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Kent State ushers in Kenni Burns era with decisive 56-6 defeat to UCF

Knights open their Big 12 membership with 50-point victory over a Kent State squad with new starters galore.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Central Florida Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Kernkraft 400’s “Zombie Nation” blared over the loudspeakers as the fully-packed student sections on either end zone of FBC Mortgage Stadium jumped in unison, creating a earthquake-like sensation to usher in the 2023 football season. Known as the “Bounce House,” the 45,000-seat venue in Orlando saw both the commencement of a new era of UCF football and a new era of Kent State football Thursday night.

The Knights were officially initiated into the Big 12, suiting up and taking the field in the presence of the conference’s logos and signage for the first time. On the visiting sideline, Kent State officially launched Kenni Burns’ tenure as the new leader of the program. The first-time head coach, who last served as an associate head coach at Minnesota, made his debut with a completely overhauled roster, returning zero offensive and three defensive starters. Ultimately, that Golden Flashes’ inexperience showed against the Big 12’s newest member, and the Knights blew by in a 56-6 landslide.

“It was a learning experience for me too as a head coach,” Burns said. “There were a lot of things I realized that we gotta be better that and that I gotta be better at. It starts with me. I’ve got to be a better manager of the game. Then my coaches gotta be better and the players gotta play better. But it was a great learning experience.”

The clear-cut MVP of the night was UCF’s versatile quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who displayed his dual-threat capabilities in an all-around dominant performance. As a runner, the senior quarterback roamed free around field, seamlessly escaping pressure, hurdling defenders, and managing to turn a litany of broken plays into first downs. Plumlee racked up 90 rushing yards on eight attempts in the first half alone, highlighted by a 17-yard touchdown scamper in the opening quarter.

“He’s electric with his feet,” UCF head coach Gus Malzahn said. “Early on they did some things and he made two or three people miss, he made some explosive runs, he got in a rhythm throwing the football. Overall, I think he played really well.”

NCAA Football: Kent State at Central Florida
John Rhys Plumlee accounted for 281 passing yards, 90 rushing yards, and four total touchdowns in a 56-6 win.
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

As a passer, the second-year Knight enjoyed an efficient performance as well. He connected on 22-of-29 attempts, targeting a diverse route tree en route for 281 passing yards and a trio of touchdown strikes. Plumlee launched the night with a 9-yard touchdown completion to wide receiver Xavier Townsend, a former running back who led all players with 81 receiving yards. His other touchdowns were directed toward tight end Alec Holler on a busted coverage and to RJ Harvey on a running back seam.

“We had a lot of guys do a lot of really, really good things,” Plumlee said. “Xavier Townsend was the first guy who popped in my mind. He’s a workhorse. He’s worked and worked and worked and worked, and to see it pay off for him and see him be able to make the plays he made tonight, it’s hard not to smile.”

The speedy Townsend was one explosive playmaker Thursday night, but Harvey also lit up the stat sheet with a handful of home run plays. The running back not only scored on a 50-yard touchdown reception, but he also added a 48-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter. Harvey served as one of three major promoters of the Knights’ dominant run game, which out-gained Kent State, 389-95.

“We have a really good running back room and everybody’s explosive,” Plumlee said. “When you have a room full of backs that are all explosive, it makes it easy on me — RPOs and shots, knowing if it’s not there, just give it to RJ, give it to Johnny (Richardson), give it to (Demarkcus Bowman), give it to Jordan (McDonald). It’s almost like a comfort blanket.”

But one aspect of the game which favored Kent State was the turnover battle. The Golden Flashes exited Orlando with a 3-1 advantage, picking off Plumlee two times in the end zone and recovering a fumble in the first quarter. Cornerback D.J. Miller and transfer outside linebacker Nick Giacolone were the recipients of rare Plumlee misfires, while defensive end Stephen Daley scooped up the Knights’ lone fumble. UCF only punted once the entire night, but the Golden Flashes still found a way to record extra stops through a series of takeaways.

“We emphasize the ball and say, ‘The ball is the program,’” Burns said. “We say if you win the turnover battle, if you win the broken tackle battle, and you win the explosive play battle, you got a 78 percent chance of winning. The issue is we won the turnover battle, but we lost the other two. So we have to emphasize those two things to get better.”

