By Allen Moff | Staff writer
Football teams from Kent State and Western Michigan have probably never been more thrilled to see each other as they will be this Saturday night in Kalamazoo.
While the two Mid-American Conference combatants certainly don't view one another as patsies, they'll be awfully glad to at long last face an opponent they know they can compete with this week after being effectively being thrown to the college football wolves during the early portion of the 2013 campaign.
No two MAC teams have faced a more difficult non-conference schedule than the Golden Flashes (No. 8 LSU, Penn State) and Broncos (Michigan State, No. 17 Northwestern, Iowa), who have combined to go 0-5 against teams from the Big Ten and SEC. Together they were outscored 93-3 last week -- Penn State 34, KSU 0; Iowa 59, WMU 3.
"When you play a non-conference schedule like we did against LSU and Penn State back-to-back, hopefully it builds you for the MAC season," said KSU coach Paul Haynes. "Now we have to go on the road and play an up and rising Western Michigan team, so we've still gotta have our road focus. Anything can happen on the road. But we're looking forward to getting into MAC play."
One of the most difficult challenges both Haynes and fellow first-year WMU coach P.J. Fleck face this week is keeping player morale up, despite the series of lopsided losses both teams have endured.
"We've already had a league game which we didn't win, so we're 0-1 with eight games left and seven of them being in conference. This is where it all starts for us," said Haynes. "I'm sure P.J.'s saying the same thing. I'm sure he feels that he played against better competition that would prepare him for conference play as well."
Haynes just hopes his players are hearing the message delivered by KSU's coaches, and not the one coming from some fans who believe the season has been lost after a 1-3 start.
"The problem that happens is when things that start to influence you when you have adversity are the outside influences, not the guys in (your locker room)," said Haynes. "Every goal that we want to accomplish this season is still in front of us. We never started the season saying we wanted to go undefeated, cause we knew it was going to be tough. Do you want to win every game? Of course you do, but you want to be MAC champs or bowl champs. Those are two of the goals that we definitely want to accomplish. But it's the outside influences that you worry about guys listening to, compared to just listening to the facts -- where are we, and where can we go."
The Flashes seem to be heeding Haynes' words.
"What coach has been emphasizing is that we stay together as a team, no pointing fingers, no division at all. If we stay together, we can definitely win some games," said senior tight end Tim Erjavec. "Right now, it's all about learning from our mistakes and heading into conference play with a positive attitude."
While the season is indeed young, and both teams still have plenty to play for, there's no denying the fact that both teams desperately need a victory on Saturday.
The Broncos (0-4) are winless, while the defending MAC East Division champion Flashes (1-3) have lost three in a row, including a home conference setback to Bowling Green. While all of their realistic goals for this season are still reachable, they'd be in serious jeopardy with a loss at Western Michigan -- followed by matchups with defending MAC champion Northern Illinois (3-0) at home and at Ball State (3-1).
Defeating the Broncos is not a given. Western Michigan actually gave Kent State quite a tussle last year, leading in the third quarter before the Flashes pulled away down the stretch to win 41-24.
The Broncos are coming off a 59-3 loss at Iowa, but Haynes isn't reading much into that score.
"We're gonna get a better team this Saturday, and we've gotta be prepared for it," he said.
Senior quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen leads the Western Michigan offense, along with 5-foot-8 senior tailback Brian Fields, who has rushed for 264 yards and three scores, while averaging 4.5 yards per carry this season. Van Tubbergen's favorite target has been 6-2 freshman Corey Davis, with 23 catches for 335 yards and a pair of scores.
Thus far, Western Michigan is averaging just 14 points per game and has committed 11 turnovers.
"Western is a passing team first and foremost," said Haynes. "Their receivers are tall and rangy and they throw it up to them a whole lot. Still you look at the stats and you say we have to try to run against (Kent State), 'cause they haven't stopped the run. It'll be interesting to see what they come out and try to establish against us."
The Broncos have also struggled defensively, surrendering 37.5 points and over 415 yards per contest, but they have forced seven turnovers.
"Defensively, they're a physical team," said Haynes. "Any time you have a young quarterback, they're gonna try to pressure like crazy. They did that against the three Big Ten teams they played. So we'll see a lot of pressure from them, which will open some doors to a few things. But we still have to execute and convert."
Both the Flashes and Broncos find themselves focused not on where they're at, but where they could go beginning with a victory on Saturday.
"We're gonna take it one week at a time," said KSU junior cornerback Dylan Farrington. "We can control preparation and hard work throughout the week, then try our best to execute on Saturdays and see where we end up."
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