- Time and date: Saturday, September 30 at 2:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Dix Stadium — Kent, OH
- Spread: Miami (OH) (-14.5)
- Over/under: 46.5
- All-time series: Miami (OH) leads, 51-18
- Last meeting: Miami (OH) 27, Kent State 24 — October 8, 2022
- Current streak: Miami (OH), 1 (2022)
Setting the scene
MAC play enters full swing in Week 5. Kent State (1-3, 0-0 MAC) and Miami (OH) (3-1, 0-0) were on opposite sides of the coin in non-conference play, but both teams start with a fresh slate as the road to Detroit for the MAC Championship Game begins.
Kent State defends its home turf at Dix Stadium, where it features a perfect 1-0 record in the Kenni Burns era. But Miami (OH) is as adept anybody on the road in the MAC, claiming a conference-best two non-conference road wins, including one stunner in a difficult environment at Cincinnati.
Miami (OH) RedHawks outlook
Miami looks every bit of a team that can claim the MAC title right now. Ever since the RedHawks flew back home from Miami, FL after Week 1, they’ve done nothing but churn out victories. No victory meant more to Miami than its Week 3 upset over crosstown rival Cincinnati, where it snapped a 16-game skid in the annual rivalry series in an overtime finish.
That win built plenty of confidence within Chuck Martin’s team which followed up that statement performance with a 62-20 win over FCS squad Delaware State. That showdown at Yager Stadium proved how potent this RedHawk offense can be, as 62 points is the most the program has registered since 1997. The program hadn’t even broken 50 points since 2012, so this offense is clicking into a gear unforeseen in Martin’s 10 years at the helm.
The offensive explosion is led by wily veteran Brett Gabbert. The fifth-year starting quarterback possesses a howitzer of an arm and often demonstrates excellent decision-making in Miami’s offense. Gabbert is up to nine passing touchdowns in his last three starts, highlighted with a 302-yard outing at UMass. The quarterback has also developed a greater sense of mobility this year, utilizing his legs for 75 rushing yards to defeat Cincinnati.
One thing that makes Miami’s offense special is the firm connection between Gabbert and wide receiver Gage Larvadain. The Southeastern Louisiana transfer seamlessly adjusted to the FBS level and led the entire country in receiving yards prior to Week 4. Larvadain has been limited to one reception in each of the past two weeks, but the emerging star caught 16 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns in his first two outings of the season, and he poses the threat of explosive downfield potential.
The RedHawks’ passing attack has opened up to an impressive degree due to the team’s ability to run the ball. Generating yards out of the backfield had been an issue in past years, but Miami is 34th nationally with 196 rushing yards per game. South Carolina transfer Rashad Amos has thrived in the No. 1 role with 5.0 yards per carry on the year, but redshirt freshman tailback Jordan Brunson emerged last week with over 100 yards and he could enter a crowded rotation moving forward.
Defensively, Miami was the cream of the crop in the MAC last year with the conference’s best run defense and scoring defense. The RedHawks won more often in track meet fashion in non-conference play this year, so there are improvements to be had on this side of the ball, which currently allows 422 yards per game — 19th most in FBS.
There aren’t many aspects where the RedHawks excel at a significant level, but conversely, they’re not alarmingly bad in any department. They generate pressure at an average level and force turnovers at a rate comparable to the national median. So far, every opponent has registered 20 points on Miami, when the RedHawks limited six of 13 teams to 17 points or below in 2022.
The heart and soul of the defense is linebacker Matt Salopek, who seeks his third consecutive All-MAC season with over 100 tackles. It’s no surprise to see Salopek commandingly lead the team in tackles this year with 38 through four games, and he’ll be tasked with blowing up a lot of Kent State’s RPO action in the backfield. On the back end, Michael Dowell is among the most talented defenders for the RedHawks. He is responsible for two of the team’s four interceptions this year and will be one of the defensive backs Kent State must read the most when conducting its high-tempo offense.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
Every year before MAC play starts, Kent State endures an absolute grind of a non-conference schedule, so the program has become accustomed to 1-3 starts. This was even the case two years ago when it had a team capable of winning the MAC East.
And this year’s Golden Flashes squad is one of the most youthful programs in college football, led by first-year head coach Kenni Burns. Non-conference play was certainly a learning experience for Kent State, which lost by 50 to UCF, 22 to Arkansas, and 43 to Fresno State — all in road atmospheres.
But Kent State is back home where it thrived against FCS competition in Week 3. The Golden Flashes are far more of a polished product now than they were when first taking the field in Orlando, and a lot of that starts in the trenches. Kent State’s starting offensive line entered the season with a collective two collegiate starts — as well as two players who had zero collegiate snaps — but the unit sharpens with every outing together. After yielding 11 sacks in Weeks 1 and 2, Kent State has surrendered just one in its past two outings.
More time to operate is certainly beneficial to starting quarterback Mike Alaimo, who is the chief conductor of Kent State’s high-speed, RPO-based offense. Alaimo has yet to throw more than 175 yards this season, but the Purdue transfer hasn’t been given the opportunity to let loose in the passing game — seeing under 20 attempts in each of his last three games. He averaged over 10 yards per attempt against Arkansas and Central Connecticut, and he’s not afraid to attack downfield toward the boundaries.
As suggested by Alaimo’s passing attempts, Kent State’s offensive MO is a power run team. The Golden Flashes use plenty of zone schemes in the run game, relying on running back duo of Gavin Garcia and Xavier Williams to carry the majority of offensive production. Garcia saw a career-day with 125 yards and two touchdowns two weeks ago, while Williams is a program staple who has shown his potential before — posting 168 yards and two touchdowns against this Miami (OH) defense two seasons ago.
Although signs of progress were demonstrated in the Arkansas game, defense has not been the strong suit of this Kent State team. The Golden Flashes permit the eighth-highest scoring output in the FBS at 36.8 points per game and the 17th highest yardage output at 424 yards per game. Most teams tend to spam the run game on Kent State, generating an average of 202 yards on 40 attempts against this unit.
Where the Golden Flashes excel defensively is in the turnover battle. Kent State won the turnover battle in two of its first four games, tied in one, and lost 1-0 in the other. The Golden Flashes don’t cough the ball up an extraordinary amount of times and the defense is filled with opportunist ballhawks.
The star of the unit, however, is Missouri transfer Devin Nicholson. Nicholson accumulated plenty of starting time in the SEC and now he thrives from the outside linebacker spot in his first year at Kent State. The senior ranks first on the team with 29 tackles and has encroached into the backfield on numerous occasions with 2.5 tackles for loss. Another linebacker adept at stopping the run is Khalib Johns, who registered 7.0 tackles for loss through four games before a season-ending injury in 2022. Johns hasn’t missed a beat in his return, ranking third on the team in tackles with 17.
It’s a very veteran squad vs. a very youthful squad. Miami (OH) is a bona fide MAC contender with an established conference champion and bowl MVP quarterback in Brett Gabbert, an explosive star receiver in Gage Larvadain, and an All-MAC leader on defense in Matt Salopek — all led by a 10-year veteran head coach in Chuck Martin. Kent State remains in the rebuilding phase under first-year head coach Kenni Burns after losing 11 offensive starters and all but three primary starters on defense.
Kent State has shown flashes of potential this year, and MAC wins may come around, but Miami is one of three juggernauts in the conference at the moment. Gabbert and the passing attack should thrive immensely in a multi-score victory, with a nice assist from a much-improved run game.
Prediction: Miami (OH) 38, Kent State 13