Kent State hasn’t experienced bowl season since 2012. Ball State hasn’t since 2013.
The Golden Flashes and Cardinals suffer the longest postseason droughts in the MAC as neither has gone bowling in the College Football Playoff era. In mid-October, Kent State and Ball State combined to start 5-0 in conference play and were at the top of their respective decisions. Time passed, chaos happened, but bowl eligibility isn’t out of the question for either team. However, the loser of Saturday’s game in Kent drops to 4-7, extending the unfavorable streak.
Previewing Kent State
Most of the talk after Week 12 focused on Oklahoma’s 25-point comeback against Baylor in College GameDay’s featured matchup of the week. While that improbable finish was deservingly the chatter of the sport, Kent State completed an equally-impressive comeback Thursday night of the same week. Trailing Buffalo 27-6, Kent State began roaring back from the deficit in the mid-fourth quarter. In less than three minutes (from the 7:39 mark to 4:52 remaining), the Golden Flashes scored three touchdowns to tie the game at 27-27. A clock-expiring Matthew Trickett field goal capped off an impressive 24 points in under eight minutes, sealing a 30-27 Kent State win.
The Golden Flashes have been competitive with each MAC opponent this season, either losing by one possession or emerging victorious in every conference outing. Thursday night’s win over Buffalo was a program-boosting win, as it will serve as the Golden Flashes’ first win over a bowl eligible team since 2016. Facing a second-straight week at home, Sean Lewis’ team hopes to win back-to-back games for the first time since 2013.
Much of Kent State’s revolution lies within the offense. Quarterback Dustin Crum has developed into one of the conference’s best quarterbacks. The junior is the most accurate passer in the MAC and possesses an incredible touchdown-to-interception ratio of 15-2 this season. Last week was one of his rougher performances of the season, but he still managed two fourth quarter touchdown passes in the rabid comeback effort.
Kent State’s offense continues to shift to a more pass-heavy attack in the Lewis era. Crum is the team’s leading rusher with just 408 yards, but much of the Flashes’ offense is produced through the air by Crum’s primary receiving targets. Isaiah McKoy, Mike Carrigan, Kavious Price, and Antawn Dixon each have more than 25 receptions and 200 receiving yards on the season. McKoy leads the group with 40 catches and 525 yards, while Carrigan has a team-high five touchdown receptions.
On the Golden Flashes’ defense, Cepeda Phillips has emerged as one of the best havoc-causers on the unit. The inside linebacker has registered two sacks and 69 tackles, totaling 25 in his last two times on the field. The run defense has otherwise struggled, ranking 128th in the country in yards allowed per game. However, the secondary — led by the cornerback duo of Jamal Parker and Elvis Hines — is one of the more improved units in the country. Kent State is 38th in passing yards allowed per contest, but forcing turnovers has been an issue, as only four teams intercept fewer passes in the FBS than Kent State.
Previewing Ball State
There was a time where it seemed like a bizarre scenario had to occur for Ball State NOT to wind up in Detroit for the MAC Championship. The Cardinals took down Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, and decimated Toledo by 38 points to start 3-0 in MAC play. But since dominating the Rockets, Ball State has not found such luck. The Cardinals are 0-3 in their last three matchups, including brutal last-minute losses to Western Michigan and Central Michigan.
The Broncos scored a go-ahead touchdown with 65 seconds left on Ball State in a midweek MACtion showdown on Nov. 5, and in the following game, Ball State blew a 17-point second half lead to the Chippewas and allowed a go-ahead touchdown with 61 seconds remaining.
Ball State’s defense has taken a step back lately, allowing 495 yards to Central Michigan, 506 to Western Michigan, and 447 to Ohio amid the losing streak. After struggling to stop the run against the Bobcats and Broncos, the Cardinals were exposed by Central Michigan’s heavy air attack in the 45-44 home loss on Saturday. The Cardinals will need a repeat of their defensive performance against Toledo — which included winning the turnover battle 3-1 and limiting the Rockets to 42% completions — if they hope to remain in play for bowl season.
Offensively, the Cardinals remain in great shape. Quarterback Drew Plitt delivered one of his best performances in weeks as he threw for three touchdowns and 268 yards last Saturday. Meanwhile, the two running backs, Walter Fletcher and Caleb Huntley, surged over the 100-yard rushing mark as the offense exploded for 44 points. Ball State’s 29th ranked rushing offense is a solid unit in a conference which is loaded with elite running back talent, and the Cardinals hold a lopsided edge over Kent State in that regard. Fletcher and Huntley join to create a formidable duo which could present problems to Kent State’s porous rushing defense. The receiving corps of Justin Hall, Riley Miller, Antwan Davis, and Yo’Heinz Tyler are also major contributors to the offense, each producing at least 20 receptions and 200 yards this season — a similar, balanced receiving unit to that of Kent State’s.
The battle to remain bowl eligible transpires at Kent State, but Ball State has witnessed road success this season, earning conference wins in DeKalb over Northern Illinois and Ypsilanti over Eastern Michigan.
Time and Date: Saturday, November 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Dix Stadium — Kent, OH
Spread: Ball State (-3)
ESPN FPI: Ball State has 54.0% chance to win
All-time series: Ball State leads, 21-7
Last meeting: Ball State 52, Kent State 24 — September 29, 2018
Kent State’s last win over Ball State occurred in 2012, but the teams have only met on the field twice since — 2013 and 2018. Former Ball State (and current Vanderbilt) quarterback Riley Neal dropped over 400 passing yards and four touchdowns on the Kent State defense in last year’s 28-point rout.
This game is about as 50/50 as it gets in the MAC. Several MAC games this week appeared evenly matched, such as Northern Illinois-Eastern Michigan and Buffalo-Toledo, but none of those contests produced the tight finishes we expected. Saturday’s lone MAC game should be a close, high-scoring shootout. Kent State earns the benefit of home-field advantage and aims to build on an incredible comeback from last week, while Ball State hopes to forget its massive blown lead.
With bowl eligibility on the line for both teams, I’ll pick Ball State to emerge on top due to impressive rushing performances by Caleb Huntley and Walter Fletcher. However, with Crum anchoring the offense, Kent State will keep this one real close, like it has done in many conference games this year.
Prediction: Ball State 41, Kent State 38