South Alabama sat on the sidelines for the first weekend of the college football season, something Jaguar fans found quite frustrating. Meanwhile, Kent State opened their second season under head coach Paul Haynes with a loss at home to Ohio University 17-14 on a last second field goal.
South Alabama knows the feeling of losing a game on a last second field goal all too well. The Jags dropped their season opener by a field goal as time expired twice in the last two seasons. In 2012 it was Texas-San Antonio, a fellow startup program under Larry Coker. In 2013 it was Southern Utah. Then it happened again later in the season when Texas State kicked a field goal for the win with only seconds left in the game. Well fret not as a new season is finally here for the Jaguars!
USA’s improvement from 2-11 in 2012 to 6-6 last season hinged greatly on Ross Metheny's improvement at quarterback. He minimized turnovers, used his legs to make big plays, and made better decisions with the ball. But this season Metheny will help from the sidelines as his eligibility has been exhausted. It will be up to Brandon Bridge to step up and take the helm of the offense. Bridge has all the talent to take the Jaguars to the top of the Sun Belt. He has a strong arm and was clocked at a 4.6 40-yard dash. He advanced to the finals of the Manning Passing Academy over the summer. The next step in Bridge’s progression is to prove an efficient starting quarterback.
The Jaguars have some key returners from last season’s 38-21 win over Kent State. Jay Jones rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown as the Jaguars put up a season-best 257 rushing yards. Maleki Harris had 10 stops and 1.5 tackles for loss. Terrell Brigham is USA’s active leader with 143 career tackles after recording 65 last season, which was third on the team
On the other hand, Kent State will be seeking vengeance after losing to the Jaguars in 2013, which evened their all-time series at 1-1, and dropping their season opener at home last week. Jaguar players and coaches have maintained they are focused on Kent State even though they have a looming date with Mississippi State in Mobile September 13. Hopefully it's not merely an outward appearance.
Ultimately the game will depend on two players. How does Bridge do taking over the reins to the Jaguars offense and how will 240-pound running back Trayion Durham’s foot injury affect his ability to play? Bridge's enormous talent brings high expectations. The coaches will look to get Bridge started off in the right direction early to build confidence. Bridge also has plenty of targets with a talented and deep receiving corps consisting of Shavarez Smith, Jeremè Jones, Danny Woodson and Wes Saxton who return from last year’s squad. They add Braedon Bowman, Tony Ray Parnell, Claude Garrett, and Alabama transfer Marvin Shinn to provide additional depth.
Last weekend, Kent State quarterback Colin Reardon had a pretty good day numbers wise against Ohio. He completed 30-of-41 attempts for 264 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, but was sacked twice. His go-to target was Ernest Calhoun, who may be undersized but not a receiver to be underestimated. Calhoun ended the game with 11 catches for 62 yards.
Chris Humphrey caught six passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. The Golden Flashes had a tough day on the ground with only 31 rushing yards on 22 carries behind their young offensive line. Defensively, free safety Nate Holley led Kent State with 18 total stops, 12 solo, and two forced fumbles. The Golden Flashes did not sack the opposing quarterback, but the defense did force four fumbles on four consecutive possessions in the second half.
Ohio University exploited Kent State’s lapses in coverage to the tune of 262 yards on 18-of-24 passing and two touchdowns. The Kent State defense also allowed the Bobcats to run up a bunch of yards on the ground. Six rushers combined for 175 yards on 44 attempts. Kent State is depending on a crop of young players on defensive line, including a redshirt freshman and a true freshman, to play key roles. More concerning than just the raw numbers is that Ohio exploited the defense with only three returning offensive starters from their 2013 campaign, none of them at the skill positions.
Last season the Golden Flashes had big time playmakers in Dri Archer (RB/WR/KR) and Roosevelt Nix (DT), but this season the team does not have a proven star. Additionally, the Kent State players were impacted by the sudden death of center Jason Bitsko just 10 days before the season opener. Kent State does not have any proven running backs behind Trayion Durham which was apparent last week when the Flashes struggled to run the ball behind their young offensive line in Durham’s absence. At 240-pounds, Durham is big enough to make some holes on his own.
South Alabama may have a slight advantage coming into the 2014 game against Kent State as they did not play the first weekend of the season. Kent State will come into the game with only an idea of what the Jaguars may do on game day. On the other hand, Kent State has actual game experience under their belt, and that experience can be invaluable.