As is the case with many different teams in the MAC, Kent State's non-conference schedule is an exercise in managing expectations. Coming off an opening week in which even irrational Golden Flashes fans didn't expect a victory at Penn State, Kent State returns to the friendly confines of Dix stadium for their home opener against an FCS opponent, North Carolina A&T.
With a 14 game winning streak against FCS teams, the pendulum of expectation for Kent State fans swings to the other extreme against North Carolina A&T. Given the recent success against this level of competition in mind, a blowout victory seems quite possible for the Golden Flashes, but I'm here today to temper those expectations just slightly.
North Carolina A&T are not your ordinary directional north-east whatever state university. The Aggies come into this weekend's game ranked 24th and 23rd in the FCS Coaches and STATS FCS poll respectively. To muddle the clear Kent State victory waters further, North Carolina A&T placed two defensive linemen on the preseason all MEAC first team and another on the third team. The two first teamers, Marquis Ragland and Angelo Keyes lived in the backfield a season ago combining for 27.5 tackles for loss.
To that, you are probably saying so what, FCS stats don't really matter it is a totally different level of competition. While that may be true, it is still worrisome for Kent State that the strength of the Aggie defense is the defensive line considering a week ago the Golden Flashes conceded seven sacks and numerous quarterback hurries (although much of the blame according to coach Haynes could be placed on a pair of freshman seeing the majority of snaps at quarterback).
It is highly likely that this game, like many others, will be decided in the trenches while Kent State has the ball. If the Golden Flashes offensive line can wear down the limited depth of the Aggie defensive line and limit negative plays, a victory is in sight.
There were also number of encouraging signs from the Kent State offense from a week ago, most notably freshman running back Justin Rankin gaining an impressive 82 yards on just 13 carries. I would expect coach Haynes to once again lean heavily on the run game early on to alleviate pressure no matter who starts at quarterback and given the absence of injured junior receiver Kris White.
Speaking of quarterback, considering the circumstances, the pair of freshman who saw the bulk of playing time last week impressed. Justin Agner and Mylik Mitchell didn't impress with the stat line against Penn State, but both had brief moments of showing the ability to run a competent offense and appeared unfazed by the huge crowd in Happy Valley (It is likely both will see playing time against NC A&T as Haynes was noncommittal in the midweek press conference).
On the other side of the ball, the player to watch for the Aggies is without question Tarik Cohen, a preseason first team all-conference running back who racked up 1,543 yards a year ago. With the exception of Cohen, the Aggies offense shouldn't pose much of a threat to an impressive Kent State defense. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Lamar Raynard has only a handful of career starts and none against a defensive with the quality of Kent State.
I would expect Kent State to attempt to contain Cohen with a blend of safety Nate Holly, who had 17 tackles against Penn State and Najee Murray who played the "Apache" position last week. Against Penn State Murray could often be seen blitzing from the slot in run support, dropping back into coverage on a receiver, or even lined up almost like a safety. Haynes was effusive in his praise of Murray's performance and his ability to disrupt in the post-game press conference.
North Carolina A&T comes into the game with a record of 1-0 after winning a warm-up game against DII St. Augustine, while Kent State enters 0-1 after falling to Penn State last week. Be sure to tune in on ESPN3 at 6:00 for the Golden Flashes home opener.