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2023 Week 4 Game Preview: Kent State Golden Flashes @ Fresno State Bulldogs

Kent State looks to conclude non-conference play on strong footing after getting its first win last Saturday.

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

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 23 at 10:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: CBS Sports Network
  • Location: Bulldog Stadium — Fresno, CA
  • Spread: Fresno State (-27.5)
  • Over/under: 50
  • All-time series: No previous meetings

Setting the scene

It’s a rare MACtion after dark occurrence!

Saturday’s MAC vs. Mountain West clash in Fresno is Week 4’s penultimate showdown, only to be followed by the Hawaii nightcap. Both Kent State and Fresno State conclude their non-conference play this weekend before starting a new slate in their respective leagues Week 5.

The season trajectories have differed for the Golden Flashes and Bulldogs thus far. Kent State (1-2, 0-0 MAC) didn’t score a single touchdown in difficult road matchups at UCF and Arkansas, but the Golden Flashes earned win No. 1 of the Kenni Burns era last Saturday by thrashing Central Connecticut of the FCS, 38-10.

Meanwhile, Fresno State (3-0, 0-0 Mountain West) is one of two remaining unbeatens in its conference, eyeing its first-ever New Year’s Six bid. The Bulldogs won a thriller at Purdue in Week 1 and shut out Arizona State on the road last Saturday. But ironically enough, Fresno State’s greatest struggle of 2023 transpired at home against FCS Eastern Washington in a 37-34 overtime escape.

Kent State Golden Flashes outlook

NCAA Football: Kent State at Arkansas
Kent State RB Gavin Garcia is fresh off a 125-yard, 2-touchdown performance, enjoying the most prolific performance of his 2-year college career.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Kent State is finally in the win column, and it was a pretty comfortable one too. FCS opponents have taken two MAC teams as victims this year, but the Golden Flashes did not join that club Saturday. They pulverized Central Connecticut by four touchdowns — securing a 38-0 advantage before the dawn of the fourth quarter.

Now, a team that entered the year with a first-year head coach and Kenni Burns and a lack of starting experience knows the feeling of a winning locker room, and that confidence-booster could pay dividends heading into a matchup on the West Coast.

What went right for Kent State in its first victory? After scoring just 12 combined points — all fields goals — in Weeks 1 and 2, the Golden Flashes returned to their roots from the Sean Lewis era as a power running team and collected 295 yards on the ground. The up-tempo offensive scheme hasn’t deviated much from that of the previous staff, as former running backs coach and current offensive coordinator Matt Johnson calls the shots.

Running back Gavin Garcia was the ringleader of this potent rushing attack, powering his way to 125 yards and two touchdowns — attaining his first century-mark performance in college. He will be the feature back, but seventh-year senior Xavier Williams and Colorado State transfer Jaylen Thomas should play ample supporting roles, providing different skillsets from the 5’8”, 187 pound Garcia.

Unlike previous Kent State offenses, this one showcases a smaller degree of designed quarterback runs. Quarterback Mike Alaimo (54.7 completion percentage, 163.7 passing yards per game) is more so a pocket passer, and he’s the facilitator of a scheme with frequents the RPO. Most of Alaimo’s throws are directed toward the boundary, connecting with receivers such as Trell Harris, Chrishon McCray, and Luke Floriea. Harris has been Alaimo’s favorite target this year, exhibiting team-highs in receptions (11), receiving yards (208), and logging the only receiving touchdown for the team this season.

The most promising sign of Kent State’s offense last week was improved offensive line play. This was the most inexperienced unit of a highly-inexperienced roster headed into the season, and it’s clear they’ve already gelled together significantly. The line not only paved the way for a career-performance by Garcia; they didn’t allow a single sack after yielding seven to Arkansas. Sure, it was an FCS opponent, but establishing that assertiveness in the trenches could go a long way.

Defensively, the Golden Flashes shut an opponent out through three quarters. This unit has thrived ever since surrendering a monstrous 723 yards in Week 1 at UCF. They limited Arkansas to 28 points and have proven to be lethal in the turnover battle. Kent State has amassed five takeaways, including four interceptions, through three contests. After ranking dead last in defense through one week, the Golden Flashes are now 29th from the bottom with a per game allotment of 395 yards.

They’ve honed their skills defending the run, producing 11 tackles for loss last week while stifling Central Connecticut to 2.9 yards per carry. The anchor of this run defense is nose tackle CJ West, who possesses the most experience of all Golden Flashes returning from 2022. West is tied with New Mexico State transfer outside linebacker Nick Giacolone for the team-lead in tackles for loss with three. Another dangerous defender in Kent State’s linebacking corps is Missouri transfer Devin Nicholson. After racking up loads of starting experience in the SEC, Nicholson was ready to be a leader on this defense from day one, and he leads the team in tackles with 22 through three outings.

