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What we learned about Kent State from a brutal non-conference schedule

The schedule featured road trips to Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia. Now, Kent State is ready to apply what it learned in MAC play.

Kent State Golden Flashes v Georgia Bulldogs Photo by Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images

On Sunday afternoon, the AP Poll preceding Week 5 of the 2022 season was released. When going down the list, there are plenty of teams well acquainted with this year’s Kent State Golden Flashes squad. Kent State has played 15% of the current AP Top 20, opening at current No. 15 Washington, battling at No. 18 Oklahoma in Week 2, and challenging No. 1 Georgia in Week 4.

A 63-10 home victory over Long Island of the FCS was sandwiched in between those challenging opponents, leaving Kent State at 1-3 as MAC play commences Saturday, Oct. 1. So far, the Golden Flashes haven’t played a remotely close game as a 39-22 defeat to the reigning national champion Bulldogs is their closest margin of victory or defeat.

Still, in these lopsided affairs, we learned plenty about Sean Lewis’ Golden Flashes team, which hopes to run through the MAC East for the second consecutive year and contend for its first MAC title since 1972. Here are takeaways from the Golden Flashes’ gauntlet of a non-conference schedule:

Collin Schlee is a worthy successor to Dustin Crum

One of Kent State’s most pressing offseason tasks involved replacing quarterback Dustin Crum, the two-time First Team All-MAC selection who captained the Golden Flashes’ recent run of success including their first-ever bowl win in 2019.

Crum was a dynamic dual threat talent, an efficient passer and crafty runner. To replace the three-year starter, Kent State didn’t even hold a quarterback competition this offseason because the coaching staff already knew Collin Schlee would be the successor. Schlee exhibits many similar qualities to Crum, especially in the mobility department.

UTEP v Oklahoma
With 179 rushing yards through four games, Collin Schlee ranks second among all MAC quarterbacks and 12th among all players in the conference.
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

While Schlee’s early-season numbers may not raise eyebrows, it’s important to keep in mind the level of competition he faced. Georgia, Oklahoma, and Washington all share rankings together, as well as top 35 scoring defenses. Last season, Crum ran through a similar gauntlet of potent defenses by facing Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland in non-conference play — yet despite early season adversity, he still flourished against MAC competition to win the conference’s most valuable player honors.

When comparing performances in non-conference play — the three losses and the lone win — the results show that Schlee could pan out in similar fashion.

  • 2021 Dustin Crum vs. 3 FBS non-conference opponents: 47/82 (57.3%), 582 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns (7.1 yards per attempt), 2 interceptions, 48 rushing yards (1.4 average), 0 rushing touchdowns
  • 2022 Collin Schlee vs. 3 FBS non-conference opponents: 37/64 (57.8%), 483 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns (7.5 yards per attempt), 3 interceptions, 104 rushing yards (3.9 average), 0 rushing touchdowns

They also produced similarly efficient numbers in routs against FCS competition.

  • 2021 Dustin Crum vs. VMI of the FCS: 12/17 (70.6%), 180 passing yards (10.6 yards per attempt), 1 passing touchdown, 0 interceptions, 70 rushing yards (8.8 average), 1 rushing touchdown
  • 2022 Collin Schlee vs. Long Island of the FCS: 10/12 (83.3%), 199 passing yards (16.6 yards per attempt), 2 passing touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 75 rushing yards (18.8 average), 0 rushing touchdowns

Schlee has only made four collegiate starts. Yet, when the competition took a step down in Week 3 against Long Island, the first-year starter produced a near-perfect outing. After leading the offense to 22 points and several sustained drives against Georgia, Schlee appears to be a worthy successor to Crum as MAC play approaches.

Defense is still work in progress, but looks better each week

Kent State’s signature in the Sean Lewis has always been the offense. The Golden Flashes led the country in scoring average in 2020, finished top three in rushing two years in a row, and have crossed the 60-point threshold five times in the last four seasons.

Meanwhile, defense is the unit where Kent State has sought the most improvement over the years. Last year, the Golden Flashes were the only bottom 10 scoring defense to finish better than 3-9 — and they qualified for the MAC Championship Game. The team addressed the defensive shortcomings by firing coordinator Tom Kaufman last November, bringing in Jeremiah Johnson to lead the unit for 2022.

In Week 1, it looked to be the same old defense against Washington. The Huskies managed touchdowns on each of their first four drives of the season, scoring on six consecutive possessions to claim a 38-13 advantage in Seattle.

But in Week 2, the Kent State defense known as the “Soul Collectors” lived up to their nickname. The Golden Flashes completely stifled Oklahoma in the first half until 18 seconds remained in the second quarter, entering halftime with a 7-3 deficit. And unlike last year’s early-season games, the defense didn’t rely on unsustainable turnover numbers as a crutch. They recorded stop after stop on the Sooners.

