KENT: A six-game stretch of tough games begins this afternoon for Kent State when it hosts Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference opener at noon at Dix Stadium.
The Falcons (1-0) will provide several challenges for the Flashes (1-0) before back-to-back road trips to LSU and Penn State.
Bowling Green features a dominating defense that served notice that it’s already in mid-season form in a 34-7 opening win over reigning Conference USA champion Tulsa.
In addition, the Falcons landed two of the MAC East’s three individual division honors. Running back William Houston was named the MAC East Division Offensive Player of the Week and punt returner Ryan Burbrink was honored as the Special Teams Player of the Week.
Houston, a freshman from Dublin, scored three second-half touchdowns, all on 1-yard runs. He finished with 29 yards on 10 carries, picking up two first downs along with the three touchdowns. Burbrink, a sophomore, had 76 yards in punt returns, including a 67-yard touchdown.
“We have a huge challenge this week with Bowling Green,” KSU coach Paul Haynes said. “They’re doing really good things on offense and kind of changed their quarterbacks up a little bit, so we’ll prepare for both of those guys. But they ran the ball really well against Tulsa and moved the ball well.”
Senior Matt Schilz started at quarterback but coach Dave Clawson switched to sophomore Matt Johnson before halftime. The result was the offensive spark the Falcons were seeking.
“Matt Johnson is going to start the game,” Clawson said in his weekly news conference Wednesday. “We haven’t talked about having any plan to put Matt Schilz in there, but he has practiced well this week. We have confidence in Matt Schilz [and] I’m really proud of [him]. If you’re somebody in his position — you have been the starter and now you’re not starting for the first time — I think it would be very natural and normal to hang your head. He has had a good week of practice, and he has been positive out there.”
Before the season began, Clawson said he told Schilz he would be the starter, but that Johnson had earned the right to play as well.
“When Johnson got in there, I thought he sparked our football team,” Clawson said. “There was talk to put Matt Schilz back in, but Matt Johnson led us on a drive at the end of the first half and a drive to start the second half. At that point, I said, ‘It’s his game.’ ”
The Bowling Green defense limited Tulsa to 51 yards on 24 carries.
“Their defense is very solid,” Haynes said. “When you look at their defense, you see all juniors and seniors. They’ve been in the system for a while, so they understand what they’re looking to do. They play fast, they play hard and they play physical.”
And KSU might have to take on that defense without senior playmaker Dri Archer. Archer injured his left ankle in the Flashes’ 17-10 victory over Liberty.
Although Archer was out of his walking boot by Monday and dressed for practice during the week, he did not participate in drills during Tuesday and Wednesday’s practices that were open to the media. All Haynes would say regarding Archer’s status for the game was that he’s day to day.
With Archer’s availability unknown — even if he plays, he’s likely to be limited to some degree — the Flashes’ ground game will center on junior Trayion Durham.
The 6-foot-1 Durham, who came to Kent State three years ago weighing 260 pounds, has continued to lose weight each season and is currently playing at his lightest weight (238 pounds).
Last year, Durham teamed with Archer to become the Flashes’ first 1,000-yard rushing tandem. But Durham had a season-low 20 yards on 10 carries against the Falcons last season. Two big runs by Archer (79 and 74 yards) and a fourth-quarter interception by defensive end Richard Gray that set up KSU’s winning scoring drive helped the Flashes clinch a 31-24 victory and the MAC East Division crown.
Durham rushed for 92 yards, including eight first downs, on 21 carries against Liberty.
“Trayion is a huge part of our running game,” Haynes said. “We tell him we want him to be a 20- to 30-carry guy. We have a saying that when you have the ball in your hands, you have the program in your hands.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/sports.abj.