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2021 MAC Football Championship Game Preview: Kent State Golden Flashes

It’s been 49 years since Kent State’s only MAC title. The Golden Flashes need to beat Northern Illinois a second time in order to recapture the hardware.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Miami OH at Kent State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Kent State Golden Flashes (7-5, 6-2 MAC) are MAC East champions. Kent State’s conference title hopes came down to a single play in overtime against Miami (OH), but the Golden Flashes prevailed in a 48-47 thriller. Awaiting Kent State for the MAC Championship Game is a familiar foe in Northern Illinois.

Not only are the two programs well-acquainted after a thrilling November 3 matchup on national television. Kent State’s only other MAC title game appearance transpired in 2012, and Northern Illinois was on the other side. In the highest-stakes conference championship in league history — as an Orange Bowl appearance was on the line — the Huskies edged the Golden Flashes, 44-37 in double overtime.

Thus, Kent State still remains in search of its first and only conference championship since 1972. Let’s take a look how the Golden Flashes punched a ticket to Detroit for the first time in nearly a decade.


The journey

2021 featured the most anticipated season of Kent State football, arguably in the sport’s history. The 2020 Kent State team was one of significant intrigue. Despite playing just four games due to an abbreviated pandemic season, Kent State led the FBS in scoring with 49.8 points per game while ranking among the country’s top 10 in rushing offense and passing offense alike. Attaining a 3-1 record with an electrifying, up-tempo scheme branded as the “Flash Fast” offense, Kent State generated more excitement heading into this year than the program ever warranted in prior regimes.

It didn’t take long for head coach Sean Lewis to erase Kent State’s status as a perennial doormat. When Lewis took over as the FBS’s youngest head coach in 2018, the Golden Flashes enjoyed just three winning seasons since 1980. Lewis’ massive rebuilding effort was well ahead of schedule and he delivered a Frisco Bowl victory by year two — Kent State’s first bowl win in program history.

The Golden Flashes entered 2021 having won seven of their last eight games and were rewarded with the designation of MAC East favorites during MAC Media Day in July. Kent State lived up to the expectation, as the team is slated to face Northern Illinois this Saturday in Detroit in a rematch of the 2012 MAC Championship Game. But this season wasn’t without its fair share of adversity.

Kent State scheduled a grueling non-conference lineup, featuring three road games at Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland. Each outing delivered a similar script — the Golden Flashes showed promise in the first half, they moved the ball but struggled to finish drives, and the game slipped out of reach in the second half. Kent State lost all three games by three scores by an average margin of 25 points. Sandwiched in between the visits was a much-needed respite against VMI of the FCS, a 60-10 result which proved the potency of Kent State’s offense when not pitted against some of the FBS’s elite-tier defenses.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Kent State at Maryland
Kent State was 1-3 following a 37-16 loss to Maryland, but the Golden Flashes responded with a 6-2 record in MAC play.
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Lewis’ squad opened conference play against an up-and-coming Bowling Green squad which was fresh off a win at Minnesota. Although the Falcons made things difficult for Kent State’s offense, the Flashes ultimately prevailed to win the Anniversary Award and record their first FBS win of 2021. The offense regained its footing one week later when the team avenged its lone defeat of 2020. Seasoned quarterback Dustin Crum recorded a career-high in passing as Kent State outlasted Buffalo in a 48-38 shootout.

Kent State corrected its mistakes from non-conference play to improve to 3-3, but that .500 status wouldn’t last long. The Golden Flashes traveled to Kalamazoo for what many thought could be a MAC Championship Game preview. Once again, a similar storyline from non-conference play unfolded. Kent State hung around in the first half, but the Broncos piled on 41 second half points compared to the Flashes’ 14, and Western Michigan walked away with a 64-31 blowout victory.

The Golden Flashes recovered with another two-game win streak. Kent State knocked off Ohio by a touchdown to revert to .500 territory. Then, the team crossed the threshold in a wild Wednesday game against Northern Illinois — a matchup which will transpire once more, but with higher stakes. In that game, Kent State routinely scored in sub-two minute drives and exploded for 31 second quarter points. Two running backs stormed over the century mark as the team totaled 360 rushing yards en route to a 52-47 victory. However, the defense allowing an NIU-record 532 passing yards kept the contest close and brought up some defensive concerns.

Those concerns would be magnified one week later. After jumping to a quick 14-0 lead over Central Michigan, disaster struck in a multitude of ways. Kent State allowed four second quarter touchdowns and the defense could not contain the Chippewas through the air or ground. Central Michigan won in 54-30 fashion, signifying Kent State’s fifth and final loss of the regular season. All five losses featured margins ranging from 21 to 33 points, averaging at 26.4.

Kent State addressed the defensive woes by firing defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman, who was a member of Lewis’ initial staff in 2018. The issues were rectified instantly, as Kent State recorded the only shutout of the season between MAC teams. Holding Akron to 2.4 yards per rush and 5.3 yards per pass, bowl eligibility was clinched in a 38-0 rout. To go one step further and clinch the MAC East, everything would come down to one game.

In their home of Dix Stadium, the Golden Flashes faced 2019 MAC champion Miami (OH) for a Detroit-or-bust game. The game lived up to the hype in every possible manner. The offenses combined for 1,191 yards and four quarters wasn’t even a substantial amount of time to determine the holder of the MAC East crown. In overtime, Kent State struck first to secure a 48-41 lead. But Miami only needed one play to respond with an end zone appearance. The RedHawks opted to gamble for a 2-point attempt, and their conference championship came down to one play.

Miami targeted star receiver Jack Sorenson on a slant, but cornerback Montre Miller jumped the route and broke up the pass. Kent State escaped in 48-47 fashion, and the Golden Flashes justified their status as preseason division favorites. Now, Kent State is one win away from its first MAC title in 49 years.


