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1. Just three seasons ago
Third down, seven yards to go. Fifty-two seconds to go. Kent State was down 27-13 to start the fourth quarter but has one last chance to tie the game.
Spencer Keith looks right but finds his first option covered. He scrambles to his left and throws a 19-yard dart to Tim Erjavec in the end zone for the game-tying touchdown. It is the burly tight end/blocking back’s first touchdown of the year and only the third of his career. Jake Dooley and Roosevelt Nix sack Jordan Lynch to force overtime.
It remains one of the more incredible outlier moments in college football’s recent history: In 2012, Kent State was an overtime period away from playing in a BCS bowl. The winner of the MAC championship game between 11-1 NIU and Kent teams was a de facto play-in game, with the winner assured of a top-15 finish and an automatic BCS bid.
Neither was a true top-15 squad — NIU ended up ranking 52nd in S&P+, and Kent State finished 62nd — but since getting blown out by a bad Kentucky team early in the year, Kent State had increasingly looked the part of the MAC’s best team. The Golden Flashes beat nine-win Ball State, then went on the road and handled nine-win Rutgers with relative ease. They took down Bowling Green by seven on the road, then whipped Ohio by 22 at home. They had a sound, interesting defense and a thunder-and-lightning combination on offense, with sophomore Trayion Durham pounding between the tackles and explosive junior Dri Archer making big plays left and right.
Darrell Hazell, only in his second year in charge, had inherited from Doug Martin a team that just hadn’t quite been able to get over the hump. The Golden Flashes finished 5-7 in each of Martin’s last two years and hit five wins again in Hazell’s debut. But now that the offense truly had a pulse, the program took a huge step forward, even if it wasn’t truly a step into the top 15.
NIU survived in overtime; the Huskies advanced to the Orange Bowl, where they trailed Florida State by just seven heading into the fourth quarter but faded and lost, 31-10. Kent State, meanwhile, lost Hazell to Purdue and lost the GoDaddy.com Bowl to Arkansas State.
At the time of Keith’s pass to Erjavec, Kent State had won 15 of 17 games. Since the pass, the Golden Flashes are just 9-28. Hazell, meanwhile, is just 6-30 at Purdue. There was magic in that moment, and Kent State has been trying to recapture it ever since.
In Paul Haynes’ third season in charge, the Golden Flashes underwent a youth movement, both intentional and unintentional, on offense. The receiving corps was both insanely young and banged up, and incumbent quarterback Colin Reardon became hesitant and inaccurate, ceding playing time to freshman George Bollas in the second half of the season. Freshman running back Raekwon James hinted at Archer-level explosiveness but was dreadfully inconsistent, and after injuries slowed him down, Durham’s career ended with an inefficient, ineffective go-round.
The defense, long a relative strength for Kent State, played at its highest level since 2011, but the offense might have been the worst in the country. Experience is solid on both sides of the ball this time around, though, and it’s conceivable that the Flashes will put their best product since 2012 onto the field. But the magic of 2012 was a potential once-in-a-lifetime situation. For now, this program is just looking to go bowling again.
2015 Schedule & Results
2. Up and down, then just down
Into late October, Kent State boasted one of the country’s more successful defenses. Sure, the Golden Flashes’ full-season numbers were boosted pretty significantly by their performance against a bad Delaware State team — they held the dismal 1-10 Hornets to minus-33 total yards — but they also allowed just 5.3 yards per play against Illinois, 4.3 against UMass, 4.1 to Minnesota, and 3.5 to Marshall. This was a sound unit, one that finished 29th in Def. S&P+ (even with a late fade) and gave the team chances to beat both Minnesota and Marshall.
Unfortunately, after a 15-10 win over Minnesota moved Kent State to 3-4, the offense went from bad to worst. And there was no way the defense could account for that.
- First 7 games
Average percentile performance: 45% (~top 70) | Record: 3-4 | Yards per play: Kent 4.3, Opp 4.2 (+0.1)
- Last 5 games
Average percentile performance: 9% (~top 115) | Record: 0-5 | Yards per play: Opp 5.6, Kent 3.8 (-1.8)
The Kent State of the first half of the season was at least a middle-of-the-pack MAC team, and the defense that powered that performance returns quite a bit: eight of the top 10 linemen, five of six linebackers, eight of nine defensive backs. Haynes isn’t an instant-impact recruiter, but he’s put together solid depth in every unit of the defense. And technically, he returns quite a bit of experience on offense, too. But talent trumps experience, and the offense still has plenty to prove in that realm.
