Kent State running back trio carry rushing offense on three-game win streak, Frisco Bowl appearance

Senior running back Will Matthews (No. 2) had a career-day in a 26-3 win at Akron on Oct. 12. He finished the game with 25 carries for 126 yards and a touchdown in his first game of the season after recovering from a torn lateral meniscus.

Ian Kreider

Kent State started the season with senior Jo-El Shaw as its feature running back, but after five games he was suspended and did not travel with the team to Akron. 

Two games later, he was no longer a member of the team for an undisclosed reason, later declaring for the 2020 NFL Draft.

Instead, the Flashes relied on senior Will Matthews, sophomore Xavier Williams and true freshman Joachim Bangda to ignite their run-pass option, fast-paced offense. 

However, injuries quickly halted that approach. 

Bangda suffered a hamstring injury on his first carry in the Akron game, seeing limited carries until the season-finale at Eastern Michigan. Williams suffered an ankle injury against Wisoncsin and missed two games.

With Bangda and Williams’ injured Kent State relied on Matthews, who had not played a single snap in the first five games while rehabbing a torn lateral meniscus.

Matthews carried the ball a career-high 25 times, finishing with a career-high 126 yards and a touchdown in the 26-3 win over Akron. His ability to run the ball inside added something the Flashes’ missed in Shaw and Bangda’s absences.

He was the first Kent State running back to finish with over 100 yards against Akron since Dri Archer in 2012. 

“I was expecting to be ready for the beginning of the season, but some unfortunate events happened,” Matthews said. “But to be able to come back, especially for that game, and get the (Wagon) Wheel back and continue the success we had as a team going forward… the feeling is crazy.”

Three games later, the Flashes were 3-6, trailing Buffalo 27-6 with under eight minutes to play. It appeared to be another disappointing season full of “what-ifs” for Kent State.

Enter the speedy, pass catching back Williams.

In his third game since returning from an ankle injury he suffered in the Flashes’ 48-0 loss to Wisconsin, he set career-highs. He was one of the offensive catalysts in a 24-point comeback win over Buffalo, scoring the first two touchdowns of his career. His 11 touches for 98 yards were a team-best for the receiving and running back groups. 

His performance helped spark the Flashes’ current three-game win streak.

The following game against Ball State, Williams and Matthews combined for 32 carries for 169 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and a touchdown in the 41-38 win. Bangda did not play.

A week later against Eastern Michigan, Bangda would get his chance after an injury to Williams in the fourth quarter. The Flashes relied heavily on Bangda to drain the clock at the end of the game.

Over the final six minutes Bangda had nine carries for 46 yards, running for three first downs and forcing Eastern Michigan to use all three of its timeouts. Ultimately, his play setup a short field goal by Matthew Trickett that extended the Kent State lead to 34-28 with under two minutes left. The Flashes went on to win 34-28, securing bowl eligibility for the first time since 2012.

Since Shaw’s dismissal, the trio combined for 125 carries for 633 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. The three backs have led a rushing offense that has run for 150 yards or more in three of the four games since Shaw’s dismissal.

“Every running back in the running back room is able to run and play right now,” Williams said of the Flashes’ current situation. “There’s not really a drop down or a step back, everybody’s always practicing so they’re prepared and ready to go.”

Utah State’s rushing defense struggled this season. The Aggies are ranked 102nd out of 130 teams, allowing almost 200 yards per game. They allowed over 150 rushing yards eight times this season. 

“The good thing about (each of us having signature games) is whoever’s hand is hot, they take over and control it,” Matthews said. “As running backs, we feed off of each other, and as long as somebody’s succeeding, we’re all succeeding.”

Contact Ian Kreider at [email protected]