Kent State remains in Big Ten country to close out a brutal non-conference schedule.
Time and Date: Saturday, September 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Network: Big Ten Network
Location: Maryland Stadium — College Park, MD
Spread: Maryland (-14.5)
ESPN FPI: Maryland has 81.3% chance to win
All-time series: No previous matchups
Setting the scene
A loaded non-conference schedule finally winds to a close for Kent State (1-2). The Golden Flashes tested their metal against powerful Texas A&M and Iowa teams, competed within striking distance for roughly a half, and were held scoreless in the final two quarters of each contest. Now, Kent State faces another undefeated Big Ten program in Maryland (3-0), which is enjoying the most promising start of the Mike Locksley era. The Terrapins survived a scare at Illinois last Friday night and won on a game-winning field goal. In order to preserve their perfect record, they must stave off a feisty Kent State secondary and talented up-tempo offense in College Park this weekend.
This Week 4 showdown will be the first-ever meeting between the two programs.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
Kent State entered the 2021 season as MAC East favorites and winners of seven games in its last eight showings. But it’s been hard to gain any momentum to start the year against arguably the most draining non-conference schedule in the entire country. The Golden Flashes’ three FBS out-of-conference opponents combine for a 9-0 record and two are situated in the AP Poll top seven.
Texas A&M and Iowa put the clamps on an offense which averaged 49.8 points per game last year, and Kent State only managed 17 combined points against those defensive juggernauts. The Flashes proved they still have their scoring prowess when facing an FCS opponent, dropping 60 on VMI’s defense with ease in Week 2. In terms of the caliber of defense Kent State is facing this week, Maryland falls somewhere in the middle, although significantly closer to Texas A&M and Iowa on the spectrum than VMI.
Kent State’s high-speed Flash Fast offense isn’t quite replicating its 2020 numbers, but the potential clearly still lies within the unit. Star quarterback Dustin Crum bounced back from a rough passing performance at Texas A&M to deliver solid back-to-back weeks against VMI and Iowa. At Kinnick Stadium, Crum managed to complete 16/23 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown without throwing the interception. But the Hawkeyes took away the rushing element of Crum’s game and bottled him up in the backfield for seven sacks.
Getting Crum under duress nearly every play was Iowa’s recipe to holding Kent State to seven points. But just like the Texas A&M game, the Golden Flashes moved the ball with moderate success despite the result displayed in the box score. Kent State came up empty-handed on three of their four possessions that reached as far as the Iowa 35-yard line. Starting drives hasn’t been an issue this season, but Kent State often falls apart when approaching the end zone. Against FBS opponents, the Golden Flashes have been within 22 yards of the end zone on seven drives this year — one resulted in a touchdown, one resulted in a successful field goal, three resulted in turnovers, and two resulted in missed field goals — totaling 10 points on those seven possessions.
Last season, Kent State ranked second in the run game and the team held the same ranking heading into Iowa. But the Hawkeyes stuffed the trio of Marquez Cooper, Bryan Bradford, and Xavier Williams to limit the team to 1.9 yards per carry. Kent State’s blocking in both facets of the game was the primary issue against a physical Iowa defense, and the Golden Flashes must have the run game revert closer to Week 2 numbers (494 rushing yards, seven touchdowns) if they want to enter MAC play at .500.
Kent State also needs receivers to step up, as the Flashes lost their No. 1 option from 2020 in Isaiah McKoy. To make matters worse Ja’Shaun Poke, who was expect to fulfill McKoy’s role, suffered an injury in Week 1 and has yet to return. That leaves Syracuse transfer Nykeim Johnson and Keshunn Abram to bolster a shorthanded receiving corps. Abram was particularly exceptional against Iowa, hauling in Kent State’s only touchdown Saturday on 138 receiving yards — more than he had in 2019 and 2020 combined.
On defense, Kent State still hasn’t proven the ability to inhibit opponents’ rushing attacks. Iowa running back Tyler Goodson posted 153 yards and a trio of touchdowns on the Flashes, becoming the third 100-yard rusher on Kent State’s defense this season. Texas A&M and Iowa broke a slew of tackles to combine for 509 yards on 6.4 yards per carry on the Flashes’ run defense, which currently ranks 117th in the country.
The secondary is a different story though. Both starting cornerbacks, Elvis Hines and Montre Miller, hold three interceptions to their name this season. Kent State did not pick off a pass last weekend, and yet, it’s still the only team in the country with as many as eight picks this year. The defensive backs still make their mark even when not forcing takeaways. Last week, Iowa averaged under six yards per passing attempt and the Hawkeyes only assembled one passing play of over 20 yards.
