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2019 Week 1 MAC Preview: Kent State Golden Flashes @ Arizona State Sun Devils

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Sean Lewis opens year two in the Valley of the Sun against Herm Edwards.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 Kent State at Bowling Green Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Kent State kicked off year one of the Sean Lewis era, immediate improvement was on full display. The Golden Flashes kicked off their 2018 campaign at Illinois with a 17-3 lead at halftime. But things fell apart, not just that afternoon, but for the entire season. Lewis’ first season at the helm resulted in another 2-10 record. But the hope still lingers as 2019 approaches.

Year two begins Thursday night in the dry heat of Tempe, Arizona. Lewis, the youngest head coach in FBS at 33 years old, is pitted against the 65-year old NFL veteran coach Herm Edwards. Although Lewis and Edwards seem like polar opposites on the surface, both coaches are more similar than you’d expect. Lewis and Edwards are both entering their second season as FBS head coaches after repeating the same record as the school’s previous head coach in year one (2-10 for Kent State, 7-6 for Arizona State).


Comparing the Offenses

Arizona State enters the matchup at home and as heavy favorites, but Kent State has plenty of experience playing in its favor. For one, the Golden Flashes will play incumbent starter Woody Barrett at quarterback. Barrett revitalized Kent State’s typically-run heavy offense last year by throwing for 2,339 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Auburn transfer has dual-threat capabilities, as demonstrated by his 503 rushing yards last year. He’s evasive in the pocket, has a cannon arm, and is the most talented quarterback Kent State’s campus has seen in years.

On the other sideline is a true freshman quarterback. Jayden Daniels was named the Sun Devils’ starter several weeks ago to replace graduated three-year starter Manny Wilkins. Daniels was labeled a 4-star dual-threat QB prospect, throwing for 4,515 yards and 60 touchdowns as a senior at Cajon High School (CA) with 1,536 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. The Golden Flashes have no collegiate film on the true freshman, but one offensive player they have plenty of film on is one of the most dangerous in the nation.

Running back Eno Benjamin was named a Preseason AP All-American after posting absurd numbers in 2018. Benjamin ranked fifth in the FBS with 1,642 rushing yards, averaging 5.5 per carry. The 5’10” back rushed for 100 yards on nine occasions last season, reaching the 175-yard mark four times, and topping out at 312 against Oregon State. Kent State’s run defense (ranked 114th in yards per game in 2018) will have to key on the senior, who had more touches from scrimmage than any other player in the country. Benjamin is often utilized as a target on screens as well, catching 35 passes for 263 yards in 2018.

Utah v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Kent State’s primary running back is Jo-El Shaw who saw plenty of action despite only recording four starts in 2018. At 6’1” and 230 pounds, Shaw possesses more size and power than most college backs, but he also exhibits an impressive degree of speed. Shaw averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season, totaling 657 yards and seven touchdowns. Not only does Shaw return to the offense, but Kent State retains all three of its leading receivers from a year ago.

Mike Carrigan, Antwan Dixon, and Isaiah McKoy all received substantial playing time on offense last year, each recording between 42 and 52 receptions. Carrigan led the trio with 597 receiving yards and five touchdowns and will likely be matched up against Arizona State’s top cornerback Chase Lucas (3 interceptions, 5 passes defended, 6 TFLs in 2018). Kent State will have to rely on a concerted effort from the trio and a solid, mistake-free passing game from Barrett in order to compete with Arizona State’s explosive offense.

While the Sun Devils lost first round NFL talent in N’Keal Harry at wide receiver, the team still possesses Brandon Aiyuk, Kyle Williams, and Frank Darby in its spread offense. All three of these receivers surpassed 400 receiving yards last season in Herm Edwards’ offense.

Arizona State is operating under second-year offensive coordinator Rob Likens. He runs plenty of spread formations on offense, but unlike many air raid offenses, Arizona State boasts an impressive power running game with Benjamin as the centerpiece. Kent State’s offense moves at a much faster pace than Arizona State’s though. After using an option-based, ground heavy offense in the Paul Haynes era, Sean Lewis implemented the Flash Fast offense which features frequent no-huddles and minimal clock time between plays. Arizona State’s defense will be challenged with keeping up with the scheme, which may be the Sun Devils’ toughest adjustment Thursday.