3. Run-first <> efficient
Kent State has more or less maintained its offensive identity from that breakthrough 2012 squad — the Golden Flashes play at a plodding, underdog-friendly pace, and they lean more heavily than most on the run game. They try to establish a physical presence in a league full of spread-’em-out teams.
In theory, zigging when others are zagging can work to your benefit. But you still have to be able to execute. To put it kindly, that’s been a bit of an issue for the Golden Flashes.
Over the past seven seasons, Kent State has ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 80 on six occasions and has ranked in the top 50 three times. But the offense has been a constant anchor: In that same seven-year span, the Flashes have ranked higher than 95th in Off. S&P+ just once (2012) and have ranked 113th or lower five times. But never in that timeframe have they been as bad as they were in 2015.
Poor Don Treadwell. Mark Dantonio’s former offensive coordinator at both Cincinnati and Michigan State, he had to wait until he was 50 to land a head coaching position, inheriting a bit of a dissheveled situation at Miami (Ohio). After a promising first season in charge (Miami went an unlucky 4-8 but finished 61st in S&P+), his tenure, and his RedHawks, crumbled. They were 105th in S&P+ in 2012, then 0-12 and 125th (out of 125) in 2013.
Between 2006 and 2010, Treadwell offenses ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 50 every season, peaking at 18th twice (2007, 2009). But the last two offenses he’s been in charge of in some way — 2013 Miami (Ohio), 2015 Kent State — have both graded out as the worst in FBS.
To buck that unfortunate trend, it’s clear that Kent will have to actually be able to run the ball a little bit. They want to carve out four- to six-yard gains on first down and set the quarterback up in third-and-manageable situations. But only 24 percent of Trayion Durham’s carries gained five yards in 2015, and barely any gained more than that. Raekwon James showed major explosiveness potential but gained five yards on only 22 percent of his carries. Those are absolutely dreadful efficiency numbers, and it meant that basically every pass Colin Reardon or George Bollas threw came on second- or third-and-long. It also meant that defenses were never distracted into biting on play-action.
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
4. Can Holley and experience lead to efficiency?
Nick Holley wasn’t a bastion of efficiency himself in 2015, but 44 percent of his carries did hit the five-yard mark. Unfortunately he suffered through hip and back issues and didn’t play after the Minnesota game. If he’s healthy, maybe his presence leads to a few more five-yard gains. Or maybe with an experienced line in front of him (four of last year’s line starters return, and six returnees account for 105 career starts), James will turn into a more consistent option. And while we’re on the maybes, perhaps Myles Washington or P.J. Simmons, both three-star sophomores (per the 247Sports Composite), can develop into what their recruiting rankings suggested.
No matter who it is, SOMEONE has to step up in this corps of running backs. From a recruiting perspective, it appears there’s some potential here, but aside from a few big runs by James, almost no potential turned into production a year ago.
5. So many sophomores
The intent here was obvious: Kent State wanted to hammer between the tackles, then use QB keepers and passes to the slot receivers to stretch the defense horizontally. Stress defenses in these areas, and the vertical passing game will open up. In theory.
Though the quarterbacks were reasonably efficient on the ground (particularly Bollas), that was it. The run game got mostly swallowed up, and neither of two primary slot receivers (Ernest Calhoun, Johnny Woods) could bring any semblance of efficiency or explosiveness to the table.
Calhoun was used primarily in two ways — as a deep threat when Kent State was on its side of the 50 and as a quick-strike, horizontal option when the Flashes were within field goal range. He was effective in neither role, and his 18 percent success rate was about as low as you’ll ever see for a semi-frequent target.
Antwan Dixon, meanwhile, put up decent numbers considering he was basically the de facto third-and-long target; he was the only Kent receiver to top 11.8 yards per catch, and after dealing with midseason injury issues he put together a nice run of performances. In games 8-11, he caught 16 passes for 216 yards.
Dixon is basically the size of a slot receiver, but between James and Dixon, Kent might have a couple of solid explosiveness options. But until the Golden Flashes figure out how to stay in second- and -third-and-manageable, nothing else matters.
6. A defensive legacy
Ben Needham rose quickly through the coaching ranks. He went straight from graduate assistant (Ohio State 2010-11, Arkansas 2012) to Kent State defensive coordinator in 2013, and after some initial regression, he has engineered improvement in back-to-back years.
