It’s time to get out your Darius Rucker CDs and blast “Wagon Wheel” on repeat because it’s on the line this weekend in Akron, Ohio.
The Wagon Wheel trophy, which actually predates the original song written by Bob Dylan by 27 years, was first self-rewarded to Kent State in the Golden Flashes second-ever victory over Akron. The Zips won 11 games in the in-state rivalry before Kent State won its first in 1946, and Akron currently leads the series 35-24-2.
Kent State’s seniors haven’t earned an opportunity to hoist the 16-spoked wheel. Akron has won the last four in the series, including a 24-23 overtime victory last October due to a Golden Flashes’ botched snap on the game-tying extra point. But the guard has greatly shifted in the last 360 days. Kent State (2-3) opens as massive, two-touchdown favorites over Akron (0-5), one of three winless teams in the FBS.
When Akron has the ball
Akron quarterback Kato Nelson is listed as questionable for the upcoming rivalry game. Nelson suffered a shoulder injury in the Zips’ last outing against UMass, and freshman Zach Gibson entered and finished the game strong, despite a loss.
Gibson completed 12-of-16 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown in the battle of then-winless teams. The Zips are still winless but the brand of offense they displayed against UMass was their best all season — totaling 335 passing yards and three touchdowns. Nelson also solidly contributed to the effort with 141 yards and two touchdowns on 13-of-17 passing.
Akron’s rushing game needs work. The Zips are dead last in the country, posting an average of 51 yards per game on the ground. Their passing offense is within the top 50 of the FBS, so it is imperative Akron succeeds on its shots through the air against Kent State’s secondary in order to establish an offense.
Nate Stewart and Dustin Burkhart are the receivers Kent State must remain fixated on. Both players have 320 receiving yards on the season, with Burkhart serving as the Zips’ home-run hitting deep threat while Stewart thrives in short yardage and red zone situations.
Kent State’s secondary is an experienced group, and the Flashes are looking solid this year with the 45th ranked pass defense. Cornerback Jamal Parker has stepped up with two interceptions and free safety K.J. Sherald has excelled in coverage with three passes defended, in addition to his 25 tackles. Add cornerback Elvis Hines to the mix, and the Golden Flashes present arguably the most talented secondary in the MAC East — even with a similar cast of players, there’s a sharp improvement from a season ago.
The Flashes’ field several experienced linebackers as well. While stopping Jonathan Taylor was a tough task for the group in Madison last week, the linebacking corps was pivotal in holding Arizona State to 10 first half points and stopping Bowling Green’s offense. Matt Bahr is the leader of the group with 34 tackles, but Nick Faulkner and Cepeda Phillips are also bona fide run stoppers which could prolong Akron’s problems from out of the backfield.
When Kent State has the ball
Let’s start out by throwing away everything about Kent State’s offensive performance last week. Faced against the best scoring defense in the country, the Golden Flashes clearly weren’t ready to challenge Wisconsin’s star-studded unit.
However, in Kent State’s prior game, the Golden Flashes were setting program records by moving the ball in a 62-20 win over Bowling Green. The 750 yards posted on the Falcons defense mark the best in school history. Kent State also scored over 60 points for the first time since the 2004 team dropped 69 on Eastern Michigan. Those 62 points are 40.5% of the Golden Flashes’ entire 2017 output, which is a testament to how Sean Lewis’ offense is redefining the program.
He’s tested the waters with two different quarterbacks, Dustin Crum and Woody Barrett. Barrett started the entirety of last season upon arriving on campus, but Crum — who has been taking snaps for Kent State since 2017 — received an opportunity and was the signal caller behind the dominant offensive showing against Bowling Green. Neither quarterback found success against Wisconsin, but Crum will likely retain his incumbency and get the starting nod against the Zips.
Crum is completing passes at a 71.3% rate, throwing five touchdowns and zero interceptions this season. In fact, Kent State is one of four FBS teams (Baylor, Utah, Georgia Southern) to not throw a single pick this season. Nearly half of all the Golden Flashes’ passes have been in the direction of Isaiah McKoy. The sophomore receiver has nearly triple the amount of receptions as the next closest wideout with 21, and he’s produced 301 yards and three touchdowns this year — notably scoring a 75-yard go-ahead touchdown in the second half of Kent State’s overtime win over Kennesaw State.
In the rushing game, Jo-El Shaw is the primary ball carrier with 60 rushes and 298 yards. But when Shaw isn’t running with the offense, freshman Joachim Bangda is taking over. Bangda broke out with 114 yards on seven carries against Bowling Green and he succeeded with eight yards per rush in limited action against a powerful Wisconsin defense.
Akron’s defense hasn’t taken over a game this year like it did last September when the Zips scored three defensive touchdowns in the second half to shock Northwestern in Evanston. Akron still owns a strong secondary, led by cornerback Alvin Davis and free safety Shawn Featherstone. Davis snatched four interceptions for 149 yards a year ago. His first still awaits, but it’ll only be a matter of time before the senior gets his hands on the pigskin. But meanwhile, he’s shined as a tackler with 31 tackles and 3.5 stops in the backfield.
Featherstone ranks fourth on the team and second in the secondary in tackles with 27. The senior safety returned an interception 40 yards against Troy, marking his third 40+ yard interception return in his Zips career.
Outside of the secondary, the Zips present a difficult matchup in inside linebacker John Lako. Lako led the front seven with 126 tackles a year ago and he’s well on his way to replicating that with 58 through five games this season. Lako posted a team-best 13 on Kent State last season, serving as the star of the defense which held the Flashes to just 17 points in regulation and zero in the fourth quarter.
Time and Date: Saturday, October 12 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: InfoCision Stadium — Akron, OH
Spread: Kent State (-14.5)
ESPN FPI: Kent State has 80.4% chance to win
All-time series: Akron leads, 35-24-2
Last meeting: Akron 24, Kent State 23 — October 18, 2018
Kent State and Akron’s 2018 matchup was a wild one. The second half was a glorified punting competition, and the game actually ended on nine consecutive punts. Both offenses suddenly came to life in overtime. Akron took just four plays to reach the end zone. Kent State did the same in two. The difference? Akron kicked the extra point, while Kent State botched the snap and improvised a 2-point conversion in attempt to salvage the disaster. The result was Akron hoisting the Wagon Wheel for the fourth consecutive year.
This isn’t your typical Kent State team. Yes, the Golden Flashes will still lose games 48-0 to Wisconsin but they wouldn’t drop one 42-3 to Illinois like Akron did. Kent State’s offense will suddenly revive against a winless defense allowing 38 points per game, and Jo-El Shaw should see his numbers flourish on the ground.
Kent State’s defense is well equipped to stop the Zips, especially in the running game. Nelson offers big-play potential at the quarterback position and occasionally can take over a game, but there are concerns considering his recent shoulder injury. In fact, the less-experienced Gibson might get the start when the Golden Flashes come to town.
Seeing Kent State as 14.5-point road favorites against an FBS team demonstrates the dramatic culture shift Lewis has brought to this program, and the Golden Flashes will capitalize with an easy win. Kent State still has Ohio, Miami (OH), and Buffalo to catch, but the Golden Flashes could very possibly start 2-0 in MAC play, which is quite a confidence builder.
Prediction: Kent State 38, Akron 17