- Time and date: Saturday, October 22 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Dix Stadium — Kent, OH
- Spread: Kent State (-18.5)
- ESPN FPI: Kent State has 88.5% chance to win
- All-time series: Akron leads, 35-27-2
- Last meeting: Kent State 38, Akron 0 — November 20, 2021
- Current streak: Kent State, 3 (2019-21)
Setting the scene
Turn on some Darius Rucker because it’s Wagon Wheel week in Northeast Ohio. The rivalry trophy will bestowed upon the winner of the MAC schools which are situated roughly 20 minutes down the road from each other. The giant wheel, painted in hues of the winning team, originated in 1946 and remains a staple of the Akron-Kent State rivalry.
The Golden Flashes have a stranglehold on the series in recent times, winning three consecutive games. If Kent State defends homefield and extends its program-best 11-game home winning streak, the Golden Flashes will have won four straight over the Zips for the first time since the 1950s. Although a massive spread separates the teams, Akron has amplified its competitiveness as of late, coming within one score of Bowling Green and Central Michigan as it navigates through year one of the Joe Moorhead era.
Akron Zips outlook
Akron (1-6, 0-3 MAC) is on the brink of missing bowl season for the fifth consecutive season. It was known when head coach Joe Moorhead accepted this job that Akron would be a rebuilding project, but the good news is the Week 7 Zips look much more refined than the Week 1 Zips did. Akron has dropped six consecutive games, but there have been a few close calls along the way. Moorhead’s team was on the brink of taking down Central Michigan if not for a 63-yard scoop-and-score by the Chippewas in the final two minutes.
Two of the Zips’ three MAC losses were by one score, and in the other defeat at the hands of Ohio, Akron was very competent on the offensive end by posting 34 on the scoreboard. The Zips’ offensive progress can easily be defined by the improvement of quarterback DJ Irons. The junior Georgia native has been fairly accurate completing 66.4 percent of his passes with a 7-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and he demonstrated his explosiveness in a 43-of-54, 418-yard masterclass against Ohio.
What limits Akron’s offense is the ability to protect Irons. No FBS team has surrendered over 30 sacks this year except the Zips, which yielded 36 in seven contests. The lack of durability in the trenches has caused this offense to be inconsistent at times despite their sheer talent at the skill positions. Run blocking and pass blocking are both critical areas of development for this team, as the rushing attack also ranks last in the FBS at 67 yards per game. Despite the litany of sacks he has endured, Irons is still the team’s leading rusher at 188 yards on the season. While the Zips are an air-first offense, getting Cam Wiley and Jonzell Norrils going in the backfield could open up even more for the passing game.
Over half of the Zips’ starting offense consists of transfers, and the newcomers at the wide receiver positions have been extremely impactful on this roster. Former Pitt standout Shocky Jacques-Louis leads all Zips with 42 receptions and 579 yards, and his game serves as a great complement to that of Penn State transfer Daniel George, who checks in with 41 receptions and 441 yards. Akron’s offense ranks seventh in completions in the FBS, and there are more receptions to go around outside the receiver room. All-MAC tight end Tristian Brank is a serviceable option in Irons’ arsenal for this pass-happy system.
There’s still plenty of revamping to do on the defensive end for a unit which falls below 100th in defending the run and pass. Overall, Akron is situated right outside the bottom 10 by yielding 465 yards per game on average, and the Zips haven’t been able to use takeaways as crutch for the lack of punts forced with just eight turnovers forced through seven weeks. Help is on the way though as Akron returned its star cornerback Charles Amankwaa to the lineup last week. Amankwaa picked off three passes, forced a fumble, and deflected nine passes in a standout 2021 campaign, and his presence should be felt in a defense in need of momentum.
