Lewis gone, but Kent State still figures as tough opponent
Flashes are first up in eight weeks of 'fair fights'
By MKE SMITH
The Miami RedHawks made nearly as much as could be made from their 2023 non-conference schedule, finishing the first month with a 3-1 mark that included a huge victory over rival Cincinnati.
As demanding as all that was, the RedHawks are now ready to embark on a season of what Head Coach Chuck Martin anticipates will be eight tough battles.
"Within reason, we have the same resources," Martin said of Mid-American Conference football programs. "It's a very level playing field ... Now it's eight straight weeks, and its a fair fight. You've got to come ready to play and ready to execute. The team that plays better football typically wins in this league."
With Kent State bringing a 1-3 record into . . .
. . . this week's meeting against Miami, some may be tempted to underestimate the Flashes. That would be a big mistake, Martin said at his Monday press conference.
"One - it's the MAC, and there are no easy wins. Two, we're going on the road."
Miami pulled out a 27-24 over KSU last year in Oxford, but the Flashes prevailed 48-47 in a 2021 overtime slugfest at Kent.
On paper, Kent State took a big hit with the loss of former Head Coach Sean Lewis, who accepted Deion Sanders' offer to take over as offensive coordinator for the 2023 Colorado Buffalos. However, Kent State has filled in well.
First, KSU landed Kenni Burns as new Head Coach. Burns had been on P.J. Flecks staff at Minnesota -- and also was with Fleck at Western Michigan. So, he has MAC experience.
Second, moving up to offensive coordinator for the Flashes is Matt Johnson. The record-setting Bowling Green quarterback, worked alongside Lewis at both Syracuse and Kent State. His promotion to offensive coordinator under Burns has allowed KSU to continue much of an uptempo Fast Flash offense that has strained so many opponent defenses in recent years.
"They're running the same stuff on offense, ... (but) they have a lot of new personnel on offense," Martin said. "You can see that offense at times starting to click."
He continued, "Their offense is going to be a pain in the you-know-what, because of the tempo. You don't see it every week, so when you do see it, it's a lot to get prepared for. If you're not prepared for it, the tempo will get you beat."
Defensively, the Flashes have been up and down through four contests. Overall, they rank 10th among MAC teams in scoring defense (36.8 ppg). However, they held Central Connecticut to 10 points and were tough against Arkansas despite surrendering 21 points and 308 yards to the Razorbacks' offense in a 28-6 loss. "They have a new defensive system, which is a benefit for them," Martin said. "They are very sound."
As for his own team, Martin said, "We're probably like every team going into Week 5. We're beat up pretty good, but ... no one's going to feel good from here on out. Even the healthy guys are going to feel beat up, but we're in pretty good shape heading into conference play."
One particular injury concern might be wideout Gage Larvadain. The RedHawks leading receiver was injured early in Saturday's win over Delaware State. He did not return, but Martin stated Monday it was too early to tell about his availability for this week. "He's nicked up right now, but we'll see how the week goes. There's a good chance he'll be ready to go in the near future. ... It's trending in the right direction."
-- Junior kicker Graham Nicholson finished non-conference play with a perfect 100 percent mark on both extra points and field goals. He hit all 14 PATs and went 6 of 6 on field goals, with a long of 48 (at Miami, Fl). Nicholson, who earned MAC East Special Teams Player of the Week honors this week, is tied with Gianni Spetic (Ohio) and Andrew Glass (Kent State) for most made field goals so far in 2023.
-- Martin was particularly happy to get many younger, less experienced players into Saturday's game. "We played tons and tons of kids, so that was a huge bonus," he said. "A bunch of guys played their first college game. The kids had success -- made catches, made runs. made tackles. That was awesome to get those kids out there and start building their confidence ... knowledge base ... (and) experience."
-- The RedHawks finished non-conference play with six sacks and 38 TFL. Although MU had eight TFL against Delaware State, it did not record a sack. "It was tough to get (pressure)," Martin said. "I don't know that they threw more than two or three five-step drops the whole game. It was screens and quick throws. ... It was a good plan on their part. They were smart about what they did."
-- The RedHawks ground game is averaging 5.9 ypc. Sophomore Rashad Amos(6-2, 234) leads the team in carries (44) and yards (222) while averaging 5.0 ypc. His size, strength and balance skills have helped MU build a between-the-tackles threat.
-- Saturday's game was a chance to get experience for what Martin feels is a deep and talented running back group. Sophomore Jordan Brunson (6-0, 226) led the way with nine carries for 109 yards (12.1 ypc) and one TD. Sophomore Nate Milanowski (5-9, 182), meanwhile, weaved his way to 69 yards on 11 carries with one touchdown to cap a late fourth quarter drive. "We blocked really good and ... he's really good at seeing holes and making cuts," Martin said. "It was nice for that kid -- and other kids like that -- to get that opportunity and get rewarded for all the hard work they do for us."
-- Ten different RedHawks registered carries and five scored touchdowns.
-- Joe Wilkins Jr. (6 catches, 74 yards) and Cade McDonald (4 catches, 36 yards) paced MU receivers. Reggie Virgil and Javon Tracy recorded receiving touchdowns.
-- Brett Gabbert is completing 62.2 percent of his passes through four games. He has tossed nine TDs and three interceptions.
Editor-Publisher Mike Smith
Mike grew up in Mid-American Conference football and basketball territory and returned there after military service. He has been covering MAC football and men's basketball for much of the last several decades.