It had been a quiet start for Buffalo’s best defensive player until about two minutes before halftime Saturday at Dix Stadium.
That’s when the Bulls senior linebacker Khalil Mack made his presence felt in a memorable way, helping visiting Buffalo take a 13-point halftime lead that sparked a momentum shift and ultimately led the visitors to a 41-21 victory.
Mack’s one-handed interception in the redzone of quarterback Colin Reardon with 37 seconds before the end of the second quarter set up a Brandon Oliver 17-yard touchdown run that flipped a potential one-point Flashes halftime lead into a 13-point first-half deficit that Kent State never recovered from.
“It was a play we put in this week and I was running it good all week,” said Reardon, who passed for a career-high 260 yards on 20-of-33 passing. “I just stared it down a little bit. (Mack) did make a great play, I thought there was no way he was going to pick that. If anything, I thought it was the guy who was behind (receiver) Chris (Humphrey). But (Mack) went by and just stuck his hand out and caught it.”
Mack, who entered the game ranked 14th in the nation in sacks (six) and 13th in tackles for loss (10), may have made the game-changing play, but it was Oliver who continued to put distance between the teams in the second half once the Flashes offense got rolling under a no-huddle approach.
Adding to his two first half scores, Oliver tacked on two more touchdowns in the second half to nearly match his season total of five, beginning with a 38-yarder midway through the third quarter that gave the Bulls a 27-7 lead.
“He’s a good tailback whose not the hardest to bring down,” Kent State defensive lineman Roosevelt Nix said of Oliver, who carried the ball 31 times for 185 yards and four scores. “But when they run their offense, he’s the gear that turns it.”
On the Flashes ensuing possession, Reardon was picked off a second time. With Mack providing heavy pressure on a third down play, Bulls defensive back Cortney Lester snagged an intercepted with 6:13 to go in the third quarter. Just like the first turnover, the second one resulted in another seven points for the Bulls when Oliver tacked on his final touchdown – a 4-yarder that increased Buffalo’s lead to 34-7.
But with KSU’s second half no-huddle offense causing some confusion for the Bulls defense, the Flashes showed some life late in the third quarter. Versatile senior Dri Archer took an inside handoff 17 yards for a touhdown that capped a four-play, 52-yard drive that trimmed the deficit to 20 points at 34-14. With the score, Archer took over sole possession of fourth place in career touchdowns with 36, passing Eugene Baker.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, a Reardon-to-Tyshon Goode 18-yard touchdown recdeption conitnued to keep the Flashes’ hopes alive. But KSU’s defense couldn’t hold the Bulls offense pat, as Buffalo responded with a 30-yard touchdown catch by recevier Devon Hughes that once again put 20 points between the teams en route to Buffalo’s first six-game winning streak since 1959.
In the first half, Buffalo struck first with 3:02 left in the first quarter on an 8-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Licata to receiver Alex Neutz. But KSU’s top defender Nix blocked the extra point, and Darius Polk scooped up the loose ball and returned it to the 40-yard line.
“I was just playing hard, that’s all there is to it,” said an obviously disappointed Nix, who has battled a nagging back injury most of the season and returned to action after missing last week’s game.
But Kent State quickly mounted a response to Buffalo’s score, driving down to the redzone before the quarter came to an end and they had to swap ends of the field. It didn’t matter that the Flashes were then going against a brisk wind, as a Reardon bootleg run gained seven yards to set up a 5-yard touchdown plunge by running back Trayion Durham with 14:27 to go in the second quarter. Brad Miller’s extra point gave the Flashes a 7-6 advantage.
But just like that, the Bulls responded to the Flashes score with another of their own to go up 13-7, quickly reeling off a 4-play, 66-yard drive that took just 1:19 and was capped by Oliver’s 5-yard touchdown scamper. But the fateful sequence of events at the end of the half turned the game in Buffalo’s favor for the remainder of the evening.
“When we get in the redzone and have a chance to score, we have to score,” KSU head coach Paul Haynes said. “We have to come out with some points. And again, we have to get better at fundamentals and technique – blocking, getting off blocks – little things like that we have to continue to get better at. It’s about perfection with those things.”