- Time and Date: Saturday, November 27 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Dix Stadium — Kent, OH
- Spread: Kent State (-1)
- ESPN FPI: Miami (OH) has 55.0% chance to win
- All-time series: Miami (OH) leads, 50-17
- Last meeting: Miami (OH) 23, Kent State 16 — October 26, 2019
- Current streak: Miami (OH), 2 (2018-19)
Setting the scene
Win, and you’re in. The de facto MAC East championship game kicks off this Saturday.
Kent State (6-5, 5-2 MAC) looks to punch a ticket to Detroit for its first conference championship appearance since 2012. Miami (OH) (6-5, 5-2 MAC) aims to pull out a win on the road to return to the MAC title game for the second time in three seasons. This is the highest-stakes MAC regular season game of 2021, and an opportunity at championship hardware remains in tact for whichever squad emerges on top. MAC West champion Northern Illinois will be watching and waiting.
Miami RedHawks outlook
Miami (OH) is familiar with traversing the road to Detroit. Two years ago, Chuck Martin’s team bounced back from a 1-3 non-conference showing to finish 6-2 in league play and earn a spot in the MAC Championship. It’s déjà this year in Oxford, OH. After another 1-3 non-conference start, Miami is hitting its stride at the right moment. The RedHawks have locked up four victories in their last five showings, and they enter Dix Stadium playing their best football of 2021.
One area of improvement which launched Miami into a MAC title contender is the development of a potent passing attack. Quarterback Brett Gabbert suffered several injuries early in the season, but the third-year starter has bounced back to play quality football during the second half stretch. Gabbert’s last three contests have featured his highest passing totals of the season, peaking at 492 in a midweek matchup against Ohio.
Gabbert is equipped with one of the premier receiving corps in the MAC. Jack Sorenson headlines the group to check in at seventh in the FBS in receiving yards. The senior will play his final regular season game, hoping to continue his offensive tear of six consecutive games with 110 receiving yards. Sorenson isn’t alone in carrying Miami’s receiving production, which collectively ranks second in the MAC and 24th in the nation.
Mac Hippenhammer has attained over 60 yards in seven games this year, and he’s been a frequent end zone target as of late with four touchdowns in the RedHawks’ last three games. To round out the unit, Jalen Walker is producing some of his best performances this November. Two weeks ago, Walker racked up 136 receiving yards to lead Miami to a 45-point outburst vs. Buffalo — its best offensive showing of 2021. Sorenson, Hippenhammer, and Walker all get open downfield with regularity, which explains why Miami leads the FBS in 80-yard plays.
Miami’s run game hasn't been as lethal for the offense. The only times the team has broken 200 rushing yards this year transpired against 2-9 Akron and an FCS opponent. However, Kent State’s run defense has been porous and allows 188 yards per game on the ground. The RedHawks hope to counter this with a running back by committee, rotating Tyre Shelton, Keyon Mozee, among others.
On the defensive side, Miami has been stellar about applying pressure. The RedHawks rank 16th in the FBS in generating sacks, and they’re coming off a week where they recorded eight against Bowling Green. Most of the sacks stem from the defensive end spots, and the top three pass rushers on the team are all members of the front four. Lonnie Phelps leads the group with 7.5, Kameron Butler adds 7.0, and converted wide receiver Dominique Robinson has 4.5 on the season.
This defense is also stout in stifling the run, yielding the second fewest rushing yards in the MAC. The 2021 season has been a breakout campaign for outside linebacker Ivan Pace Jr., who meets opposing backfields at the line of scrimmage with regularity. Pace boasts a team-best 103 tackles and he is one of four RedHawks with at least nine tackles for loss. Another hard-hitter Kent State must be wary of is safety Sterling Weatherford. The RedHawks don’t produce turnovers at one of the higher rates in the MAC, but when they do, Weatherford is often involved. Weatherford picked off two passes and recovered a fumble this year, and the junior forced a turnover in each of his two previous meetings against the Golden Flashes.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
It’s senior day at Kent State and no senior has been more critical to the Golden Flashes’ recent run of success than chief signal caller Dustin Crum. The dual-threat quarterback is in the midst of another All-MAC campaign, securing MAC East Offensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts last Saturday. Crum rushed for a season-high 114 yards and two touchdowns, displaying his crafty running ability in Kent State’s up-tempo, RPO-based offense.
