- Date and time: Saturday, September 3 at 10:30 p.m. ET
- Network: FS1
- Location: Husky Stadium — Seattle, WA
- Spread: Washington (-23)
- ESPN FPI: Washington has 91.6% chance to win
- All-time series: No previous matchups
Setting the scene
It is the 50th anniversary of Kent State’s most recent and only MAC championship. The Golden Flashes came excruciatingly close last season, landing in Detroit for the title game favored against a Northern Illinois squad they beat in the regular season. However, the result did not end up in the Flashes’ favor that December afternoon, extending the chase for the MAC throne to another year.
Kent State has been renowned for scheduling grueling non-conference slates in recent years. Last season, the Golden Flashes ran the gauntlet of Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland, and in 2019, they visited Arizona State, Auburn, and Wisconsin. The 2022 season is no exception, as head coach Sean Lewis’ team is set to open at Washington before eventual trips to Oklahoma and Georgia.
“We’re starting the 100th year of Kent State football,” Lewis said. “It’s the 50th year anniversary of the 1972 team that won the MAC championship. Head coach then at the time was Coach Don James, who then left and ended up at Washington eventually where he won the national championship. I’ll tell you what — the football gods don’t miss. It’s cool to see all these threads tie together.”
Don’t Schlee-p on Crum’s successor
When Dustin Crum won the starting quarterback job early in the 2019 season, Kent State had not experienced a winning record since 2012. The program also had not ever witnessed a bowl victory. When Crum graduated this offseason, he left with a stellar résumé. He captured the Golden Flashes’ first-ever bowl game hardware, brought the program to three consecutive .500+ seasons for the first time since 1972-74, and even directed the nation’s highest scoring offense in 2020.
Replacing Crum is not an ideal offseason task for Lewis and his staff, but they believe they found a worthy successor. Due to the lopsided nature of many Kent State games last season, Collin Schlee frequently checked in for mop-up duty in fourth quarters, shining as a dual-threat quarterback with many qualities similar to Crum. Schlee will take over the reins as he prepares to make his first collegiate start.
“The kid’s been here. He’s been with us. He’s been training. I’m excited for him to get the opportunity,” Lewis said about Schlee. “There’s gonna be some growing pains and there’s gonna be learning moments. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why we have ‘Coach’ in front of our name. He needs to go play. Players make plays and it’s our job when we step into that arena Saturday that we take the test together.”
Schlee is equipped with a horde of talented weapons in Kent State’s “Flash Fast” offense — an RPO-based unit which runs at one of the highest tempos in the country. A key component of this Flash Fast scheme that should captivate viewers in 2022 is Biletnikoff Award watchlist member Dante Cephas, a strong-armed receiver who accumulated 1,240 yards and nine touchdowns in a breakout season.
Kent State also produced the third-best rushing attack in 2021 (the best if you exclude triple option-based service academies) by running for 248.6 yards per outing. With a mobile Schlee and a deep stable of returning running backs including Marquez Cooper (1,205 yards, 5.0 per carry, 11 TD), Xavier Williams (812 yards, 6.5 per carry, 3 TD), and Bryan Bradford (298 yards, 6.1 per carry, 3 TD), the ground game should be set to dominate again.
“When you have a deep room of talented individuals like we do in the running back room, it allows you to keep guys fresh later into the game so you don’t have that residual effect later into the game, so that you’re able to sustain your level of execution for four quarters,” Lewis said.
DeBoer and the new kennel of Huskies
After a 3-9 season which saw a Week 1 loss to an FCS foe, Washington ultimately decided to part ways with Jimmy Lake who held head coaching duties for two seasons. The Huskies searched the pacific coast for candidates and landed on Kalen DeBoer, who guided Fresno State to a 9-3 record in 2021 before switching his residence to Seattle in late November.
“There’s obviously not a whole lot of tape on their scheme and their systems in purple and gold,” Lewis said. “You’re chasing some ghosts a little bit, but Coach DeBoer and his staff have been together a while now... Schematically, you know how they’re gonna attack it and the identity that they have.”
DeBoer brought a handful of familiar staff members along with him to Washington, including offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb and co-defensive coordinators William Inge and Chuck Morrell — all three served on Fresno State’s staff in 2020 and 2021. The first-year head coach also reunited with his former quarterback from his days as offensive coordinator at Indiana. That veteran quarterback is Michael Penix Jr., who attained Second Team All-Big Ten honors in 2020 while leading the Hoosiers to their first postseason AP Poll appearance since 1988.
