- Date and time: Saturday, September 10 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium — Norman, OK
- Spread: Oklahoma (-33)
- ESPN FPI: Oklahoma has 97.4% chance to win
- All-time series: No previous matchups
Setting the scene
Kent State’s non-conference schedule can best be described as a treacherous grind. The Golden Flashes completed the first leg of their three September road trips and now round two awaits. After taking a 25-point loss in Seattle to Washington, Kent State travels to the plains to battle Brent Venables’ No. 7 Oklahoma squad.
Vegas odds and recent history suggests this is a long-shot for Kent State, which remains in search of its first regular season non-conference win over an FBS team since 2014. Still, Sean Lewis hopes the tempo of his Flash Fast offense can take the Sooners by surprise in effort to rebound from an underwhelming opener in Seattle.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
Kent State’s 2022 season did not commence in ideal fashion. On the first play from scrimmage, new starting quarterback Collin Schlee tossed an interception to the Washington defense, setting the Golden Flashes into an immediate hole.
In recent history, Kent State has been at its best when playing ahead, when the team can most optimally utilize its high-powered rushing attack which ranked third nationally in 2021 and second in 2020. However, playing from behind has not been a strength for Lewis’ squad as deficits typically begin to snowball when the Golden Flashes show initial signs of struggle. Since 2020, all nine Kent State losses are by 14 points or greater, with five of those defeats separated by at least 24 points.
Kent State’s defense was not a strong suit for the team last year. They held designation as the only team with a bottom 10 scoring defense to post a record better than 3-9 — and they still wound up in the MAC Championship Game, thus demonstrating the prowess of the offense. The run defense ranked 116th, as did the pass defense, and signs of improvement weren’t evident in Week 1. Washington generated 45 points and 393 passing yards, already labeling Kent State as a bottom five aerial defense early in the season.
Last year, the Golden Flashes had one defining strength on defense — forcing turnovers. Kent State notched one fumble recovery in Week 1, but the defense hopes to grab its first interception in Norman and sustain its takeaway numbers from last year. Cornerback Montre Miller was one of the ringleaders of the Golden Flashes’ impressive 2021 turnover margin, as he intercepted a team-high four passes. Miller will certainly have his work cut out for him Saturday, pitted against Marvin Mims and an explosive Oklahoma receiving corps.
On the offensive side of the ball, Schlee is set to make his second collegiate start, filling the vacancy for multi-time All-MAC quarterback Dustin Crum. Schlee exhibits some of the same qualities which made Crum a superstar in this conference, including the mobility needed to run Lewis’ Flash Fast offense. RPOs are abundant in this system, and Schlee has shown the craftiness as a runner and quick decision-making skills required to thrive in the scheme. In his first start, he led all Kent State ball carriers with 47 yards on eight attempts.
Kent State’s offensive line was somewhat of a question mark entering the year due to the production being replaced, but the unit did a solid job in pass protection against Washington’s front in the opener. Schlee only took one sack and the Huskies logged zero QB hurries on the newly appointed starter. Oklahoma was a very sack-happy squad in Week 1 against UTEP, so Kent State hopes Sam Allan, Jack Bailey, and company can provide a sturdy barrier to allow Schlee ample time to survey downfield.
The strength of Kent State’s roster lies within the skill positions. Running backs Marquez Cooper and Bryan Bradford did not witness their typical production in Week 1, as they both averaged under 3.5 yards per carry, but their past résumés prove they can present a threat to many defenses. The speedier, shiftier Cooper picked up 1,205 and 11 touchdowns in 2021, while the power back Bradford added 298 and three scores on an impressive 6.1 rushing average.
Also playing a vital role in Kent State’s high-tempo offense are the receivers. An overwhelming majority of Schlee’s passes in Week 1 maneuvered in the direction of reigning First Team All-MAC selection Dante Cephas and new starter Devontez Walker. Cephas caught six balls for 105 yards, while Walker added four catches, 56 yards, and Kent State’s lone receiving touchdown of the young season. Given UTEP’s relative success in the passing game and disastrous showing in the rushing attack against Oklahoma, increased utilization of Cephas and Walker is Kent State’s most likely pathway to keeping this one close in Norman.
