An in-state rivalry resumes at Peden Stadium this Saturday, but for the 2019 season, there’s a different feel to the matchup.
For years, head coach Frank Solich has built a consistent MAC contender in Athens and his Ohio Bobcats have completed 10-straight seasons of finishing .500 or better — with five of those seasons featuring nine wins or more. In a conference which often features cyclical trends and teams rising and falling as the coach carousel turns, Ohio has established a separate identity as a perennial winner.
Much like Ohio, Kent State hasn’t given into the cyclical nature of the conference. An outlier 11-3 season in 2012 marks the Golden Flashes’ only winning season in the past 19 years. Kent State has endured winning 25% of their games or fewer every season since 2014, but the program attempted to shift its direction by hiring Syracuse co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Sean Lewis, prior to the 2018 season.
Given the recent histories of the programs, both Ohio-based teams have witnessed atypical results halfway through the 2019 regular season. Preseason conference favorite Ohio (2-4, 1-1 MAC) suffered an 0-3 non-conference result when pitted against other FBS teams and the Bobcats dropped a brutal home loss to a struggling Northern Illinois team last Saturday. Meanwhile, Kent State (3-3, 2-0 MAC) is the lone undefeated team in conference play in the MAC East and is currently 3-0 against unranked teams this season. The Golden Flashes have yet to play anybody outside the best 25 and worst 25 teams in college football, so Saturday will serve as a valuable measuring stick for both programs.
Despite the 2-4 record, Ohio remains dangerous in every game, due to having the most electric dual-threat quarterback in the conference on the roster. Senior Nathan Rourke hasn’t reached his level of play of the 2018, but he bounced back from a pair of rough games for a historic performance last week.
Rourke became the first player in 2019 to score a touchdown by passing, rushing, and receiving in a game, recording 340 total yards and four combined touchdowns in a 39-36 loss to Northern Illinois. It was the second game this year where Rourke dominated but the defense allowed more than 30 points in a loss. Earlier in Week 3 against Marshall, Rourke passed for 215 yards and three touchdowns, ran for 118 yards including a 72-yard rushing touchdown, but the Bobcats fell 33-31.
But when Rourke wasn’t at his best, the defense delivered. Ohio’s defense stepped up by holding Pitt out of the end zone in the second half of a 20-10 loss and by limiting Buffalo to 14 points in regulation in a 1-point overtime win. The key to beating Kent State is to finally have both Rourke and the defense having their way concurrently — a frequent occurrence during the Bobcats’ 6-1 finish to 2018.
After ranking ninth in the country last season, the Bobcats are 65th in rushing offense halfway through the 2019 regular season. Ohio is averaging 1.3 fewer yards per attempt, clearly missing the production A.J. Ouellette provided them over the past few years. Kent State fields the second-worst rushing defense in college football, although that dismal ranking is strongly associated with the fact that the Golden Flashes faced both preseason AP All-American running backs, Jonathan Taylor and Eno Benjamin. Still, O’Shaan Allison is aiming for his first 100-yard game of his career and Ohio has the favorable matchup in the trenches Saturday.
Any returning Kent State player remembers the 2018 Ohio game as the one that got away. Last October, the Golden Flashes held a 23-14 lead entering the fourth quarter at Dix Stadium. Kent State remained in front until the final 90 seconds, when Rourke rushed for an 8-yard score to scrap the upset bid.
This year’s Kent State team is even better than the one which nearly stunned Ohio, and it starts with a more cohesive offense. In Kent State’s MAC opener, it shattered a program record by racking up 750 yards on Bowling Green, dominating the Falcons in a 62-20 final. Considering Bowling Green limited the potent offense of Toledo to just seven points, what Sean Lewis’ offense accomplished that day is no small feat for the rising program.
Dustin Crum has emerged as the conference’s breakout player this season. Crum’s completion percentage of 72.2% is sixth highest among quarterbacks of 100 passing attempts, and he’s thrown for 874 yards and six touchdowns — all without an interception. Kent State is one of three FBS teams yet to throw a single pick, and the Flashes’ ability to make smart plays and commit fewer than one turnover per game has progressed the offense to a new level.
Crum’s emergence has promoted the growth of wide receiver Isaiah McKoy. As Kent State’s top target, McKoy is third among MAC wide receivers in yards with 381. He’s caught four of the Flashes’ 10 touchdown passes this season. Another skill position player excelling in the Flash Fast offense is running back Jo-El Shaw. Shaw missed last week for undisclosed reasons, but upon return, his 5.0 yards per carry could play a major factor against a rushing defense allowing nearly 200 yards on the ground per outing.
Last week, albeit against the worst team in the FBS, Kent State’s defense made a statement by allowing just three points in a 26-3 win at Akron. The unit sacked the Zips four teams and limited them to under 90 rushing yards, building confidence in a defense which was understandably rattled in a 48-0 shutout at Wisconsin.
Time and Date: Saturday, October 19 at 12 p.m. ET
Network: CBS SN
Location: Peden Stadium — Athens, OH
Spread: Ohio (-7.5)
ESPN FPI: Ohio has 60.8% chance to win
All-time series: Ohio leads, 44-25-2
Last meeting: Ohio 27, Kent State 26 — October 6, 2018
Ohio has won five-straight meetings over Kent State. Frank Solich is 9-5 in the series and won the last game in Athens, 48-3.
Every week, it seems like Ohio is destined to right ship and contend for that 2019 MAC title. It didn't happen despite home-field advantage over a struggling opponent last week. Ohio’s offense finally clicked thanks to a strong performance by Rourke, and that’s what they’ll need this Saturday.
While Kent State dominated Bowling Green and Akron en route to a 2-0 start in the MAC, the Golden Flashes haven't beaten an opponent the caliber of Ohio yet. Kent State’s improving defense should keep this one close for a while, but at the end of the day, it’ll be the Bobcats re-claiming first place in the MAC East.
Prediction: Ohio 31, Kent State 23