“When him and Coach DeBoer were together back at Indiana, they were a pretty dynamic duo,” Lewis said. “He can hurt you in a lot of different ways. He’s got a talented arm. He reads coverages very, very well. He’s an elite decision-maker with what they do within their mesh game, their vertical passing game. He does a really good job not getting hung up, especially as passer, on a primary and working through the progression of his read to find the open man.”
Penix will be assisted by fellow transfers in Grubb’s new-look offense. The team brought in two running backs from the transfer portal in Wayne Taulapapa (Virginia) and Will Nixon (Nebraska), and those newcomers are listed No. 1 and No. 2 on the depth chart, respectively. The receiving room is primarily composed of incumbents with three of the Huskies’ top four leaders from last year returning for 2022 — Jalen McMillan, Rome Odunze, and Taj Davis.
Death Row vs. Soul Collectors
While Washington’s offense was nothing to marvel at during its 4-8 venture, the defense retained its typically-stout identity. The Huskies exhibited one of the more intimidating units in the Pac-12, situated at 37th in the country by allowing just 22.7 points per contest.
Teams typically opted to ground the ball against Washington as the Huskies produced two top-40 NFL Draft selections in their cornerback room — Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon. Their presence resulted in the FBS’s No. 1 pass defense, but those star corners must be replaced by Mishael Powell and transfer Jordan Perryman, as the next hopefuls in Washington’s rotating door of star defensive backs. Still, Lewis expects the Huskies to maintain their attacking identity without their only two all-conference defenders from 2021.
“They have an attacking mindset,” Lewis said on the Washington defense. “Following some of the reports and the brand and the identity and the culture that they’re establishing out there, they’re referring to their defense as ‘Death Row,’ which is pretty cool. They got their defense ‘Death Row.’ We got our defense ‘Soul Collectors’ going after it with one another. There’s some like-mindedness among the staffs and how they go about it and I think both ball clubs are gonna embody a blue-collar work ethic.”
Kent State’s defense of “Soul Collectors” was one of 21 FBS teams to shut out another FBS opponent last year. However, the group was far from pristine. Despite a MAC Championship appearance, Kent State still ranked bottom 10 in scoring defense — the only team in the bottom 10 to post a record better than 3-9.
Containing the pass and run were equally difficult for a Golden Flashes defense which finished 116th nationally in both departments. An added year of experience across the board could improve those numbers, as nine of 11 starters are seniors or grad transfers and the other two are well-acclimated juniors. Additionally, the defense will be under new direction as defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson was hired from the FCS ranks after leading strong units at Northern Iowa.
“He’s provided confidence for that side of the ball,” Lewis said of Johnson. “Confidence, stability, every day you know what you’re gonna get. The kids understand that and what his expectations are for the Soul Collectors, how they need to go about their business... I don’t think Coach Johnson’s ever had a bad day. He’s a great guy. He’s always having a great day. That energy and enthusiasm are contagious. That’s rubbed off on our defense and led to the confidence.”
However, there was one facet of the defense which ranked supreme. Kent State forced an absurd amount of turnovers last fall, and more specifically, interceptions. The Golden Flashes ranked top 10 in passes intercepted and turnovers produced, as returning cornerback Montre Miller led the charge with four picks and a fumble recovery. Miller’s ballhawking ability could factor in nicely against a Washington team which was very prone to turning the ball over in 2021.
Kent State’s superior unit is its explosive, up-tempo offense and Washington’s signature lies within its defense. Thus, the premier matchup to watch transpires when the Golden Flashes possess the ball. Something has to give between one group which averaged the fifth most offensive yards and another which allowed the 22nd fewest in 2021.
The Golden Flashes have demonstrated the ability to remain within striking distance in these road non-conference games lately, entering halftime within single-digit deficits to Texas A&M and Iowa last season. With the playmaking from the running back corps and Dante Cephas, expect Kent State to hang around in this one. But ultimately, the Golden Flashes don’t field a potent enough defense to repeatedly stifle Penix and the Huskies — unless high turnover numbers play a factor.
Prediction: Washington 30, Kent State 17