Kent State only trailed 16-13 heading into halftime, before a third quarter pick-six derailed its improbable upset bid in Happy Valley. That afternoon, September 3, 2016, was one of the Golden Flashes’ highest points in the past two seasons, perfectly coinciding with the lowest of Penn State’s moments in the given time span.
Most people remember the game by this play:
Now, the two meet again at Beaver Stadium to usher in Week 3 of the 2018 season. Penn State survived an overtime scare against a feisty Appalachian State squad before dismantling
Akron Pittsburgh, 51-6 on the road. In the words of James Franklin in 2017, “it was like beating Akron.”
Kent State will serve as the role of the next “Akron” on Penn State’s schedule. The Golden Flashes have been a disaster of a football program since nearly qualifying for a BCS bowl six seasons ago. Kent State has yet to piece together a 4-win season since, faring 15-48 following the team’s 11-1 start in 2012.
But the Sean Lewis era in Kent is off to a surprisingly promising start. The Golden Flashes held a 14-point lead at Illinois on kickoff weekend, falling narrowly to the Illini despite a revitalized offense. In Week 2, Kent State pushed aside its past struggles against FCS programs and rounded up the Howard Bison out of town. Howard, a team that nearly beat preseason MAC favorite Ohio, was obliterated 54-14 in Lewis’ first-career win as an FBS head coach.
The next two games on Lewis’ schedule won’t be easy to chalk up as victories. Despite facing the conference in September every season, the Nittany Lions have not fallen to a MAC opponent since Ohio stormed into Happy Valley and stunned over 100,000 at Beaver Stadium in Bill O’Brien’s first game as head coach. After a date with Penn State, Kent State travels to The Grove in hopes of a tight game against Ole Miss. Likely, the Flashes will be sitting at 1-3 after facing three Power Five opponents on the road.
But, the improvement is already evident. The offense is as dynamic as ever, and passing has become more of a fixture under Lewis. The defense came up with key stops in the first half against Illinois, limiting the Fighting Illini to under 200 passing yards in the opener. Woody Barrett III, an Auburn transfer, threw for 270 yards and rushed for an additional 117 on Week 1 — providing Kent State with a valuable dual threat quarterback the program hasn’t seen in ages. Barrett was graded as the highest MAC offensive player by Pro Football Focus for said performance.
Team of the Week in the MAC for Week 1 on offense pic.twitter.com/kcbedDVczO— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 5, 2018
Players to Watch
Woody Barrett, QB, Kent State
As mentioned above, Barrett is the pioneer leading Kent State’s offense to better and brighter days. Unlike past Kent State quarterbacks, he is much more talented in the passing game and is good at scrambling around the pocket on broken plays. Barrett didn’t need to call his own number much in a dominant win over Howard but his 117 rushing yards against Illinois show his true capability as a dual threat quarterback. As a passer, he’s refrained from pinpoint accuracy but he still connects with receivers on deep throws and has totaled three passing touchdowns on the year.
Justin Rankin, RB, Kent State
Rankin’s debut against Illinois was disappointing, but the junior from Oberlin, OH bounced back with a bizarre average of 12.3 yards per carry in last week’s victory. Rankin has been one of Kent State’s more prolific offensive players in the past two years, and his veteran leadership is continuing in 2018. Rankin earned 169 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown in the Week 2 win. Kent State’s highest concentration of talent lies within the backfield, Barrett and Rankin, which is always a good sign for a previously dormant offense.
Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State
McSorley entered his senior season at Penn State with Heisman aspirations, Big Ten championship dreams, and potentially, his first College Football Playoff visit. Then, Appalachian State placed his team on the brink of a major upset and McSorley responded the way most Heisman candidates do. With his back against the wall on a drive that required a fourth down conversion, McSorley looked poised and led Penn State to a season-altering, game-tying possession. The Nittany Lions won in overtime and their quarterback followed the performance up with three total touchdowns in torrential downpour at Pitt. His accuracy numbers have suffered this season, but he has yet to throw an interception and has his team situated at No. 11 in the AP Poll.
Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State
Saquon Barkley decided to forego his senior season, and his career with the New York Giants started on Sunday afternoon. Now, Sanders is in charge of the backfield. Sanders was Penn State’s offensive overtime MVP in Week 1, running the ball every play en route to a vital touchdown. In awful weather conditions against Pitt, Penn State decided to primarily attack with the ground game and Sanders didn’t disappoint with a 118-yard performance on 16 carries. Kent State struggled stopping Illinois’ backs in the second half on Week 1, so if no improvements are shown, Sanders could be in for another stellar performance in Happy Valley.
Amani Oruwariye, CB, Penn State
The Nittany Lions lost a bevy of talent on defense this offseason, ranging from free safety Marcus Allen to inside linebacker Jason Cabinda. One previously-underused senior is now seeing a spike in playing time, and he’s making the most of it. Through two games, Oruwariye has intercepted two passes and forced a fumble. His first interception of the year involved ripping the ball out of an Appalachian State receiver’s hands in the end zone to seal a much-needed win. The cornerback has also registered 10 tackles and will be in charge of limiting connections between Barrett and his favorite target, wide receiver Mike Carrigan.
Keys to the Game
For Kent State to have a shot, the offense must be unstoppable. Appalachian State laid down the foundation on how to upset Penn State in one of college football’s most intense environments. Despite losing the turnover battle 1-0, the Mountaineers kept a balanced offense and disarmed the Nittany Lions through the air. Appalachian State was able to recover from a 14-point deficit and scorch Penn State with three touchdowns in a span of six minutes to nearly pull out an elusive victory.
Kent State needs to take a similar approach and trust Barrett with his receivers in the passing game. The Nittany Lions are jogging out a rather inexperienced secondary, and Barrett cannot be afraid to test them in a similar manner that Appalachian State’s Zac Thomas attacked. Defensively, Kent State needs to continue its defensive line dominance. The Golden Flashes have recorded seven sacks through two games, and Penn State’s offensive line has struggled at protecting McSorley many times this year. Rushing McSorley on his throws and keeping a spy on him to counter his talented running game are strategies Kent State needs to factor in if it wants to prevent this from getting ugly.
Special teams magic needs to happen. How did Appalachian State keep the game close after Penn State scored immediately? The Mountaineers responded with a momentum-draining kickoff return to tie it up at seven in the first quarter. Kent State needs every advantage it can get against the No. 11 team in the country, and winning the special teams fight is a good start. Golden Flashes kicker Matthew Trickett has yet to miss a field goal or extra point this year, so a solid kicking game could help them appear on the scoreboard if the offense falters in Penn State territory.
But special teams isn’t all kicking and returning — it involves making stops too. The Nittany Lions have been particularly adept at special teams in 2018, returning a punt for a touchdown against Pitt last week and using kick returns to start with excellent field position. Preventing large returns is one more element Kent State has to worry about when traveling east of the border this weekend.
Time and Date: Saturday, September 15, 12:00 p.m. EST
Venue: Beaver Stadium (106,572) — University Park, PA
Spread: Penn State (-35)
ESPN FPI Predictor: Penn State has 99.3% chance to win
Series history: Penn State leads all-time series, 5-0.
Kent State hasn’t come within 20 points of Penn State in five meetings, four which have occurred in the 21st century. The Golden Flashes were shut out in both the 2010 and 2013 meetings. The 2016 contest was mentioned at the beginning, where Kent State provided a first half upset scare to Penn State before the Nittany Lions rode away with a 20-point edge. But another scare occurred in 2003, when Kent State jumped to a 10-0 lead out of the gate before falling 32-10.
Penn State doesn’t mess around in games like this. Ever since the playoff committee spurned the Nittany Lions from the 2016 playoff, James Franklin has coached this team with a chip on his shoulder in each game. Last season, Penn State beat Akron 52-0 and Georgia State 56-0, even drawing criticism from Mike Francesa for icing Georgia State’s kicker on the final play to seal the shutout.
The Nittany Lions will win with zero problem, especially given the way they rebounded from the Appalachian State game and destroyed Pitt last week. It won’t be an easy game for Barrett, Rankin, and the rest of the Golden Flashes as they compete against a defense that allowed six points to an ACC program just one week ago. McSorley will be McSorley, he won’t post ridiculous stats but will return to his efficient ways and do enough for Penn State to walk away with an easy victory before the backups check in. Kent State falls to 1-2, but it’s a better 1-2 than the team has experienced in the past several seasons.
Prediction: Penn State 48, Kent State 7