KENT, Ohio — During the early days of training camp, back when a full 12-game schedule lay in wait, a feeling persisted that UB’s football season would begin in earnest at Dix Stadium on this late October Saturday.
Those opening dates with Ohio State and Baylor? Mark them down as losses. The next five games on the agenda? Four wins and a nonconference toss-up against UConn. Expectations were the Bulls would hit this very point in the season 3-0 in the Mid-American Conference and that today’s game at Kent would be when the truth begins to unfold.
How good is this UB team? Good enough to win the MAC East? Good enough to win the MAC as a whole? Insight is finally knocking at the door.
So far we know the Bulls were incapable of knocking off teams currently ranked Nos. 4 and 6 in the Associated Press poll. But they were capable – in most cases plenty capable – of defeating five teams with a combined record a 5-29. That’s not a lot to go on.
At first glance, Kent State might appear like another helping of dessert. The Golden Flashes are 2-6 overall and 1-3 in the MAC. They’ve lost three straight. Their lone FBS victory is over the same winless Western Michigan team UB toyed with on the road.
But UB knows better than to assess Kent’s record at face value. The Flashes lost play-ups to Penn State and current No. 13 LSU. They led No. 23 Northern Illinois in the third quarter, came within two minutes of knocking off MAC West-leading Ball State in Muncie, Ind. Five of their last six games were played on the road and three of those they were without running back/receiver/returner Dri Archer, one of the faster players in the country and the most feared offensive weapon in the MAC.
Throw Kent’s record out the window. UB’s season begins today. The Bulls (5-2, 3-0 MAC) would become bowl eligible with a victory.
UB’s defensive game plan will be keenly focused on keeping Archer from scorching them, no small task given his versatility. He ran for 127 yards and a touchdown on the Bulls in last year’s 23-7 Kent victory in Amherst. He had TDs of longer than 70 yards by land and by air in last week’s loss at South Alabama. Stop him? Archer has touchdown receptions in four straight games, two of them longer than 60 yards. Northern Illinois saw him go 66 yards with a pass and another 100 on a kickoff return.
“We certainly need to be very, very specific to how we game plan against Dri,” said UB coach Jeff Quinn. “We need to make sure that we’re covering sideline to sideline and the line of scrimmage along with being active in our pursuit angles and wrap him up when we get our chances. It’s hard to contain great players.”
“He’s the most explosive player in our league,” said defensive coordinator Lou Tepper. “Nobody in the league has got the speed this guy has. It impacts the kicking game. It impacts us on defense a lot. He’s a handful when he’s a wide receiver but then, as they should, they bring him into the backfield often. If you can keep him away from the explosive plays you’ve done better than anybody else.”
Both teams have been dealing with injury issues. UB will be without linebackers Blake Bean and Nick Gilbo (out for season), guard Jasen Carlson (season) and backup quarterback Alex Zordich. Defensive end Colby Way is questionable after removing himself early from the UMass game with a knee problem. Wideout Alex Neutz, UB’s top receiver, practiced Thursday and looks like he’s back from the concussion suffered against UMass.
Kent State was without No. 1 quarterback Colin Reardon last week and he’s questionable, along with all-MAC defensive lineman Roosevelt Nix. Kicker-punter Anthony Melchiori is done for the season.
“We’ve been that way all year,” Kent coach Paul Haynes said Monday. “We’ve been hit with the injury bug from the start so our guys kind of understand that. We’re down to the threes and the fours-type guys.”
This is UB’s final Saturday game of the season. The Bulls will have nine days off before returning for the first of three straight Tuesday night ESPN games, against Ohio at UB Stadium. Then they’re off to Toledo and Miami (Ohio) before concluding the regular season against Bowling Green on Black Friday in The Ralph.
Are the Bulls good enough to make a run? The answer begins to emerge with this afternoon’s 3:30 kickoff.