As a collective unit, Kent State totaled 410 rushing yards and four touchdowns in its trip to Akron. The Golden Flashes gain 242 yards on the ground per game, ranking third in the FBS and first among non-triple option scheme offenses. Marquez Cooper serves as the keystone of the run game, attaining 110+ yards in five of his 11 outings. Bryan Bradford and Xavier Williams are the thunder and lightning duo that provides additional versatility to complement the abilities of Cooper and Crum.
Through the air, Crum has been lethal when called upon to let it fly. Crum has four 300-yard passing performances under his belt in 2021, but the name of his game isn’t always yardage. It’s accuracy. Completing attempts above a 64 percent clip, Crum has taken care of the ball with near perfection this season. He hasn’t tossed an interception since the opener at Texas A&M, and he is currently in the midst of his third straight year tossing fewer than three picks.
Kent State’s passing game is also bolstered by depth in the receiving corps. Just like Miami, the Golden Flashes present a slew of receivers capable of changing the game with big play potential. No. 1 wideout Dante Cephas will be the main focus for the RedHawks’ secondary, as the speedster is 57 yards away from the 1,000-yard mark. Cephas is also the only Golden Flash to collect more than two touchdowns this year and he has seven, mainly originating from quick slant and fly routes. Keshunn Abram, Nykeim Johnson, and Ja’Shaun Poke operate as additional receiving threats in an aerial offense which ranked top 10 in production a season ago.
The Golden Flashes are renowned for their scoring ability, but not as much for stifling opponents. Kent State fired defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman after allowing 47 and 54 points in consecutive weeks, and cornerbacks coach C.J. Cox took over as the interim defensive coordinator prior to last Saturday. Cox’s first gameday at the helm featured an inspiring effort from his unit. Kent State forced two turnovers and stopped three Akron fourth down attempts to shut out the Zips, 38-0. Now, that effort must be sustained against a high-powered passing offense in order to keep MAC championship hopes alive.
Earlier in the season, Kent State was producing turnovers at an astronomical rate. The Golden Flashes still lead the country in turnover margin at +15, but the team needs to manufacture a more sustainable way to get stops. Only seven teams allow more passing yards per contest than the Golden Flashes, and the run defense ranks 105th in the FBS. Combine the two and Kent State is 123rd in the country in total defense. The seven teams below the Flashes are all bowl ineligible and combine for a record of 12-65, so the Flashes’ offense is able to make up for these alarming numbers.
One area of promise Kent State displayed on defense against Akron was the ability to get to the quarterback. The Golden Flashes produced six sacks and were led by dominant play from defensive tackle C.J. West. Another name to watch on the Kent State defense is A.J. Musolino. The inside linebacker is enjoying a breakthrough senior season as the team’s second leading tackler with 66. Musolino leads all Golden Flashes with 9.5 tackles for loss and also snagged an interception and fumble recovery in a havoc-raising season.
When it comes to interceptions, Kent State’s defensive backs are frequenters of that statistic. Elvis Hines, Montre Miller, and K.J. Sherald all have three interceptions on the season, and the Flashes corral picks more than any other team in the MAC. Forcing such turnovers will be an emphasis for this defense when it’s pitted against one of the nation’s most explosive passing attacks.
This is a tricky one to pick. Kent State’s warp-speed offense is electrifying and not many MAC teams succeed in limiting it. However, its defense continues to be a concern, as demonstrated in the lopsided losses to Western Michigan (64-31) and Central Michigan (54-30). If Kent State wants to prevent another one of these results, containing Miami star wide receiver Jack Sorenson and his home run play potential is essential.
When it rains, it pours for the Golden Flashes. In all five of the team’s losses this year, the margin of defeat has been at least 21 points. However, Kent State has prospered in closer games, faring 4-0 when the deficit is 10 points or fewer. Still, the Golden Flashes hold the potential to light up any team in the conference, and the foundation of the Flash Fast offense involves getting the run game going, so that will be the pathway to victory.
Miami doesn’t wind up on the wrong side of blowouts as often as Kent State. The RedHawks’ two MAC losses were by a combined three points. While Miami is more sporadic offensively because it isn’t as multidimensional as Kent State, the RedHawks make up for it by sporting one of the better defensive fronts in the MAC.
This game could be headed for shootout territory, and it’s a tough prediction, but I’ll pick the team that forces stops at a higher rate. Still, this de facto MAC East championship game seems destined to come down to the wire.
Prediction: Miami (OH) 38, Kent State 34