Maryland Terrapins outlook
It’s a movie Maryland fans have seen over and over again. Exclude the 2020 pandemic season and the Terrapins have started 2-0 every year since 2016. Yet, during that time span, the Terrapins have yet to finish above .500. Early September Maryland is one of the most dangerous teams in college football, but this year, Mike Locksley’s crew hopes the magic doesn’t dissolve this time as the October air approaches.
Maryland already notched a quality win over West Virginia on opening week and preserved its unblemished record by scoring 10 points in the final 2:13 to escape Illinois in a 20-17 defensive slugfest. Traveling back home to College Park, the opportunity for the first 4-0 start since 2016 is on the table.
The Terrapins’ success is highly attributable to quality quarterback play. Taulia Tagovailoa is Maryland’s best quarterback in quite some time. The younger brother of the Miami Dolphins’ starter Tua Tagovailoa, Taulia is looking like a professional at times too. The Hawaii native currently owns the third highest completion percentage in college football at 75.5, and his accuracy has been his greatest weapon. Tagovailoa has delivered seven touchdown passes without an interception, and he’s diced two opposing defenses for over 330 yards. Maryland’s aerial offense ranks 10th in the country due to Tagovailoa’s efforts, and two star receivers are overwhelmingly responsible for those numbers.
Dontay Demus Jr. ranks 15th in the FBS in receiving yards. Demus starred as the deep threat in the first two weeks, averaging over 20 yards per reception en route to 120+ yard performances. Last week, he displayed his versatility by thriving closer to the sticks and his eight catches produced four first downs for the Terps. Demus is paired with Rakim Jarrett, who has already registered a career-high 259 receiving yards this season. Demus and Jarrett will match up on Kent State’s ballhawk corners, Hines and Miller, in what should be the defining matchup of Saturday’s contest.
The running game, spearheaded by halfback Tayon Fleet-Davis has been rather productive too. The senior is currently on pace to cross the 1,000-yard threshold with an average of 83.7 rushing yards per contest. So, with all of this offensive production, how come Maryland is only averaging 25 points per game against FBS opponents? The Terrapins’ drives have been hit-or-miss this season. Maryland excels at stringing together long possessions. In fact, all five touchdown drives against West Virginia and Illinois traversed 70 or more yards. But when not anchoring a long drive, Maryland’s offense stalls hard and it combined for seven three-and-outs against those two opponents.
But arguably more impressive than the Terrapins offense is their defense, which is stifling opponents to 13.7 points per game this season. Maryland is tied for 22nd in the country in forcing takeaways and the team has been noticeably proficient in limiting both the air and ground attacks. Week 1 was a masterclass in halting the ground game as the unit held West Virginia to 2.3 yards per carry. But also, only four teams allow lower opponent completion percentage than the Terrapins’ 47.4 mark. This weeks presents an intriguing challenge as the defense faces an All-MAC quarterback in Crum, who normally exhibits sky-high accuracy. Whether Kent State is rushing or passing, one viable counter to watch for is Ruben Hyppolite II, whose presence was all over the field in the West Virginia win with five tackles, two pass breakups, and one tackle for loss.
If Kent State played a game of Maryland roulette, the Golden Flashes would hope to face the version of Maryland that played a sloppy game against Illinois last Friday. That Terrapins team was crippled by penalties, the inability to convert on third down, and numerous quick three-and-outs. Still, the Terrapins defense pitched in and contributed enough to fend off the Fighting Illini.
Illinois churned out reasonable yardage on the ground against Maryland and Kent State’s offense must be able to get the rushing element going in order to pull off the upset. The Flashes’ running back trio must perform at a higher level, but Dustin Crum also needs to get clean running lanes outside of the pocket to maximize Kent State’s offensive potential. Kent State showed signs of life against Texas A&M and Iowa, but finishing drives is preventing the team from opportunities at an upset.
Maryland probably presents the best passing attack the Flashes have seen in 2021. The Terrapins are balanced in their production and the rushing yards will certainly be there, but the Taulia Tagovailoa to Dontay Demus connection might present some problems too. This might be the most difficult game for Kent State’s secondary this season.
Overall, this is shaping up to be a shootout. Kent State remains close throughout, but the Terrapins get the final say and improve to 4-0.
Prediction: Maryland 42, Kent State 37