Since 2004, the Wisconsin Badgers have landed in the final AP Poll 12 times with nine 10-game win seasons scattered throughout. In the same time span, Kent State has only experienced one winning season and one bowl game, while winning three or fewer games seven times — including each of the past five years.
The programs contrast greatly in their recent history, but the field they’ll be competing on this Saturday is the same. Kent State will enter Madison as long-shot underdogs in hopes of upsetting the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers.
How Wisconsin and Kent State got here
Wisconsin has already taken care of a MAC team this season, and it didn’t fare well for Kent State’s conference brethren. Central Michigan was completely unmatched, allowing the Badgers to cruise to a 61-0 shutout in Week 2. In fact, this Wisconsin team scored 145 unanswered points on opponents to usher in the season and climbed from No. 19 to No. 8 in the AP Poll in a matter of three games. The Badgers blasted Michigan in Week 3, creating a 35-0 lead before taking the foot off the gas in the late third quarter. In a follow-up act, Wisconsin trudged past a scrappy Northwestern team — one that stole the Big Ten West from the Badgers in 2018 — to secure its third 4-0 start in four years.
Now it’s Kent State’s turn to have a shot at Paul Chryst’s powerhouse. In Sean Lewis’ second year with the program, the Golden Flashes have already matched their win total from each of the past two seasons with two-thirds of their schedule still in play. Kent State required a comeback and an overtime period to squeak by FCS Kennesaw State. But in the conference opener, the Flashes unloaded their best all-around performance in years on rival Bowling Green. Kent State shattered a program record with 750 yards of offense (perfectly split between passing and rushing at 375 apiece) and rolled to a 62-20 victory over the Falcons.
The offensive outburst was a far cry from Kent State’s other three performances, but Lewis’ quick “Flash Fast” scheme seems to finally be gaining ground. Kent State faces one of the more brutal non-conference schedules in the FBS this year. Outside of its FCS opponent, all three of its matchups (Arizona State, Auburn, Wisconsin) are currently in the AP Top 25 and two sit in the Top 10. And the Flashes impressed defensively against the first two powers, holding Arizona State to a 10-0 halftime lead and trailing Auburn 24-10 at the break.
The atmosphere at Camp Randall Stadium will be a familiar sight for Lewis, as the young head coach is a Badger football alum. Lewis played tight end for Wisconsin in the mid-2000s, catching one pass in the red and white.
When Wisconsin has the ball
Wisconsin’s identity has always lived within the offensive line and the running back. The Badgers have the most prolific rusher in college football history in former Heisman winner Ron Dayne, who compiled a record 7,125 in the last four years of the 90s. The current halfback may not reach Dayne, but there’s no doubt he’ll be high on the charts when he graduates from the program after the season.
Jonathan Taylor has finished top 10 in Heisman voting each of the past two seasons and currently ranks 42nd on the all-time rushing list. With 170 more yards, the senior hits the 5,000 mark and situates himself in the top 25 running backs in history. His 139.8 yards per game are second in the FBS and his eight rushing touchdowns in four outings rank fifth nationally. Taylor destroys offenses with a handful of consistent, decent pickups, but always has the potential to go nuclear on a run. In the first quarter of the Michigan game, Taylor did just that, sprinting 72 yards for a touchdown.
Kent State already faced an electric back in Eno Benjamin when it faced Arizona State. The Flashes guard the run at a below-average level, sporting the 114th ranked rushing defense in the country. Benjamin only posted 4.6 yards per carry on the unit, but containing Auburn’s backfield was a tough task for Kent State. Three different Auburn rushers surpassed the 100-yard mark in the Tigers’ 55-16 stampede over the Flashes.
Inside linebacker Matt Bahr will be one of the key Kent State players assigned to limit Taylor’s production Saturday. Bahr leads the team with three tackles in the backfield this season, accumulating 26 total. But Bahr and the linebacking crew are pitted up against one of the elite offensive lines in all of college football. Led by center Tyler Biadasz, the line features four players of 310 pounds or greater, and the size and strength advantage shows on the field.
Wisconsin even utilized a formation called the “hippo” package against Northwestern where eight linemen took the field. The unique assembly of over 2,500 pounds of linemen proved more than effective in short yardage and goal line situations, and it’s likely something Chryst will continue to turn to if teams can’t offer a counter.
The quarterback behind all the linemen is junior Jack Coan. Wisconsin isn’t renowned for great quarterback play, but Coan has upgraded his game from last season, completing 73.7% of his passes with 805 yards through four starts. He’s already matched his touchdown total with five while tossing just one interception. Coan’s top target, wide receiver Quintez Cephus, leads the team with 14 receptions and 235 yards and will draw Kent State cornerback Jamal Parker in coverage. Parker has 19 tackles and a pair of picks this year, emerging as the top dog in an improving Kent State secondary.
When Kent State has the ball
Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum showed the nation a new version of himself against Bowling Green. Crum completed 26-of-31 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns in the 62-20 win, solidifying his role as the starter going forward. Crum took over in place of the team’s primary quarterback in 2018, Woody Barrett. Crum primarily functioned as a run-first quarterback before this season, but he’s developing nicely in the pocket.
The Flashes run game received a recent boost too with freshman running back Joachim Bangda exploding for over 100 yards in his last outing. Jo-El Shaw is still holding down the fort in the backfield, also passing the century mark against the Falcons with a season-high 109 yards. Wide receiver Isaiah McKoy has created 288 yards of production from the receiving department, and he leads the Flashes with three receiving touchdowns.
Wisconsin’s defense notably allowed zero points through its first ten halves before allowing Michigan a pair of garbage time touchdowns in Madison. Outside linebacker Zack Baun has been a breakout prospect propelling a traditionally stout defense. Baun has 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, and he’s one of many star linebackers in the unit. Inside linebacker Chris Orr has also chipped in a pair of sacks, totaling 18 tackles in the star-studded defense.
The Badgers currently boast the top run defense in the FBS, the eighth best passing defense, and the number one scoring defense. To say the Flashes will have a challenge moving the ball against the Badgers’ defense is an understatement.
Time and Date: Saturday, October 5 at 12 p.m. ET
Location: Camp Randall Stadium — Madison, WI
Spread: Wisconsin (-36)
ESPN FPI: Wisconsin has 97.6% chance to win
All-time series: No previous matchups
This one shouldn’t require much thought. Kent State is vastly improved, but the Golden Flashes won’t get the opportunity to show their progress against the No. 8 team in the country. Jonathan Taylor will eclipse the century mark once again in his Heisman campaign, and the Badgers will leave no doubt in Camp Randall.
Prediction: Wisconsin 52, Kent State 3