Saturday was not the Big Ten’s brightest day. Seven unranked teams lost to ranked opponents — an occurrence which had never happened in the AP Poll era (1936-Present), hat tip to Jason Starrett of The Athletic.
Penn State (3-0) was not one of those teams. The Nittany Lions annihilated Kent State (1-2) at Beaver Stadium in a 63-10 finish. The game was as close as 21-10 with less than a minute left in the second quarter, but 42 unanswered points for James Franklin’s crew sealed the deal.
Here’s what we learned from Kent State’s performance in Happy Valley:
Kent State can’t stop the read option
Every time. Trace McSorley scored at will on this play. Penn State frequently calls read options by the goal line, and the Golden Flashes often bite on the running back, leaving McSorley plenty of room to sprint past the trenches.
McSorley finished the afternoon with nine rushes, 54 yards, and three touchdowns. All of these scores occurred in the opening half, and one of them was on a critical fourth down, where Kent State’s defense failed to stop Penn State’s go-to goal line play.
Passing seems to be the strength of Kent State’s offense
This is a first. Under Paul Haynes, the Golden Flashes were a rushing-based, option-loving offense. But with a strong-armed passer in Woody Barrett, things look to be changing in the Sean Lewis era.
In 2017, Kent State ranked 124th in the FBS with just 234 pass attempts on the year. The team hasn’t finished in the top 110 in that category since 2014, when Haynes was still adjusting to the remains Darrell Hazell left. This season, Kent State is tied for 25th with 110 passing attempts in three games.
The Golden Flashes threw for 180 yards on Saturday, while rushing for just 41. It’s the third-straight game in which the rushing numbers paled in comparison to the passing stats. Penn State’s a difficult defense to rack up the yards on, but Barrett found some success through the air. To tie things at seven apiece, he found Mike Carrigan down the left sideline on a 47-yard bomb in the first quarter. With Antwan Dixon and Carrigan leading a capable receiving crew, it looks like Kent State is undergoing a rebrand as an air-based offense.
Kent State is a first half team
Kent State in first halves this season: 53-31
Kent State in second halves this season: 35-77
Even against Howard of the FCS, the Golden Flashes’ defense struggled coming out of halftime, allowing 14 third quarter points after shutting the Bison out for the initial 30 minutes of clock.
But Illinois and Penn State absolutely exposed this defense in the second half. The Fighting Illini roared back from a 17-3 deficit to post 31 points on the Golden Flashes to claim a comeback victory. The Nittany Lions were scoring like it was a practice in the second half. Even the backups found plenty of success against Kent State, winning the third and fourth quarters in 35-0 fashion, after a relatively close first half.
Second half defense has been the Achilles heel of this improved Kent State team this year. The Golden Flashes have yet to force a single turnover in the second half against FBS teams this year, and the unit is collapsing in both the air and ground categories. The Ole Miss offense had no problem dismantling Texas Tech’s defense, so there is plenty of reason for concern when Kent State travels to Oxford next Saturday.
Sean Lewis’ boldness should help win some games
In front of 106,528 spectators primarily decked in blue and white, Kent State came out bold and motivated.
The Golden Flashes made a quick defensive stop, although it was negated by a roughing the punter call. But still, Kent State withstood Penn State by responding with a quick touchdown and then catching the Nittany Lions off-guard with an onside kick.
The onside kick, which the Flashes recovered, was such an important play call because it shows a side of Lewis’ high-risk, high-reward play-calling that Kent State hasn’t had in years. To pull off upsets, deep balls and onside kicks are vital momentum swings, and Lewis’ team capitalized on both early in the game. The Golden Flashes were outmatched but for nearly a half, they gave it their all and provided a mini-scare to the No. 11 team in the nation.
If this mentality continues for Kent State throughout the season, expect the Flashes’ win total to take a bit of a spike. The Golden Flashes haven’t won more than four games since 2012. Perhaps that statistic could change this season.
Penalties and discipline remain lingering issues
Unfortunate penalties often stalled Kent State’s offense or contributed to Penn State offensive yardage on Saturday in Happy Valley. The Golden Flashes committed 10 penalties for 83 yards. Entering the contest, this was already an issue this young team was struggling with. In the first three games, Kent State ranks 123rd in the FBS with 90.33 penalty yards per game. The 10 penalties committed puts the team at a total of 30 this year, averaging a ghastly 10 per outing. This is one more factor Kent State must improve upon to escape from the cellar it’s been hiding in for the past five seasons.