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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Kent State Golden Flashes

Kent State looks to improve on a 3-9 campaign that featured plenty of offensive futility

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Kent State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Kent State enters 2016 in desperate need of a functioning offense to compliment its outstanding defensive unit. The Flashes were a mess on that side of the ball a year ago, eclipsing 300 yards of total offense only four times on the season, and scoring a disappointing 13 points per game. With the loss of Antwan Dixon for the year, the uphill climb to sustained offensive success just got a whole lot steeper, and with the Flashes’ brutal schedule both in and out of conference, a repeat of 2015 just won’t cut it.

The Flashes have nowhere to go but up on offense, and some optimism for the unit’s improvement can be derived from the fact 10 starters return from the previous year, so at least experience isn’t an issue. The good news overall is the Flashes’ defensive unit also returns a large majority - eight - of its starters from last year, and could be as good if not better than last year’s version. The Flashes need great performances out of their defense this year, and it’s expected they’ll get them, but more wins will come only if quarterback George Bollas and company come along for the ride.

Five Players to Know

Demetrius Monday, CB, #21

A first team All-MAC defensive back a year ago, Monday is the shutdown corner option for this experienced defense. His coming out party was last year at Minnesota where his three total takeaways - two interceptions and a forced fumble and recovery for a touchdown - nearly stole the game for the Flashes. 2016 is a big year for Monday, and the interceptions race between he and NIU’s Shawun Lurry will be fun to watch week to week.

Colin Reardon, WR, #10

Reardon’s time as the signal caller for Kent State has come to pass, and his contributions at the wide receiver position in 2016 will be an interesting story line all season long. Reardon isn’t the Flashes’ number one option by any stretch, but at 6’1" and 218 lbs the senior has good size to go along with experience. Maybe he’s just the wrinkle Paul Haynes’ struggling offense needs to finally show some rhythm.

Terrence Waugh, DE, #51

Waugh was a first team All-MAC selection in 2015, and for good reason. His nine sacks trailed only Jatavis Brown of Akron and J’Terius Jones of Miami for best in the conference. He also added 12 tackles for loss to his resume. Waugh is a key ingredient in a run defense that allowed just 144 yards per game a year ago.

Nate Holley, FS, #18

From the safety position Holley recorded 139 total tackles, 79 of which were solo. He led the league in the latter category and trailed only Bowling Green’s Austin Valdez in the former. All this led to a first team All-MAC selection in 2015, and Holley is the run stopping anchor of a secondary that will look to make its mark for a second year in a row.

George Bollas, QB, #2

With the experience returning across the board for Kent State on offense, the unit is running out of excuses. The Flashes don’t need a breakout season from Bollas by any measure in 2016, but what they could use is some more consistency. If they get it, then trips to Kent, OH could be a little more uncomfortable than previously expected. Bollas’ performance has been a roller coaster ride, following up his best game last year - in a win over UMass - with a 12 of 25 passing, two interception effort against the eventual MAC East champion Bowling Green. The Flashes don’t need 35 points per game to beat many teams with the defense they have, but they desperately need their young quarterback to sustain drives and help get more than 13 points on the board each week.

Can’t Miss Games

Week 4 @ Alabama

What better way to prepare for the first week of conference play than to have a road game against the defending national champions? The Flashes have yet to score an offensive touchdown against the Crimson Tide, who are coached by famous Kent State alumnus Nick Saban, but to be fair there has been only one meeting all time between the two schools. That was back in 2011 and the Flashes came up a lot short, 48-7. The scoreline in 2016 could be quite similar, but it’s always fun to watch the MAC in SEC country.

Week 5 vs. Akron

The MAC decided to open up conference play with a host of rivalry games this season, and it could play quite favorably into Kent State’s hands. Provided they come out of Alabama week without sustaining major injury, the Flashes should be prepared as ever to take on their local rivals. Assuming Kent State takes care of business against North Carolina A&T and Monmouth in weeks two and three, the annual rivalry could be their first real shot at equaling their win total from 2015.

Week 6 @ Buffalo

Buffalo is a real mystery team in the MAC East, and it will be interesting to see how the Flashes attack their first winnable road game. History is on their side, with the road team having won six in a row in this series, and making it seven straight could be a huge turning point in Paul Haynes’ tenure with the Miami RedHawks lurking in week seven.

Week 7 @ Miami

Speaking of the RedHawks, Miami are expected to be a much improved squad, and fans should expect a defensive struggle in Oxford October 15th. Chuck Martin’s team was one of the Flashes’ three victories last season, and fans of good defense should get up for this one. Neither unit will be challenged heavily by the opposing offense, but a lot could be on the line for Kent State in terms of bowl eligibility.

Three signs of success

Buffalo and Miami are in the win column

The scheduling powers that be were not kind to Kent State this season, gifting them Western and Central Michigan as well as Northern Illinois from the MAC West. The MAC East appears to be Bowling Green and Ohio, followed by Akron and then, well, everybody else. If Kent State wants to lead the pack of "everybody else," they have no choice but to beat the Bulls and RedHawks.

The offense shows signs of life

A 3-9 record and and an average defeat by the score of 26 to 13 suggests the Flashes weren’t exactly in any of those games which ended up in the loss column. But this isn’t entirely true. When the offense showed a pulse, the Flashes were pretty good, winning three games and nearly beating Buffalo and Marshall. The problem is when the offense doesn’t show up, and things like 52-3 losses at the hands of Illinois and shutouts dealt by Akron, Ohio and Bowling Green happen. The schedule may not yield a lot in the way of wins for Kent State, but failing to score an offensive touchdown in nearly half of the games on the schedule is unacceptable.

The November games aren’t just for pride

It’s not likely the Flashes go bowling in 2016, but being close enough where a couple bounces in late October could send the team to the post season for the first time in three years is good for the perception of the program, and could be just what Haynes needs to earn a fifth year in Kent. Beating Buffalo and Miami almost guarantees the Flashes have four wins before November, and leaves them with the task of winning two out of five to earn a 13th game.

Two things to watch

Can the offense improve in Antwan Dixon’s absence?

Dixon’s symptoms due to a blood disorder will keep him off the field in 2016, which is unfortunate for both Dixon’s still promising football career as well as the Kent State receiving corps. The absence of their rising star means the Flashes must fill in a large hole in an offense with many, in a year where its performance is key to any sort of success winning football games. After scoring just 13.1 points per game in 2015, the Flashes need any sort of significant improvement, and must look for another target for George Bollas to rely on.

Avoiding a slow start

Kent State probably won’t beat Penn State at Beaver Stadium, and it’s likely impossible the Flashes come out of Tuscaloosa victorious (or with a healthy two-deep), but it cannot begin a season like it did last year. The Flashes return 18 total starters on each side of the ball, and are too experienced to have a repeat of week one in 2015, and they should remain competitive with the Nittany Lions. Paul Haynes is on the hot seat this year, and that seat gets much, much hotter if the Flashes come out flat in the season opener.

Bold Prediction

Kent State will look like a bowl team, but come up short

You have no choice but to play the hand you’re dealt, and the Flashes schedule is a losing hand. They have to play Penn State, Alabama, three of the top four teams in the MAC West and also travel to Bowling Green. I think Kent State finds a way to get four wins at least on the year, and will scare the living hell out of some MAC West fan bases deep into games in October, but ultimately they will come up just short. The bright side is Flashes fans should expect to be thinking bowl game deeper into the year than usual, and the progress may be just enough to earn Paul Haynes a fifth year at the helm.