Players to watch

Kent State’s recent success is synonymous with head coach Sean Lewis, and his mastermind offense. But behind every prosperous coach is an architect making plays for that offense. That architect is Dustin Crum, a longtime quarterback who had been taking snaps for the Golden Flashes since 2017. Sometimes the term dual threat quarterback is applied to mobile quarterbacks, regardless of their throwing ability. But Crum is the definition of a dual threat quarterback.

As a passer, Crum’s calling card is his accuracy. He connected on 69.2 percent of attempts in 2019 and increased that number to 73.5 percent in 2020. While that rate dipped to 65.0 percent this season, Crum continued to make smart decisions when winding up the arm. He tossed four combined interceptions in 2019 and 2020. This season, the senior continued his interception-averse ways by starting 10 consecutive contests without throwing a single pick. Crum surpassed the 300-yard mark five times including a career-best 407 yards in a win over Buffalo.

As a runner, he is the quintessential fit for Kent State’s RPO-heavy offense. The zone read specialist accumulated 565 yards on the ground this year, adding 11 touchdowns to his résumé by means of his legs — tied for fourth in the FBS among quarterbacks.

Crum is just one of many pieces in Kent State’s high-powered rushing attack, which ranks first in the country when excluding triple option-based service academy offenses. Marquez Cooper became the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2012 by collecting 110+ yards in half of the 12-game regular season schedule. Xavier Williams served as a viable complement with a pair of 100-yard outings including a 168-yard outburst in the MAC East clincher vs. Miami.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 NIU at Kent State
Marquez Cooper set his season-high in rushing yards against MAC West champion Northern Illinois. He attained 173 yards and two touchdowns in a midweek MACtion victory.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Another key cog which helped keep Kent State’s offense multidimensional was breakout wide receiver Dante Cephas. One question heading into 2020 asked who the Golden Flashes would turn to in the absence of departed wideout Isaiah McKoy. The lightning-quick Cephas filled that void as one of 30 FBS receivers to eclipse the 1,000-yard threshold heading into conference championship weekend. Cephas established himself as a premier deep threat and slant specialist, and those qualities were especially prevalent in his 186-yard, 3-touchdown performance against Buffalo.

On the defensive side, Kent State received a tremendous helping hand from a longtime special teamer. A.J. Musolino had been a member of the roster since 2017, but it wasn’t until the opener at Texas A&M when he was featured in the starting lineup. The inside linebacker is third on the team with 71 tackles and he leads all Flashes with 10.5 tackles for loss. Musolino provided a significant spark to Kent State, picking off a red zone pass in the MAC opener against Bowling Green — a turnover which led to the Golden Flashes’ late go-ahead scoring drive.

While recording stops did not come with regularity this year, Kent State made up for those defensive miscues by intercepting passes at an astronomical rate. The Golden Flashes are situated at second in the FBS in turnover margin at a +15, and the cornerbacks played a major role in crafting that lofty ranking. Elvis Hines enters Saturday with three interceptions and 10 pass breakups while Montre Miller trots into Detroit with four picks and eight breakups. Hines and Miller both recorded pivotal deflections in the end zone to seal Kent State’s final victory to propel the Golden Flashes back to Detroit.


Team statistics

Offense:

  • Scoring offense: 33.4 points per game (t-30th in FBS)
  • Passing offense: 228-of-352 (64.8%), 2,919 yards, 15 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 8.29 yards per attempt, 12.80 yards per completion, 243.2 yards per game (57th in FBS)
  • Rushing offense: 561 carries for 2,967 yards, 34 touchdowns, 5.29 yards per carry, 247.2 yards per game (3rd in FBS)
  • Red zone offense: 49-of-60 (81.7%); 31 touchdowns (24 rush, 7 pass), 18 field goals (85th in FBS)
  • First downs: 309 first downs (167 rush, 117 pass, 25 penalties) (7th in FBS)
  • Conversion rates: 75-of-177 (42.4%) on 3rd down (47th in FBS), 12-of-21 (57.1%) on 4th down (t-50th in FBS)

Defense

  • Scoring defense: 34.6 points per game (116th in FBS)
  • Opponent passing offense: 291-of-460 (63.3%), 3,490 yards, 22 touchdowns, 15 interceptions (t-6th in FBS), 290.8 yards per game (127th in FBS)
  • Opponent rushing offense: 466 carries, 2,205 yards, 30 rushing touchdowns, 4.73 yards per attempt, 183.8 yards per game on average (104th in FBS)
  • Sacks/tackles-for-loss: 20 sacks for 133 yards, averaging 1.67 sacks per game (t-97th in FBS); 58 tackles for loss for 208 yards, averaging 4.8 TFLs per game (t-91st in FBS)
  • Red zone defense: 46-of-55 (83.6%), 33 touchdowns (22 rush, 11 pass), 13 field goals (69th in FBS)
  • Opponent first downs: 312 first downs (124 rush, 162 pass, 26 penalties) (t-129th in FBS)
  • Opponent conversion rates: 80-of-176 (45.5%) on 3rd down (119th in FBS), 18-of-31 (58.1%) on 4th down (85th in FBS)

Special teams

  • Kicking: 19-of-24 (79.2%) (47th in FBS), long of 43 (t-114th in FBS)
  • Punting: 52 punts, 1,897 yards, 36.5 average (130th in FBS)
  • Returning: 44 kickoff returns, 910 yards, 0 touchdowns, 20.7 average (67th in FBS), 14 punt returns, 68 yards, 0 touchdowns, 4.9 average (113th in FBS)