Defensive Standouts

Arizona State’s defense was average by many standards a season ago. The Sun Devils finished 53rd in the FBS allowing 25.5 points per game and yielded an average of 405.4 yards per contest. Arizona State runs a 3-3-5 defense, using an extra nickelback to assist in the secondary.

The man to watch in the secondary, as mentioned before, is cornerback Chase Lucas. Lucas was a standout cornerback with three interceptions and five passes defended as a sophomore and is a force of a tackler as well. Safety Aashari Crosswell additionally poses a threat in zone coverage, recording team-highs in interceptions with four, passes defended with nine, and interception return yards with 103.

The pass rush is spearheaded by the two sophomore outside linebackers. Merlin Robertson lines up on one side, where he contributed a Sun Devil-best 77 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 5.0 sacks last season. The other outside backer is Tyler Johnson, fresh off a 4.0 sack, 8.0 tackles for loss campaign.

For Kent State, which fielded one of the worst defenses in the FBS a season ago (116th in opponent points per game), the strength of the unit is found at the inside linebacker position. Returning starters Matt Bahr and Cepeda Phillips are two of the team’s best run stoppers and will be tasked with slowing down Benjamin’s night. Bahr accumulated 91 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss to rank first on the Golden Flashes in 2018 after seldom on-field action in his first three seasons. Phillips also enjoyed a breakout year while transitioning into a starter, finishing fifth on the team with 49 tackles.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 15 Toledo at Kent State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Golden Flashes will work with a less-experienced defensive line after losing nose tackle Kalil Morris. The secondary, however, features three returning starters from last season. The cornerbacks Jamal Parker and Elvis Hines combined for three picks and 14 passes defended, while safety K.J. Sherald recorded 90 tackles and defended six passes.


Game Notes

Time and Date: Thursday, August 29 at 10 p.m. ET

Network: Pac-12 Network

Location: Sun Devil Stadium — Tempe, AZ

Spread: Arizona State (-24.5)

ESPN FPI: Arizona State has 95.6% chance to win

All-time series: No previous matchups


Prediction

Kent State hasn’t won a non-conference game against an FBS team since 2014 when the Golden Flashes toppled Army, 39-17. To find a road non-conference win for Kent State, you’ll have to travel back to 2012 when Kent State defeated No. 18 Rutgers 35-23 in the midst of an 11-win season.

Arizona State has won 20 consecutive openers at Sun Devil Stadium, dating back to the second year of the BCS era. The majority of these openers have been against FCS opponents, but Kent State seems to have finally gained separation from the lower division in the Sean Lewis era as evidenced by the team’s 40-point win over Howard last September.

The key to this game for Kent State lies on the defensive side of the ball. If the Golden Flashes can record early stops and keep this game close as they did with Illinois and Ole Miss for three quarters last fall, they’ll give themselves a fighting chance. Kent State allowed just three first half points to the Fighting Illini and seven to the Rebels before fourth quarter collapses, but Arizona State presents a dynamic offense with the best running back Kent State’s defense has seen in quite some time.

Applying pressure up the middle and containing Jayden Daniels from the outsides should be a focus for Kent State’s defensive line. Forcing Daniels to remain in the box and win the game with his arm could prove to be an advantageous strategy for Kent State. But foremost, stopping Eno Benjamin from picking up five yards a carry and limiting the run game remains the Golden Flashes’ primary calling.

Benjamin will likely have a field day on the ground and Arizona State will keep him on the bench in the latter part of the second half to prepare him for Michigan State and experiment with the rest of the depth chart. Arizona State dominated UTSA in the 2018 home opener, 49-7. This game should play out similarly, but Woody Barrett has potential to lead Kent State’s hyperspeed offense to a few more points.

Prediction: Arizona State 41, Kent State 17