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For the seventh time in eight weeks, the Kent State football team will face a foe with an unblemished conference record when the red-hot Buffalo Bulls invade Dix Stadium on Saturday.
The Bulls (5-2, 3-0 MAC) have won five straight games by an average margin of 25 points, and have outscored their first three Mid-American Conference opponents by a breathtaking total of 107-17. They fall right in line with the previous three MAC foes that defeated the Golden Flashes this season -- Bowling Green (3-0 MAC), Northern Illinois (3-0) and Ball State (4-0), which are all still sporting perfect records in MAC play.
What exactly did first-year head coach Paul Haynes and his Flashes do to the football gods to deserve this schedule? No one knows for sure, but Haynes is just happy for the small favor his team has been granted after playing five of its past six contests in enemy territory.
A home game.
"I won't need my GPS to figure out how to get to the stadium," said Haynes. "It's good to be back in front of our home crowd, in front of our students and to get back into conference (play)."
It will be even better if Kent State is a little closer to full strength this week. Redshirt freshman quarterback Colin Reardon (ankle) and star senior defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix (back) both missed last week's game at South Alabama, but have a good chance to be back in action this week.
The Flashes will need every weapon they can muster to battle the Bulls, who closed last season by winning three of their last four games and have carried that momentum into 2013.
"They've got a five-game winning streak going on. They're a very good football team," said Haynes. "I look at their roster and they're a very experienced team, a lot of juniors and seniors."
Buffalo's offense features speedy senior running back Branden Oliver, who ranks fourth in the MAC in rushing at 114.8 yards per game. Oliver averages 4.6 yards per carry and has scored five touchdowns.
The Bulls are 8-3 since sophomore Joe Licata took over at quarterback for the final four games of last season, and Licata is one of the few underclassmen you'll see on their depth chart.
"Offensively, they're not stylish," said Haynes. "They've been consistent with what they've run all the way from day one against Ohio State to (last week against) UMass. You don't have to prepare for a whole lot, but you've gotta go out and execute."
The Flashes' defense will spend countless hours preparing to face Buffalo senior linebacker Khalil Mack (6-foot-3, 248 pounds), a legitimate All-American candidate who has already amassed 10 tackles for a loss, six sacks and two interceptions this season.
"Khalil Mack is a great player," said Haynes. "They move him around. He's often an outside linebacker that they put (on the line) sometimes on third down."
Mack leads a formidable Bulls defense that's allowing 23.1 points and 382.7 yards per game.
"They're very experienced," said Haynes. "They know what they're doing and they know how to move around, disguise. And they're not afraid to bring the house."
The element of fear will be missing from both sidelines on Saturday.
Buffalo certainly will be afraid of facing a 2-6 Flashes squad that's been a shell of its championship self from a season ago.
But the Bulls' five-game winning streak won't scare Kent State, which knows full well that Buffalo's three conference wins this year have come over struggling teams (Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Massachusetts) with a combined MAC record of 1-9.
What does scare the Flashes, though, is the thought of not giving themselves a shot at a bowl bid. They need to close the season with four straight wins to become bowl eligible.
"We're just treating every game like it's our last game, one game at a time, and right now it's Buffalo," said senior offensive guard Pat McShane. "We'll be ready for it."
Another scary thought for seniors like McShane and strong safety Luke Wollet is to not go out swinging. The season certainly hasn't gone as they'd hoped, but they still have a chance to finish strong and prove the program remains on the rise.
"We want to lay a foundation that the younger guys can build off of, an example they can go off of," said Wollet. "So if we roll over as seniors then they're gonna roll over as younger guys. We've just gotta keep fighting until the end."
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