For the first time in what seems like forever, Kent State enters a football season with momentum. Coming off of last years’ 51-41 victory over Utah State in the Frisco Bowl, the Golden Flashes enter 2020 with confidence and a sense of purpose, and there is a feeling that the program is on the cusp of a breakthrough. What has to happen this year for Sean Lewis and company to take the next step and challenge for the conference crown? Let’s break it down.
Can Dustin Crum keep it up?
Crum came out of nowhere last year to be one of the best QB’s in the Group of Five and was a major reason for Kent State’s late season turnaround. Crum finished the year with 2,622 yards, 20 TD’s, and 2 INT’s, while completing 69.2% of his passes. While those numbers may be impressive, the way he finished the season over the last four games (including the bowl victory) are even more eye popping: 1,020 yards, 7 TD’s, 1 INT, and 72% completion. That span also included two 100 yard rushing performances and 4 TD’s on the ground. Crum really hit his stride at the end of the year, and any success the Flashes will have this year will start with him. If Crum can continue to play at this high level, and if the offensive line can get better in pass protection, Kent State has a real chance to make it to Ford Field. Speaking of the offensive line…
Can the offensive line keep Dustin Crum upright?
Something else that makes Crum’s success last year so impressive is that he did it in spite of his offensive line. In 11 starts, Crum was sacked 38 times. Combine that abuse with the hits that Crum takes in the run game, and injuries start to become a concern. Now, it’s not all bad news up front for the Golden Flashes: three starters return from last year, and Kent was very good in run blocking situations, averaging 186.7 yards per game on the ground. Sean Lewis has always been vocal about establishing the run game, and I don’t think that will be an issue for the Flashes this year. Keeping their QB healthy may be though, and any chance Kent State has of winning the MAC East starts with keeping Crum on his feet and giving him time in the pocket. Has the offensive line developed to the point that they’ll be able to provide that? Only time will tell.
Can the run defense improve?
There weren’t many bright spots for Kent State on defense last year. However, the run defense was especially troubling. The Golden Flashes gave up 244.7 yards per game on the ground and 5.1 yards per carry, both of which were in the bottom 15 in the FBS. This must improve if Kent State wants to be taken seriously as a contender in the conference, especially considering the run heavy schemes employed by divisional rivals Buffalo, Miami, and Ohio. The good news is that three starting LB’s return from last years defense. Cepeda Phillips, and Mandela Lawrence-Burke were the top two tacklers on the team last year, and will be leaned upon to help cover up the loss of last years sack leader, DT Theo Majette. With the veteran leadership of Phillips, Lawrence-Burke, and fellow senior LB Kesean Gamble, DC Tom Kaufman hopes to see an improvement in several areas this season.
Can the Flashes build on the momentum from last year?
This last point is more of a “big picture” question for the program. As I mentioned in my season preview article, success is something that has historically been very hard to sustain for the Kent State football program. The last time the Flashes put together back to back winning seasons was 1976-1977, and can claim only 3 winning seasons since then. That is an astounding run of bad football, and any success in the meantime has proved to be fleeting. Darrell Hazell led the Flashes to a 11-1 record and MAC Championship game birth in 2012, only to leave that offseason for Purdue and see the Flashes backslide to 4-8 the following season. Last years bowl victory over Utah State was the first in program history, and for the first time in a long time, things seem to be trending in the right direction for the program. Building upon last years’ success and turning in another winning record this year would be a great sign that, this time around, Kent State’s success is more sustainable.