Oklahoma Sooners outlook
Oklahoma broke in its third different coach of the College Football Playoff era last Saturday, as Brent Venables made his highly-anticipated debut with the Sooners. The result was a comfortable 45-13 victory over UTEP in uncomfortable scorching weather conditions, as the Sooners played three quarters of stellar football to open 2022.
The Sooners’ first quarter looked exactly how the fanbase would have scripted it up. UCF transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel guided Oklahoma to the end zone on three quick drives in a row in his Sooner debut, while his former UCF offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby called a versatile set of plays — ranging from deep shots to zone reads to screens. Lebby’s offensive philosophy has many similarities to Kent State’s Flash Fast offense, including the wide spacing of receivers from boundary to boundary, the accelerated tempo, and the frequent usage of RPOs. Thus, both defenses will be going against schemes they’re well-acquainted with from all those practices in fall camp.
With a defensive-minded coach like Venables taking over, Oklahoma’s defense is an unit expected to improve this year after ranking 76th in yards allowed in 2021. The Sooners blanketed UTEP’s run game by allowing 28 yards on 31 attempts, and one reason the Miners amounted to less than one yard per carry was the litany of sacks. Oklahoma registered six sacks and nine tackles for loss in the opener, and with its top two pass rushers in Nik Bonitto and Isaiah Thomas no longer on campus, Reggie Grimes filled that massive void as the lead rusher with 2.5 sacks of his own.
UTEP still pieced together a strong second quarter on Oklahoma’s defense, outscoring the Sooners 10-7 in the frame. That period of the game suggested that the Sooners’ secondary still needs refining. Going up against an All-MAC talent in Dante Cephas, Oklahoma’s starting cornerbacks Jaden Davis and Woodi Washington, as well as D.J. Graham, must step up to prevent Kent State’s passing attack from becoming a headache in the case the offense doesn’t produce at its normal rate. But Kent State allowed Washington to score on each of its first six drives last week, so offense should come naturally for the Sooners this Saturday.
Gabriel is an ideal fit for this offense, as the lefty delivers arguably the most accurate deep ball in the country. The fourth-year starting quarterback has a knack for placing passes in tight sideline or end zone areas to only where his receivers can catch them, and his mobility has improved each year since coming onto the scene in 2019.
Sooner faithful would like to see more connections between the new quarterback and wide receiver Marvin Mims. Mims, a sturdy contributor over the past two seasons, looks primed for All-Big 12 honors as a junior. He caught three passes for 82 yards last week and hopes to ramp up that production against a Kent State secondary which allowed the Huskies to feast with over 340 passing yards and four touchdown passes. Another option Kent State should expect to see early and often is tight end Brayden Willis, a rising red zone threat who snagged two touchdown passes in the opener.
The running game was an efficient factory last week, churning out 259 yards and four touchdowns on the Miners. Leading the group was feature back Eric Gray, who should serve in that lead back role all season after eclipsing the century mark on 16 carries in the opener. Still, Marcus Major will play a major part as Gray’s second fiddle, compiling two touchdowns and 54 yards on seven reps last week.
The field temperature in Norman won’t be expected to surpass 110 degrees like it did last week, so the game’s later kickoff will bring in cooler temperatures. Thus, cramping, dehydration, and heat-related issues shouldn’t factor in like they did a week ago.
Oklahoma’s high-powered offensive attack against Kent State’s defense presents a considerable mismatch, as suggested by both team’s Week 1 results. In order for the Golden Flashes to improve upon last showing, winning the turnover battle is of utmost importance. Also, improved coverage and tackling on the boundaries is needed in order to limit Oklahoma’s offensive output.
Kent State’s offense is potent enough to make several end zone appearances with Marquez Cooper and Dante Cephas manning the unit, but defense will ultimately be the team’s achilles heel if no progress is demonstrated. The Golden Flashes have a brutal, challenging non-conference schedule (with Georgia still looming) but perhaps running through this gauntlet results in a team that’s prepared to dominate MAC play once that commences.
Prediction: Oklahoma 52, Kent State 20