While offense has continued to be an issue, Needham has continued Kent State’s recent defensive legacy. Of course, he’s had a pretty good mentor. Paul Haynes was Ohio State’s defensive co-coordinator in 2011 and Arkansas’ sole coordinator in 2012. Like Hazell, his predecessor, he is from the Jim Tressel tree, and like another Tressellian — Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio — he believes in defensive aggression.
Kent State played the opposite of bend-don’t-break last year, sacrificing big plays for three-and-outs. And while the run defense left something to be desired, the pass defense was outstanding in two key facets: pass rush (eighth in Adj. Sack Rate) and completion rate (54 percent, 18th in FBS). The Flashes could have used a few more interceptions, and the big plays they allowed were indeed pretty big (19 passes of 30-plus yards, 71st), but to say the least, defense wasn’t the issue for this team last year. And with so much depth and experience returning, it probably won’t be this year, either.
7. Depth: check!
Part of Kent State’s defensive strength was the ability to attack from anywhere; the Golden Flashes did boast two strong pass rushers in Terence Waugh and Nate Terhune, who combined for 14.5 sacks, but seven other players had at least 1.5, from free safety Nate Holley to middle linebacker Matt Dellinger to reserve LEO (DE/OLB) Theo Eboigbe.
Both Terhune and Dellinger are gone, but last year’s depth should come in handy. They are, after all, almost the ONLY contributors gone from last year’s front seven. Eboigbe, Anthony Johnson, and Matthew Sommers combined for seven tackles for loss and three sacks behind Terhune and Waugh, so the odds of another strong pass rushing option emerging are strong. And if younger three-star players like presumptive starting MLB Jim Jones or end Davonte James begin to live up to hype with more reps, that’s even better.
The key, of course, will be the run defense. Kent State was solid in short-yardage situations but didn’t have nearly as much of a disruptive presence against opposing ground games. That big Chris Fairchild and Jon Cunningham return to man the middle of the line is a good thing, but they were around for last year’s mediocre numbers as well. The end position probably needs to be a little more productive against the run.
8. Your ground game better work
If you’re relying on the pass to score on Kent State, you could be in trouble. Experience in the defensive backfield tends to matter significantly, and the Golden Flashes have a ton of it.
Holley and Nick Cuthbert return to man the safety positions after combining for 8.5 tackles for loss and six passes defensed, and active corners Demetrius Monday and Najee Murray (combined: two TFLs, 21 passes defensed) are back as well. And the second string will be manned by exciting sophomores like safeties Juantez McRae and Erik Simpson and corner Quan Robinson Jr. Haynes’ future at Kent State will be dictated by whether he can figure out how to move the ball a little bit better, but the Kent State secondary is set for both the present and future tenses.
9. All-or-nothing special teams
Kick returners Raekwon James and Ernest Calhoun were remarkably consistent and efficient. Punter Anthony Melchiori had strong distance and hang time. And place-kicking, punt returns, and kick coverage were all dreadful. In each of the five main special teams categories, Kent State either ranked better than 35th or worse than 100th.
Melchiori’s absence means Kent State has to replace a good punter and an iffy kickoffs guy. Experience should help elsewhere (both James and kicker Shane Hynes are no longer freshmen), but this still looks like a pretty mediocre unit overall.
2016 Schedule & Projection Factors
10. This is Kent State — it’s all about the offense
It’s hard to project a team with such well-defined up and downside. Kent State’s defense was one of the single best units in the MAC last year, and its offense was probably the absolute worst. The former kept the Golden Flashes in a lot of games, and the latter assured a terrible record.
Experience should help this year. Kent State returns 89 percent of its overall production from last year, the fourth-highest level in the country. Hitting above 80 percent tends to assure improvement to some degree, which is great, but the defense doesn’t have a ton of room to improve. The improvement is going to have to come from the offense.
With a couple of explosive offensive weapons, solid overall experience, and six opponents projected 95th or worse in the first eight games, it’s possible that we see a pretty robust start from the Golden Flashes this fall. And while two FCS opponents means they’ll have to get to 7-5 to reach bowl eligibility, it’s at least possible if they handle their business early on.
Haynes has almost no chance of recapturing the singular magic that Kent State found in the days before arrived, but for a program that has bowled just once since 1972, he probably doesn’t have to win 11 games to be considered successful. Still, with nine wins in three years, he hasn’t yet matched whatever expectations actually exist. His offense might still be a year away from clicking, but this is a big year for him nonetheless.