Kent State’s offense should also expect to run into inside linebacker Bubba Arslanian early and often. After missing the majority of the prior year, Arslanian is back and better than ever. The tackling machine ranks supreme in the MAC and fourth in the FBS in total tackles with 77 — and the soon-to-be all-conference linebacker is fresh off his best performance of 2022. Arslanian accrued three tackles for loss and a sack in his 12-tackle performance against Central Michigan, and he’ll be a key cog in limiting Kent State’s typically high-powered rushing attack.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
Kent State (2-5, 1-2 MAC) already matched its regular season loss total from 2021, and there are still five games to go. The Golden Flashes endured several brutal defeats when starting the season with a grueling non-conference schedule of Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia, but the shortcomings are continuing to pile up in MAC play.
Kent State dropped a heartbreaker to Miami (OH) two weeks ago thanks to... And last week, the Golden Flashes came out guns-blazing to a 21-0 lead at Toledo, but the Rockets picked apart the defense en route to a completely reversed 52-31 result. After dropping consecutive MAC games, Sean Lewis’ squad hopes to get back on track against an opponent they shut out in 38-0 fashion in the prior meeting.
Even three games below .500, there have been plenty of positives on the Kent State offense this season, especially for the skill position players. First-year starting quarterback Collin Schlee has proven his mettle with back-to-back 300-yard passing performances in Weeks 5 and 6 while serving as a capable runner in zone read concepts. Reigning All-MAC selection Marquez Cooper has taken control of several games from the running back spot, posting 240 yards against Ohio and 166 at Toledo, complemented with eight rushing touchdowns in seven outings. The Flashes also field a talented receiving duo of Dante Cephas and Devontez Walker, who combine for six 100-yard outbursts in 2022 and stretch the field vertically for an offense that thrives on high-tempo and quick decision making.
With all this yardage accumulated, what is causing Kent State to rank 77th nationally in points per game? The Golden Flashes have struggled in two departments they were incredibly sound in during the 2021 season — turnover margin and fourth down conversion rate. Kent State has turned it over on downs six times this season, and only nine FBS teams execute on a lower percentage on fourth downs than the Flashes. Also, the team sits at a -5 in turnover margin. While the offense certainly needs to limit the mistakes which stall promising drives, the defense needs to return to the level of havoc it caused last year, as generating stops has been difficult.
Kent State allowed 490 yards to Toledo in the previous week, without a particular department of strength. If the Golden Flashes hope to sustain their bowl eligibility streak, they must solve their sub-100 rankings in run defense and pass defense alike. A foundation to fixing these numbers starts up front, where Kent State must be more assertive on the defensive line. The Golden Flashes’ pass rush generates sacks in the bottom quartile of the FBS, and that ranking has a lot to do with health.
Inside linebacker Khalib Johns has missed the last three games after racking up 4.0 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss in non-conference play, and outside of Johns, only six sacks have been observed in 2022. After only three team tackles for loss in Week 7, Kent State hopes for a breakout game from Marvin Pierre and the rest of the linebacking corps in terms of backfield penetration and getting to the quarterback. This would be an ideal week to jump-start the front seven in that regard, as Akron yields an FBS-worst 5.1 sacks per game.
The secondary will be tested often by an Akron team which ranks 10th nationally in passing attempts per game, so Montre Miller serves as an x-factor on the defense. The cornerback played like he had magnetic attraction to the football last year by snagging four interceptions and breaking up eight passes. With only two passes intercepted by the defense this season, Kent State needs their veteran corner to lock down the perimeter and create momentum-swinging plays in order to keep its defense off the field.
What result can you expect when you have the 117th ranked defense and 121st ranked defense pitted against each other, while the offenses feature quarterbacks who have thrown for 390+ yards and run for 70+ yards this season? There will be points, yes, plenty of points in the Wagon Wheel matchup.
Last year’s edition was a one-sided shutout, and while Kent State contains more firepower on offense due to stronger pass protection and an established run game, Akron is going to make a splash on the scoreboard this year. In the end, the heroics of Marquez Cooper and Dante Cephas will prove too much for the Akron defense, while the Golden Flashes force a few more stops than the Zips due to elevated play from their talented group of safeties.
Prediction: Kent State 42, Akron 30