A new era of Kent State football coincided with a new era of UCF football Thursday night at the Bounce House. The Golden Flashes ran out of the tunnel for the first time under the direction of head coach Kenni Burns, who was hired in December to replace Sean Lewis. The Knights suited up for the first time as members of the Big 12 after waiting nearly two years from their initial acceptance date.
The two programs, which shared the MAC from 2002-04, collided on the field for the first time in 19 years, but the result overwhelmingly favored the new Big 12 school. UCF utilized its bevy of skill position talent along with a forceful defensive line to breeze past the Golden Flashes, 56-6. Kent State remains in search of its first touchdown of the Burns era, and Thursday night was the ultimate learning experience for the program.
Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown once said, “You can learn a line from a win and a book from defeat.” A 50-point separation between teams might as well be War and Peace, but here are just five observations from the lopsided opener at the Bounce House:
Kent State didn’t alter its offensive identity much
Going into this matchup, one of the pressing questions asked, what does Kent State’s offensive identity look like under Kenni Burns? In the Sean Lewis era, the Golden Flashes established a very strong offensive identity known as the “Flash Fast” offense. This was a no-huddle, very high-tempo scheme which was predicated on RPO concepts — giving the quarterback plenty of freedom in the decision-making process.
Kent State would run a lot of outside zone, and quarterback’s mobility was an essential part of the offense. When the Golden Flashes passed out of these RPOs, it was typically toward the boundaries, rather than across the middle. This offense saw unbounded success, ranking atop the nation in scoring in 2020, while finishing top three in rushing yards per game in 2020 and 2021.
With Lewis taking his concepts to Colorado this summer and offensive coordinator Andrew Sowder taking the tight ends coach job at Minnesota, it was unclear what the Golden Flashes would run under Burns. Burns arrived as a running backs coach from Minnesota, a very power run-heavy offense. But he maintained running backs coach Matt Johnson on staff, promoting him to offensive coordinator.
Together, Burns and Johnson unleashed an offense not far different from Kent State’s identity under Lewis. The Golden Flashes ran tempo throughout the night and registered 68 snaps. There was frequent RPO usage, and in the second quarter, first-time starting quarterback Mike Alaimo saw hints of success with passing out of the RPO — especially toward the sideline to wide receiver Trell Harris.
Alaimo didn’t take off as a runner much, but perhaps, Kent State works his mobility into the offense more over time. But overall, the Golden Flashes remained true to their former selves, and it looks like they’ll be running a similar offense to “Flash Fast” in the “GRIT” era.
Kent State’s offensive line will need time to gel
Kent State replaced 11 new offensive starters. Teams can often reload at the skill positions without missing a beat, but constructing an entire offensive line from scratch is not easy.
The Golden Flashes didn’t have much experience to work with either, as the most established player they landed from the transfer portal was Jimto Obidegwu who made four appearances and started two games across two seasons at Temple. Obidegwu manned the left tackle spot, while incumbent reserves Nolan Rumler and Cam Golden made their first collegiate starts at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
The other two starting o-linemen? They saw their first collegiate snaps Thursday night. Sophomore Dustyn Morrell took on the left guard role in his first FBS experience, while true freshman Andrew Page earned the starting center nod.
Stringing together five inexperienced linemen is difficult enough, but they had the challenge of facing a larger UCF defensive line which produced two First Team All-AAC talents in 2022 — defensive end Tre’Mon Morris-Brash and defensive tackle Ricky Barber. The disparity in experience showed in the trenches, as UCF racked up six tackles for loss and limited Kent State to 95 yards on 36 carries. The majority of those rushing yards were accumulated in the fourth quarter against the backups, and at halftime, the Golden Flashes had just 35 yards on 18 attempts in the books.
Offensive line is the unit which will require the greatest learning curve this season. With five players — four of which made their first collegiate start Thursday night — it’s going to take time. There will be missed blocks and miscommunications along the way, but as the season progresses, the line should gel and Kent State’s rushing attack will be the main benefactor.
