Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Kent State is 2-0 for the first time since 1988. Akron is coming off an impressive performance versus Ohio. Who will prevail in the 63rd Battle for the Wagon Wheel?
Time and Date: 8:00 PM, Tuesday November 17th
Network: ESPN (after cancellation of Ohio vs. Miami)
Location: Dix Stadium – Kent, Ohio
Spread/Total: Kent State favored by -24.5, over/under 59.5
All-time series: Akron leads, 35-25-2
Last Meeting: Kent State 26, Akron 3 – October 12, 2019
We’ve officially reached the half way point of this odd, unprecedented MAC football season. Among other things, this means that the have’s are starting to separate themselves from the have-not’s in the conference, and a few legitimate title contenders are starting to emerge.
It is within this context that Akron (0-2) travels the 10 miles to Kent State (2-0) on Tuesday evening to take on the Golden Flashes. This will be the 63rd meeting in this storied rivalry, and I’ve consistently said that the Battle for the Wagon Wheel is one of the most underrated rivalries in all of college athletics. Akron has taken what appear to be some positive steps in Tom Arth’s second year, meanwhile Kent State sits at 2-0 for the first time since 1988. Through two weeks, the Flashes have been as impressive as any team in the conference. A victory over Kent would represent a major step forward for Akron as they rebuild. Meanwhile, the Flashes have their sights set on their first MAC Championship since 1972.
When Kent State Has the Ball
Kent has been getting it done on both sides of the ball this season, but it’s the offense that has been most impressive for the Golden Flashes. Led by seasoned veteran QB Dustin Crum and WR Isaiah McKoy, the Flashes rank third in the conference in points per game (44.5), and lead the conference in passing yards (295.5), rushing yards (253.5) and total yards (549.0).
Crum has lived up to his billing as one of the best players in the conference, completing 69.6% of his passes for 490 yards, 6 TD’s and 1 INT. The run game has been incredibly balanced as well, with Bryan Bradford, Marquez Cooper and Xavier Williams all making contributions at RB. The true freshman Bradford leads the group with 185 yards rushing on 7.4 yards per carry.
It hasn’t just been the volume on offense for Kent State though, it’s been the efficiency. The Flashes are third in the conference in passing efficiency at 179.3, as well as being second in third-down conversions (15-for-31, or 48.4%). The Flashes can do it all on offense, and it’s going to depend on what the defense is giving them. Kent is more than capable of grinding out long drives on the ground if they need to, but they have no problem scoring quickly if given the chance.
Akron’s defense has shown improvement through two games, though there is still a ways to go. The good news is that the pass defense has actually been rather effective, ranking third in the conference at 172 yards per game. It’s safe to say that this will be tested significantly this week, as the Flashes certainly represent a step up in firepower.
The key for the Zips on defense is going to be getting to Crum – Akron ranks fifth in the conference in sacks per game, as they’ve gotten to the QB twice in each of their first two contests. The strength of the Akron defense is their linebacking core, and if Bubba Arslanian, Brandon Bischof, and Julian Richardson can get pressure on Crum and limit his time in the pocket, the Zips will give themselves a chance. The Kent State offensive line has given up three sacks thus far this year, which is an improvement over last season but still a concern if you’re a Flashes fan. The Zips may have an advantage here.
The bad news for Akron is that, as much as they’ve improved in pass defense, the run defense still remains a significant problem. The Zips currently rank 10th in the conference in the run game, allowing 201.5 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry. That’s not great, considering that Kent leads the league in rushing and has four legitimate threats to run the ball, Crum included. You can rest assured that Sean Lewis and the Flashes coaching staff watched Ohio’s De’Montre Tuggle rack up 139 yards on 6.3 yards per carry against this defense last week, and they will look to exploit this weakness.
When Akron Has the Ball
The offense is still a work in progress for the Zips, but there are signs of life. Redshirt Freshman QB Zach Gibson has started the first two games as Kato Nelson recovers from shoulder surgery, and he has shown some flashes. Through two games, he hasn’t set the world on fire, but he is completing 60% of his passes for 343 yards, 2 TD’s and 3 INT’s. If he continues to develop— and avoids making some rookie mistakes, he could prove to be a fine starting QB in this league.
Joining Gibson in the backfield has been Junior RB Teon Dollard, who has been the best player on the Zips offense through two weeks. Dollard is second in the MAC with 232 yards on the ground and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry, though he has yet to find the end zone. He is coming off a career night against Ohio in week 2, having racked up 165 yards on 22 carries.
The struggle for the Zips has been the offensive line. Though they have improved in run blocking, they’ve still been a significant liability in pass protection. Gibson has been sacked six times through two games, and his lack of time to throw has contributed to his turnovers. Unfortunately for the Zips, Kent State has had great success getting to the QB this year and currently lead the MAC in sacks, with six. LB’s Mandela Lawrence-Burke and Brandon Coleman have both been fantastic, registering two sacks each thus far.
The defense in general for Kent State appears to be vastly improved this year – the Flashes currently rank first in the conference in pass defense, third in total defense, fifth in run defense, and fifth in points per game. This is a significant development, as last year Kent was at or near the bottom of the conference in every major defensive statistical category. As great as the offense is, it’s this defensive improvement that is the most important storyline here. If the Flashes defense can keep this up, they are a legitimate contender for the conference title.
Though the Zips have shown improvement through two games, the Golden Flashes represent a step up in competition. The match up of the Flashes top ranked rush offense versus the Zips’ tenth-ranked rush defense certainly doesn’t appear to bode well for the Zips. On top of that, Dustin Crum is coming off of a night where he threw for 271 yards and 4 TD’s, so that top ranked Zips pass defense will be tested.
The Zips best chance to pull this game out lies in their offense. Though the Akron offense isn’t great, they actually lead the conference in time of possession, averaging 32:00 per game. If Akron can establish the run with Teon Dollard and put together some long drives, they could keep the high powered Kent offense on the sidelines and give themselves a chance.
Unfortunately for the Zips, I don’t find that all that likely. I think the improved Kent defense will have Zach Gibson running for his life in this game and will force the redshirt freshman into turnovers. I do think that the Zips will battle for a half and can make this competitive for a while, but ultimately the Golden Flashes have too much firepower here. Kent State improves to 3-0 and sets themselves up for a huge game against Buffalo next week.
Final Score: Kent State 41, Akron 17