Fresno State Bulldogs outlook

Syndication: Journal-Courier
Fresno State QB Mikey Keene ranks top 20 nationally in passing yards and passing touchdowns in his first season since transferring from UCF.
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Fresno State is one of 39 remaining teams in the country with a spotless record. Only back-to-back national champion Georgia rides a longer win streak than the Bulldogs from the Central Valley which have claimed 12 consecutive victories dating back to Oct. 15, 2022.

Head coach Jeff Tedford lost a fourth round NFL Draft selection in quarterback Jake Haener, yet the train keeps rolling. Former UCF starter Mikey Keene has filled that vacancy nicely, posting 880 passing yards, eight touchdowns, and two interceptions through three games. Keene never exceeded 230 passing yards in 11 starts with the Knights, but at Fresno State, that’s the new norm for the Chandler, AZ native. He fired for 366 against Purdue in Week 1 before following that up with showings of 233 and 281.

As suggested by those numbers, the passing attack is the MO of Fresno State’s offense. The Bulldogs rank 27th nationally in passing offense and 115th in rushing offense, and that’s likely how they’ll inflict the majority of damage on Kent State this Saturday. Wide receiver Erik Brooks is the premier target through the air, and he ranks sixth in the FBS in receiving yards with 369. Brooks has collected at least eight receptions in each game, attaining 95 yards or greater in all three victories. The Keene-to-Brooks combo hasn’t taken a single week off, ranging from a 170-yard performance at Purdue and 11 connections together at Arizona State.

But the Golden Flashes must look beyond just Brooks in the receiving game. College football journeyman Jaelen Gill, who saw previous stops at Ohio State and Boston College, is on pace for his greatest season yet with 177 yards and two touchdowns thus far. Speedy redshirt freshman Jalen Moss is enjoying a breakout campaign as well, hauling in 13 receptions for 92 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Lastly, Kent State’s linebackers must be cognizant of tight end Tre Watson, who presents a threat on underneath routes for an offense which often substitutes the run game for short passes.

Keene is averaging 44 attempts per game which requires the offensive line an onslaught of reps in pass protection. While this high numbers of reps is a contributing factor to allowing 3.7 sacks per game (ninth-worst in FBS, tied with Kent State), the Bulldog offensive line must improve in this facet going forward. Despite shutting out Arizona State 29-0, Keene absorbed six sacks and faced heaps of pressure far too often.

Speaking of the shutout, last Saturday was a welcome sight for the Fresno State defense, which yielded 35 and 31 points to Purdue and Eastern Washington, respectively, to open the season. What the Bulldogs defense does excellently is cause havoc, and they are tied for the national lead in takeaways with 10 — averaging over three per game. Three of the team’s six interceptions landed into the gloves of lockdown cornerback Carlton Johnson, and all three transpired last Saturday night in Tempe. The former community college transfer is on an early All-Mountain West campaign, deflecting three passes and recording eight stops in addition to his turnover battle contributions.

Inside linebacker Levelle Bailey has contributed magnificently to this turnover output as well, forcing two fumbles while leading the roster with 19 tackles. Bailey has demonstrated versatility on defense, thriving in the backfield with 1.5 tackles for loss and in coverage with an interception and two pass breakups. Regardless of Kent State’s offensive plan of attack, Bailey will be vital piece hoping to disrupt it.

Generating a pass rush was one thing Fresno State’s defense was in desperate search for, but the unit dominated in this aspect last Saturday, producing five of its six sacks this season against Arizona State.


Fresno State has a bevy of advantages in this matchup, and the Bulldogs are undefeated for many reasons. The Bulldogs survived a defensive disaster in Week 2 against FCS opponent Eastern Washington at home, but they rebounded in mature fashion at Arizona State with a dominant defensive showing feature five sacks, five interceptions, and pitching the third FBS-on-FBS shutout of the season.

That version of the defense should translate against a Kent State program still looking for its first touchdown against FBS competition this year. The Golden Flashes have looked sharper and should feature enough firepower to prevent the Bulldogs from a 45 or 50-point barrage, but offensively, it could be a long day for Kent State if Fresno State asserts its will in the trenches, like it did last week when limiting Arizona State to 42 rushing yards.

Prediction: Fresno State 34, Kent State 9