Star runner Branden Oliver missed the second half with a leg injury. The passing game was all or nothing - usually nothing. And the Kent State defense lived up to its reputation as a hard-hitting, turnover-producing force.
The University at Buffalo could have done without the glare of the national television spotlight Wednesday night as it dropped a 23-7 decision to the Golden Flashes before 14,373 in the Mid-American Conference opener for both teams.
"We absolutely believed we were winning this game coming into it," said Bulls wideout Alex Neutz said. "But there was no false confidence. We had a week and a half to prepare. The coaches had a great game plan laid out. We felt more than confident we were going to go out there and put on a good performance tonight and win the game. We just didn't execute the way we should have and that's what happens."
The thrill of a Hail Mary touchdown pass to end the first half subsided in a hurry for the Bulls as Oliver, their workhorse running back, returned from intermission at UB Stadium in street clothes. His leg injury forced the Bulls (1-2, 0-1) to try and overcome a 10-7 deficit without the services of the one of the country's most productive rushers. Oliver totaled 77 yards on 16 carries in the first half and was on the field earlier in the final first-half series, which resulted in a desperation 46-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Alex Zordich to Neutz. The severity of the injury hasn't been determined.
The Bulls couldn't overcome his absence. For that matter, even his presence had little bearing on the game. The desperation connection between Zordich and Neutz marked the only time UB penetrated the Kent State 37 all night.
The running game further slowed without Oliver and the passing attack fell far, far short of compensating. Zordich was just 4 of 22 passing for 92 yards and two interceptions and was replaced by Joe Licata for the final two series. Last game, Licata's first collegiate pass resulted in a touchdown. His first pass in MAC competition resulted in a pick, one of two on the night for Kent State backup cornerback Darius Polk.
"Just a bad day all around," Zordich said. "Individually, this team needs more from me and I put that on my shoulders. I expect more out of myself to help this team win. Offensively, we just weren't making plays. It showed out there. We weren't able to help out our defense, who was really helping us out all day putting us in great position to go ahead and win the game."
With the offense holding the ball for less than 23 minutes, the defense eventually wore down from its burden. Kent State runners Dri Archer (127) and Trayion Durham (113) both topped 100 yards to offset a mediocre passing game. Quarterbacks Spencer Keith and David Fisher combined to go 13 for 28 for 165 yards and an interception. They were sacked five times, twice by Khalil Mack.
With both pass attacks stalling in the early going, the scoreless game begged for a big running play. Kent State's Archer provided the spark with a pair of scintillating jaunts during an 86-yard march that culminated with his 11-yard sprint around left end good for a 7-0 lead.
The drive wasn't all Archer. It just seemed that way.
The 5-foot-8 junior from Florida provided the first scoring opportunity of the opening half when he took a handoff, broke left, cut back right and took Buffalo defenders on a 57-yard chase before he was finally corralled at the Bulls' 23. Three plays later he scored on the end around, a play on which he was ruled out at the 1 before replay review determined he remained inbounds and touched the pylon with 12:18 left in the second quarter. The 57-yard run was Archer's longest of the season and the TD was his fifth overall and fourth via the rush (he has a kick return TD).
Early on the Bulls ripped out decent chunks of yardage with Oliver but were suffocating when it came to the pass. Oliver amassed 56 first-quarter yards on 10 carries but Zordich was just 1 of 5 passing - for minus-2 yards. He rebounded from a couple of overthrows to finally produce a strike that found Devin Hughes for 36 yards on a post pattern. That drive ended when Oliver was stripped by Kent State's incomparable junior lineman Roosevelt Nix, a two-time first-team All-MAC performer who caught up in lateral pursuit and ripped the football free.
Kent State (2-1, 1-0) added to its 10-7 halftime advantage on a 33-yard Freddy Cortez field goal at 8:25 of the third quarter. Buffalo had its next drive cut down when a long Zordich pass for Neutz was intercepted in the end zone by Polk and trailed, 13-7, heading into the final quarter. Cortez added a 21-yard kick of 9:54 left and Julian Durden scored from 2 yards out with 43 seconds to go.
Oliver's absence put the Bulls down to Nos. 3 and 4 on the running back depth chart. Primary backup James Potts was lost for the season when he tore an ACL in the last game, a victory over Morgan State. Brandon Murie, a junior from Elma, and Devin Campbell, a true freshman, handled the second-half workload.
Offensively, UB looked nothing like that team that scored 79 points in its first two games - the most since 1959.
"We just couldn't get the job done today," Zordich said. "We're going to go back to the drawing board and work on what we need to fix because we know we have a good football team. We know things we can accomplish."