NCAA Football: Kent State at Central Florida
Kent State outside linebacker Nick Giacolone contributed to the turnover battle with an end zone interception in his Golden Flashes’ debut.
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Offensively, the Burns era got off to a tumultuous start as the Golden Flashes found themselves trailing 14-0 with an output of -5 yards over halfway through the first quarter. But Purdue transfer quarterback Mike Alaimo found a rhythm shortly after, guiding three first half drives into UCF territory. Kent State split a pair of field goals on two of those drives and tossed an interception on the other, leaving points on the board despite accumulating several first downs.

“Mike kept fighting through the whole thing,” Burns said. “They kind of gave us different looks toward the end of the second quarter that made it a little bit tricky for him, and he threw a couple passes he shouldn’t. But Mike’s a good player. He’s gonna learn and get better. I have no worries at all about Mike.”

Alaimo completed six of his first nine attempts, but UCF brought copious amounts of pressure as the night progressed. The first-time starter could not sustain the momentum he generated in the first half. He finished the night 12-of-31 with 145 yards and one second quarter interception to DeJordan Mask — remaining in search for his first touchdown pass in a Kent State uniform.

“We just had to get used to them,” UCF defensive end Josh Celiscar said on the Knights’ in-game defensive improvement. “Going into the game, we didn’t really know what we were gonna get. So we did a great job of just playing our keys and doing everything off of instinct. After all that, our coaches had a great gameplan and we just stopped them.”

Kent State exhibited dominant rushing attacks in recent years, but that was the offense’s greatest heel in the opener. In the first half, the team racked up just 27 rushing yards on 15 carries — and only one sack factored into that total. The Golden Flashes didn’t produce an explosive run covering at least 10 yards until the second half when Alaimo scrambled for a 25-yard pickup on third down. The Knights wound up generating six tackles for loss and won the battle in the trenches against an o-line starting two players with zero collegiate experience prior to Thursday.

“Every time in the headset, I heard, ‘The left guard got beat.’ Or, ‘The center got beat,’” Burns said on what caused the struggles in the run game. “So you have four guys doing the right thing, then one guy gets beat on the play. But then again, there are five new guys playing together with a true freshman center. They’re going to get better as we keep moving forward.”

There was a lot of mystery heading into the game which style offense Kent State would run under its new regime. One of the three assistants the Golden Flashes retained from the Sean Lewis era was Matt Johnson, who moved into an offensive coordinator role this year. With Johnson at the helm, the offense took on a similar approach to prior years, operating in up-tempo fashion with frequent RPO usage. Kent State ran a similar style to UCF, which also broke out the tempo on a consistent basis, fitting 81 play-calls into the contest.

“What I learned (from UCF’s tempo) is we’re not deep enough,” Burns said. “We’ve got to get deeper as a football team. We probably have 14 guys who can go in there and produce, and they’re playing a lot of football, so we’ve got to get deeper. But it was what we thought. They played fast and we practiced that to give our defense a simulation of that. But that’s a really good football team. I’ll give Gus a lot of credit. He told me before the game he thinks it’s the best team he’s had since he’s been here and it showed.”

NCAA Football: Kent State at Central Florida
UCF head coach Gus Malzahn utilized an up-tempo offense to secure his 19th win in three seasons with the Knights.
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden Flashes suffered the first 50-point beatdown of the 2023 season, and given the bevy of inexperience and first-time starters, there may be growing pains before the rebuild comes together. Kent State (0-1, 0-0 MAC) remains on the road for another week, traveling to Arkansas with hopes of a stronger showing.

“We’re a better football team than we showed today,” Burns said. “They know that. That was a down locker room. But like I told them, it’s one game. Now you get a chance to respond and be the best you can possibly be moving forward.”

Meanwhile, UCF (1-0, 0-0 Big 12) commenced Big 12 membership in ideal fashion, but a challenging matchup awaits next Saturday in Idaho. The Knights travel to the blue turf to battle a Boise State squad fresh off a 10-win season, hoping to win the second leg of a home-and-home series after defeating the Broncos in 2021.

“I think it’s a real good advantage,” Malzahn said on having extra time before the Boise State game. “We have an extra day to prepare for Boise. They’re one of the top 25, 30 teams in the country. You’ve gotta go there on the blue turf and all that. We’ll have our hands full with that one and having a little extra time will help.”