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Thoughts from Kent State’s 33-27 Wagon Wheel win over Akron

The Golden Flashes secure the Wagon Wheel for the fourth consecutive season behind backup QB Devin Kargman.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Kent State at Akron

One of the coolest and largest college football rivalry trophies was handed out this weekend in Northeast Ohio.

Akron and Kent State met at the Golden Flashes’ home base of Dix Stadium for their annual battle for the coveted Wagon Wheel. The wheel has become a fixture in Kent State’s facilities ever since the program hired head coach Sean Lewis in 2018. Lewis’ Flashes triumphed over Akron for the fourth time in the coach’s five seasons at the helm, extending their win streak to four — the longest Kent State win streak in the series in the last 40 years.

The Golden Flashes won 33-27, but the squad’s second conference victory of the season did not come without adversity. Kent State entered the matchup without starting quarterback Collin Schlee for the first time in 2022, relying on backup Devin Kargman to get the job done. Although the Flashes trailed 10-0 in the early second quarter, the offense eventually woke up to hand the Zips their seventh consecutive loss. Falling to 1-7 in Week 8’s early slate, Akron became the first FBS team ineligible for a bowl game in 2022.

Here are takeaways from Saturday’s rivalry matchup in Kent, OH:

No Schlee? The running backs got your back

Kent State v Georgia
Kent State RB Marquez Cooper rushed for 130+ yards for the third time in a 4-game span by generating 137 against Akron. In all three career games vs. the Zips, Cooper has crossed the century mark.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

As mentioned above, Kent State had an uphill battle to face Saturday in the absence of starting quarterback Collin Schlee, who missed the Akron game with a lower body bruise he had been dealing with for several weeks. And in the middle of the game, First Team All-MAC receiver Dante Cephas exited with a lower body injury.

Thus, without its two main components of its aerial attack, Kent State had to slightly shift its strategy against Akron. But as evidence by consecutive top three finishes in rushing yards per game in 2020 and 2021, the Golden Flashes have no problem running down opponents’ throats. Kent State elected a 61/39 run/pass split Saturday, utilizing a heavy dosage of running back Marquez Cooper in the victory. Cooper had no problem rising to the occasion, steering the ship in a 137-yard performance on 28 handoffs.

While Cooper continually moved the sticks, Kent State also witnessed a generous rushing output from secondary back Bryan Bradford, who broke away for a 58-yard touchdown run to put the Golden Flashes on the board in the second quarter. Then, Gavin Garcia got involved in the third quarter to pioneer a drive which wound up in a field goal.

Even when trailing by 10 in the early going, Kent State did not panic and kept the ground game churning. This strategy paid off at the end, as a backup quarterback’s best friend is typically a strong running game. Cooper’s stamina and production, along with the contributions of Bradford and Garcia allowed Devin Kargman to enjoy an efficient day on limited attempts. So even if Schlee is unavailable in the future, Kent State possesses a fortified rushing attack it can rely on to keep the offense lethal.

DJ Irons is the perfect QB for Joe Moorhead’s offense

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Akron at Tennessee
Akron QB DJ Irons ranks 12th in the FBS in passing yards with 2,199. Only Ohio QB Kurtis Rourke has more yards when it comes to MAC passers in 2022.
Photo by Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Remember how Joe Moorhead burst onto the scene in college football? Moorhead emerged as a coveted head coaching candidate for the magic he worked into Penn State’s offense in 2016 and 2017. He got the most out of quarterback Trace McSorley, who utilized his cannon arm en route to a 384-yard, 4-touchdown performance in the 2016 Big Ten Championship Game. McSorley also possessed many viable qualities of a dual-threat quarterback, often displaying his toughness when taking off as a runner on option plays.

There are many glimpses of this in the game of Akron quarterback DJ Irons. Irons has a howitzer of an arm, which has been evident in his two 380+ yard showings in his past three outings. In fact, Moorhead used Irons’ rocket to his advantage on the Zips’ first play from scrimmage, and the junior quarterback launched a deep ball to Alex Adams for an 80-yard touchdown. But not only can Irons sling it — he has remarkable accuracy for a quarterback with an affinity to target downfield. Irons boasts a 67.5 completion percentage on the year, and his two best showings — 383 yards at Kent State and 418 yards at Ohio — featured completion rates of 74.4 and 79.6, respectively.

But Irons isn’t strictly a pocket passer. The 6’6” quarterback has impressive mobility for his size and Moorhead loves to send Irons on QB draws out of empty formations. The quarterback took off for a 53-yard touchdown run on such a play against Central Michigan in Week 7 and he has four rushing scores in his last three games.

Akron waited so long for a game-changing quarterback like Irons, and his fit in Moorhead’s system is perfect. The Zips failed to crack the top 75 in passing offense from 2017 to 2021, but they find themselves at 26th in the country in that statistic at the moment. If the Zips develop in other areas, this team can soon become a threat in the MAC as long as No. 0 is under center.

Wagon Wheels are won in the trenches

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Akron at Kent State
Kent State DE Zayin West produced team-highs of 2.0 sacks and 3.0 tackles for loss while the Golden Flashes’ front seven had its way with the Akron offensive line.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Akron’s offense now has a more explosive quality it lacked in the past several seasons. The Zips can certainly score, and they’ve posted three or more touchdowns in all four MAC contests. But there’s something Akron is missing on both sides of the ball that was evident Saturday, and that’s a commanding presence up front.

Only 15 FBS teams produce fewer sacks per game than the Zips’ 1.38. That average dropped asymptotically toward zero Saturday as Akron failed to collect a single sack against Kent State’s offensive line. The Golden Flashes did a stupendous job of protecting their backup quarterback, putting the offense in position to thrive even in the absence of Collin Schlee, and eventually, Dante Cephas.

Meanwhile, Akron’s offensive line yielded seven sacks to Kent State. This wasn’t a one-off performance. Prior to Week 8, Akron was the only team in the FBS to surrender more than 5.0 sacks per game. After allowing seven, that average is now escalates to 5.38 — more than one whole sack greater than Tulsa’s 4.29, which is second-worst in the nation. The Zips have pieces at the skill positions, but the lack of assertiveness in the trenches is what prevented this team from bowl eligibility this year. Offensive progress was hampered by sacks on numerous occasions, and this undesirable trend is causing Akron to make up for lost yardage far too often, and as a result, the Zips convert fewer than 34 percent of third downs this season.

Akron and Kent State both displayed a similar brand of football on the offensive and defensive ends, with the lone exception being in the trenches. And due to Kent State’s marginally superior line play on both sides, the Wagon Wheel remains property of the Golden Flashes for the fourth consecutive year.