Plumlee is as mobile of a QB as there is this year
Any viewer of this opener was immediately captivated by the playmaking ability of John Rhys Plumlee. The dual-threat quarterback — who is also a dual-sport athlete, playing for the Knights’ baseball team — transferred into UCF prior to 2022 after serving as a wide receiver at Ole Miss. Plumlee was instantly a perfect fit in Gus Malzahn’s offense.
In season one as the starting quarterback, he led the Knights to an AAC Championship Game appearance and led the team with 862 rushing yards — ranking second among all FBS quarterbacks behind LSU’s Jayden Daniels. But Plumlee probably would have ranked first if not for a late-season injury. He posted 133 first half rushing yards in last November’s rivalry game against South Florida, but suffered a hamstring injury. That injury kept him immobile in an AAC Championship Game defeat to Tulane, and subsequently, a Military Bowl loss to Duke.
Now that Plumlee is back with a full slate of health, it’s clear how talented of a runner he can be. In the first half alone, he dazzled with 90 rushing yards on eight attempts. Plumlee roamed free like a gazelle in the field from time to time, making several Kent State tacklers miss behind the line of scrimmage before cutting upfield for significant gains. While UCF head coach Gus Malzahn stated his desire to see Plumlee slide more, the quarterback shed contact on multiple occasions and even hurdled a Golden Flashes defender. He scrambled for a 17-yard touchdown in the first quarter and set his personal best for the night on a 32-yard scamper.
Plumlee was sealed in a figurative glass case in the second half as a rusher, but when UCF needs his mobility, he’s going to shine on a different level than just about every quarterback in the FBS.
UCF discovered Bowser Jr.
For another takeaway on UCF’s offense, the Knights already seemed to solve short-yardage situations for the 2023 season. In 2021 and 2022, those scenarios were handled by power back Isaiah Bowser. The 6’1”, 220 pound Northwestern transfer brought a semblance of muscle to UCF’s otherwise speed-based rushing attack. Bowser was automatic from the goal line and tied for 10th in the country with 16 rushing touchdowns.
The Knights don’t run QB sneaks with Plumlee. Instead, on 3rd and 1s, 4th and 1s, and whatnot, they’d line up in a wildcat with Bowser, who got the job done on almost every occasion last year. With Bowser no longer on campus, the Knights tested Jordan McDonald in this role. The 6’1”, 220 pound redshirt freshman presents nearly an identical build. UCF inserted McDonald to operate the wildcat on three occasions. He gained five yards on a 3rd and 1, three on a 4th and 2, and powered his way into the end zone from two yards out in the second quarter.
UCF should not fear these short-yardage situations in a post-Bowser era, but because McDonald can thrive in a similar role and make each conversion seem automatic.
Devin Nicholson is All-MAC caliber talent
The transfer portal depleted Kent State of all of its All-MAC talent from 2022. The Golden Flashes lost the likes of quarterback Collin Schlee, running back Marquez Cooper, wide receivers Tez Walker and Dante Cephas, and offensive tackle Marcellus Marshall, among others.
But teams that lose heaps of talent to the transfer portal are usually able to reload in a way. The most established veteran Kent State brought in this offseason was Missouri outside linebacker Devin Nicholson. Across four years with the Tigers, Nicholson contributed 152 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles — serving as a frequent starter in SEC country.
After his starting duties at Missouri were relinquished in 2022, Nicholson decided to extend his college career in another setting. He couldn’t have found a more perfect fit than Kent State. The Golden Flashes were in desperate need of veteran talent, and Nicholson immediately thrived in that role against UCF. The former Tiger registered a game-leading 13 tackles, and 11 of those were solo takedowns. His name was uttered seemingly every play in the first quarter, and he provided stops on a litany of screen passes and runs. Nicholson also tacked on two of the Golden Flashes’ three tackles for loss in the opener, leading all players on both teams in that category.
Kent State is an inexperienced bunch, but Nicholson presents All-MAC caliber talent that this defense can rally around. After a promising opener against a high-flying offense, don’t be surprised if the linebacker ranks among the leading tacklers in the FBS this year.