
Kent State delivered the first punches of the night with a field goal on the opening drive and a quick defensive stop, but everything pointed into the Falcons’ favor thanks to one pivotal first quarter play. Bowling Green did what Bowling Green does best and forced an opportune turnover on Kent State’s second drive of the game. Strong safety Patrick Day punched the ball out of wide receiver Trell Harris’ hands and Darren Anders pounced on it for Bowling Green’s FBS-high 23rd takeaway of the year. Bowling Green instantly capitalized on the takeaway with the first touchdown of the night and remained in control until the final whistle — and later generated a 24th takeaway in the final minutes.
“It was huge,” Anders said of the first takeaway. “They were getting a little momentum going and Pat did an unbelievable job of coming down and getting the ball out. I was just lucky enough to be there and get the ball. Coach said when we create turnovers and set our offense up for better opportunities, that’s how we’re gonna win games. We’ve done a great job at that this year and we did a really good job at it today.”
Anders sustained his dominance for Bowling Green after recovering the early fumble, and Kent State felt his impact in every facet of the game. The former First Team All-MAC linebacker assisted on a 12-yard third sack immediately after Bowling Green captured a 7-3 lead, and the momentum then rippled to the other two units. Jhaylin Embry returned the ensuing punt 40 yards, and on the first play of the resulting offensive series, Connor Bazelak delivered a 47-yard dime to tight end Harold Fannin Jr. for a touchdown.
Fannin was among the Falcons’ stars Wednesday, as the sophomore accrued 92 receiving yards and 25 rushing yards — taking frequent snaps as a wildcat tight end.
“He’s another really tough guy mentally and physically,” quarterback Camden Orth said of Fannin. “I’ve never seen someone as natural as Harold. We teach him something new and he does it first time perfectly, so he’s a guy who picks up stuff really quickly.”
As usual, Bowling Green rotated between Bazelak and Orth at quarterback throughout the contest, and both enjoyed productive Wednesday nights. Bazelak finished 13-of-19 for 188 passing yards while Orth added 98 passing yards on a 4-of-4 showing. Orth added a mobile element, powering through defenders en route to a pair of short-yardage touchdowns, but his lasting highlight of the night was a fake QB draw. In the second quarter, he sold the run and created an open lane for wide receiver Keith down the middle of the field. Orth’s delivery to Keith went for an uncontested 45-yard touchdown — the third of Bowling Green’s season-high seven touchdowns.
“Connor (Bazelak)’s good in the pass game and Cam (Orth) just brings a different dynamic to the game — tough kid, whenever he’s in there we know it’s gonna be gritty and he’s gonna get the job done,” Anders said. “Having both of them has been awesome, give each other breaks, and it really just gives the defense a lot to prepare for.”
For the second consecutive week, Kent State named Tommy Ulatowski the starting quarterback. Ulatowski operated without his top receiver Chrishon McCray, who suffered a season-ending injury last week vs. Akron, but he still moved the ball well through the air with a career-high 284 yards on 40 attempts. With Ulatowski running the show, wide receiver Luke Floriea managed to set a career-high with 95 receiving yards and Trell Harris also shined with 77.
“Tommy’s won the job and Tommy’s done a great job with it,” Kent State head coach Kenni Burns said. “I think Tommy’s done a really good job of growing and I’m proud of Tommy. Tommy had an emotional 24 hours and I’ll tell you what, his fight today — he lost someone in his family last night and it was a very long night for Tommy. To see him lead and fight and battle the way he did today, that was impressive. That was really impressive and that speaks to his character. It was really impressive.”
However, Kent State’s offense frequently stalled upon invading Falcons’ territory. In nine trips past the 50-yard line, the Golden Flashes settled for three field goals (two makes, one miss), punted once, threw one interception, and turned it over on downs. They first reached the end zone with five minutes remaining in the third quarter when Ulatowski faked a handoff on an RPO, freeing tight end Hayden Junker for a 21-yard touchdown reception. Kent State later scored in the fourth quarter, but the comeback effort failed and the lack of depth was evident as Bowling Green won the final frame 21-6.
“We’ve got to play better,” Burns said. “A lot of young guys played today, and you saw that in the first half of this football game, at linebacker especially. We’ve got to learn from it and we’ve got to grow on defense for sure. On offense, we took steps in the right direction, but we’ve got to protect the ball a little bit better than what we did today. I was proud of our team’s fight. They fought until the end, which was good, but we have to execute to the end as well and we didn’t do that.”
Kent State (1-9, 0-6 MAC) remains the only MAC team winless in conference play after losing by 30+ for the first time since September. In year one of the Burns era, the Golden Flashes are still one of three programs without an FBS victory this year. There are two chances left to undo that undesirable designation, including Saturday, Nov. 18 at 3-7 Ball State.
“Responding and growing,” Burns said in regard to the emphasis for the final two weeks. “There’s no magic sauce to making this thing up. We are in year one and year one is about learning and growing. You look at all the head coaches in the MAC who started off in year one, a lot of them had the same type of struggles we had and a couple years later, turned into success. That’s the plan here. I’ve done this long enough. I know the recipe. I know how to do it. And I know we’re moving in the right direction.”
Bowling Green (6-4, 4-2 MAC) is back in bowl season for the second consecutive season after a six-year drought from 2016 through 2021. After years of struggles, the Falcons have made bowling the standard under Loeffler. Veteran members like Anders — a fifth-year senior — understood what it took to get to this point.
“We talked about it in the locker room,” Anders said. “Now it’s kind of the standard here to make a bowl game. Next year and for the years coming, you better make a bowl game at BG because that’s the standard that we set. Making it this year is awesome with two games to go.”