In Week 4 against Georgia, things appeared to be dreary on the second play of the contest when tight end Brock Bowers raced down the sideline on a reverse for a 75-yard touchdown, but the Golden Flashes’ defense showed marked improvement after that early adversity. They forced Georgia to commit three turnovers when the Bulldogs’ previous three opponents combined for zero takeaways. But there was one downside defensively — Georgia didn’t punt once. However, Kent State forced recorded key fourth down stops in the second half to limit the Bulldogs to field goal attempts. Because of this resiliency, Kent State outscored the No. 1 team in the country in the second half until 5:30 remained in the game.

Kent State v Georgia
Cornerback Montre Miller recorded Kent State’s first interception of 2022 against Georgia. Miller led the team in picks last year with four.
Photo by Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Kent State isn’t going to face AP Top 20 opponents the rest of the way, and considering no MAC team boasts a winning record through four outings, it seems pretty certain the remaining schedule will exclusively be populated with unranked teams. After four games, the Golden Flashes’ defense under Johnson allows 448 yards per game, a slight improvement from last year’s 472. Now that the schedule eases up, Kent State appears on track to watch its defensive numbers sharply improve.

And that’s without a heavy turnover output. Last year Kent State recorded 12 takeaways through its non-conference slate, while this year’s non-conference output of four takeaways pales in comparison. With better tackling in the run game and an accelerated pass rush led by outside linebacker Khalib Johns (4.0 sacks, 7.0 tackles for loss, two pass breakups), the defense looks on track for a better 2022.

Best receiver duo in the MAC?

Heading into 2021, Dante Cephas was the best kept secret in the MAC. The receiver exploded for 82 receptions, 1,240 yards, and nine touchdowns in a breakthrough season, locking up First Team All-MAC honors in the process.

Cephas was no longer a well-kept secret entering 2022, as opponents now concoct gameplans to limit the star receiver’s production. That title was passed along to Devontez Walker, who prior to Week 1 featuring five receptions, 124 yards, and one touchdown.

Now, the duo of Cephas and Walker looks as lethal as any MAC receiving tandem. Cephas is sitting at 17 receptions, 255 yards, and one touchdown while Walker displays 15 catches for 246 yards, complemented with three touchdowns. Cephas and Walker have been overwhelmingly targeted when compared to the rest of Kent State’s receiving options, hauling in 32 of the Golden Flashes’ 51 completions this year — while no other player has more than five receptions.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Georgia
Devontez Walker roughly doubled his entire 2021 receiving total through four games of 2022. Of his four career receiving touchdowns, all are 47 yards or greater.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The reliable Cephas provides a dangerous combination speed, strength, and great route running ability. Meanwhile, Walker is the electrifying home run hitter for this team. He burned Washington in 1-on-1 coverage in Week 1 en route to a 47-yard touchdown reception. Then he raced past the NFL prospect laden Georgia defense last Saturday on a screen to complete a 56-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Walker’s speed and playmaking abilities are problems for any defense and his 16.4 yards per reception exemplifies how explosive he can be.

With the duo of Cephas and Walker manning the receiver positions, Kent State certainly has the tools capable to light up MAC competition via its aerial attack.

Kent State can win the MAC East

Eliminating divisions seems to be the new move in college football, as the Pac-12 and Mountain West elected to implement this change for 2022. However, the MAC — the most stable conference in college football — remains divided into East and West segments.

The MAC East looks as wide open as ever. Kent State’s primary challenger in this division, Miami (OH), is one of two MAC East teams sitting at 2-2, but the RedHawks will operate without All-MAC quarterback Brett Gabbert for the foreseeable future. The other 2-2 squad is Ohio, which emerged in a 59-52 thriller over Fordham of the FCS last Saturday to snap a two-game skid after losing to Penn State and Iowa State by an aggregate score of 89-20.

Bowling Green and Buffalo dropped games to FCS competition, but the Falcons and Bulls both bounced back by upsetting Marshall (which defeated Notre Dame) and Eastern Michigan (which defeated Arizona State), respectively. Lastly, there’s Akron, which started the Joe Moorhead era with an overtime Week 1 victory over FCS program St. Francis (PA) but suffered three consecutive losses since — including 52-0 and 63-6 annihilations at the hands of Michigan State and Tennessee.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Miami OH at Kent State
Kent State defeated Miami (OH) on November 27 last season in a game which decided the MAC East representative for the conference championship.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So where does Kent State fit into this picture? The Golden Flashes handled Georgia on the road better than Oregon at a neutral site or South Carolina at home could, scoring five separate times when the Bulldogs’ previous three opponents managed two combined scores. Kent State also held Oklahoma within one possession at halftime and absolutely routed its FCS opponent.

When taking a look at all the résumés through four games, the Golden Flashes might have the best one in the division, considering how they fared against premier competition and their seamless thrashing of an FCS opponent. Miami, coming off a win at Northwestern, likely serves as the team’s greatest competition to punching a ticket to Detroit, especially if Gabbert makes a triumphant return later in the year. Still, this isn’t a rebuilding year for Kent State — it’s a contention year.