- Time and date: Wednesday, November 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: InfoCision Stadium — Kent, OH
- Spread: Akron (-3.5)
- Over/under: 38.5
- All-time series: Akron leads, 35-28-2
- Last meeting: Kent State 33, Akron 27 — October 22, 2022
- Current streak: Kent State, 4 (2019-22)
Setting the scene
Headin’ down south to the land of the pines, I’m thumbin’ my way into North Caroline, starin’ up the road and pray to God I see headlights.
I made it down the coast in seventeen hours, pickin’ me a bouquet of dogwood flowers, and I’m a-hopin’ for Raleigh, I can see my baby tonight.
So, rock me mama like a wagon wheel. Rock me mama any way you feel. Hey... mama rock me.
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain. Rock me mama like a southbound train. Hey... mama rock me.
Those are the lyrics written by Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, and later made famous by country artist Darius Rucker. But that smash hit “Wagon Wheel” is more than just song. It’s a trophy.
The idea of the Wagon Wheel was originally concocted as the prize for the winner of the Akron vs. Kent State game in 1946. Although the Zips and Golden Flashes share somewhat similar color schemes, the wheel is painted in the winning teams’ hues — taking on a navy and metallic gold appearance for Akron and a blue and yellow-gold look for Kent State.
The wheel has been property of Kent State for four years now, dating back to the 2019 season. This time, both teams exhibit 1-7 overall records and 0-4 marks in MAC play — equally desperate to secure their first FBS win of the 2023 season. When Wednesday night’s contest concludes, one victory-starved team will sprint over to the Wagon Wheel and hoist it proudly in the air, sweetening a triumphant feeling that was so desperately needed. But which Ohio-based team will it be?
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
Year one of the Kenni Burns era at Kent State has been loaded with obstacles. After one of the more successful stretches in program history under Sean Lewis, the Golden Flashes are truly starting from square one again.
Kent State is one of five teams still in the hunt for its first FBS victory, and so is Akron. This is the Golden Flashes’ best opportunity at a win so far this season.
Against FBS competition, Kent State hasn’t been particularly close with at least 14 points of separation in every loss. The Golden Flashes’ largest lead this year over an FBS opponent was 6-0 last outing against Buffalo. Generating consistent offense has been a challenge and the team has reached the end zone just five times in seven FBS games this year. Overall, Kent State averages 12.5 points per game which is last in the country. The Golden Flashes are third-to-last nationally in yards per game, notably struggling to move the ball through the air.
Kent State continues to shuffle between quarterbacks. The Golden Flashes opted with Purdue transfer Mike Alaimo for the majority of the season, but Tommy Ulatowski received a substantial amount of snaps in the prior two games. Ulatowski provides a mobility element to the game, which is ideal for Kent State’s RPO-heavy offense, but Alaimo’s completion rate of 55.4 percent exceeds Ulatowski’s rate of 40.4 percent. However, Ulatowski suffered an injury in the last matchup against Buffalo, which could open time for Alaimo or other quarterbacks on the roster such as Devin Kargman who started and won the Wagon Wheel last year or Jaren Lewis who played sparingly at Kansas State.
There are many facets where Kent State must improve offensively. The Golden Flashes rank bottom five in third down conversion percentage, completion percentage, and first downs, among others. Where they are most successful is running the football. Kent State rotates between three running backs — Gavin Garcia, Jaylen Thomas, and Xavier Williams. Garcia and Thomas have a 90+ yard game under their belts this season while Williams was a dominant fixture in Kent State’s offense back in 2021. The rushing offense can be improved even further with player development within the offensive line. It’s a youthful group comprised of three freshman starters, and gelling together as a 5-man front is essential to this team’s improvement.
The overwhelming receiving threat in the offense has been breakout sophomore Chrishon McCray. After zero stats accumulated as a freshman, McCray leads the roster with 35 receptions and the next closest Golden Flash has 15. He demonstrates marked improvement week-by-week, too, catching nine passes for 129 yards in his first four outings and 26 for 320 in his last four.
Kent State’s defense entered 2023 as by-far the more experienced of the two sides of the ball, and it’s shown in the stat sheet. The Golden Flashes are 69th nationally in total defense — allowing a completion percentage below 59 percent while allowing 160.6 rushing yards per game (89th in FBS). Missouri transfer Devin Nicholson is the centerpiece of the unit and the former SEC starter produces a team-high 53 tackles in addition to 4.5 tackles for loss. With Nicholson’s tackling paving the path, Kent State has forced multiple three-and-outs in all four MAC games this year including eight against Eastern Michigan, so the Golden Flashes are potent enough defensively to win low-scoring contests.
But pressure and takeaways are two areas which can take this defense to the next level. No Kent State player has more than two sacks to his name this year and the Golden Flashes are tied with Virginia for last in the FBS with seven sacks on the season. That lack of pressure is leading to fewer interceptions. Kent State rides a 5-game streak without picking off a pass and some turnover luck could really swing the fortune of the struggling offense.
Akron Zips outlook
Like Kent State, Akron is one of five teams without an FBS win heading into Week 10. But unlike Kent State, the Zips have found themselves on the losing side of several one-score games. The four-overtime heartbreak against Indiana was the most notable, as Akron missed a chip shot field goal to end regulation in Bloomington, IN. Including that defeat, Akron has seen four defeats by seven points or fewer this year.
But Akron isn’t the same team it was earlier in the season as the head of snake went down for the season. Quarterback DJ Irons suffered an unfortunate ACL tear in a Week 5 overtime loss to Buffalo and the Zips have significantly struggled since, being outscored 113-34 in three games without Irons. Sophomore Tahj Bullock was Irons’ original replacement at quarterback, starting contests against Northern Illinois and Central Michigan, but Jeff Undercuffler Jr. earned the nod in the most recent outing at Bowling Green. The 6’3”, 230 pound Bullock is more renowned for his capabilities in the ground department while Undercuffler has exceeded 200 passing yards in the majority of his starts, including 312 in a 44-12 win over Northern Illinois last November.
Akron needs some spark to ignite head coach Joe Moorehead’s offense which currently ranks third-to-last in scoring at 15.4 points per game and fourth-to-last at 280 yards per game. For the Zips, running the ball is typically more of a struggle than moving it in aerial fashion as the unit generates 91 yards per game on an average of 3.1 per attempt. Lorenzo Lingard has served as a steady force keeping the Zips moving on the ground, though, exceeding 4.0 yards per carry in his last six games and attaining a season-high 113 at Indiana. He’s a common screen threat as well, checking in at third on the team with 22 receptions.
Reigning First Team All-MAC wide receiver Alex Adams should be the premier focus for Kent State’s defense. Adams missed a pair of games and his stats don’t pop out like they did in 2022, but he remains a viable deep threat with tremendous big-play potential. For short-yardage opportunities and underneath routes, Akron’s preferred receiver is Daniel George. The former Penn State receiver boasts a team-best 31 receptions on the year, tallying season-highs seven receptions and 74 yards last game against Bowling Green.
One recurring issue with Akron is always the amount of duress its quarterbacks face. The Zips consistently rank near the basement in sacks allowed and they are last in the MAC by surrendering 3.9 per contest. That statistic directly correlates to Akron’s third down conversion percentage of 30.6 percent — which is bottom 10 in the FBS — as it faces frequent 3rd and long scenarios due to regular sacks.
It’s been a mixed bag for Akron defensively which held five of eight opponents to 24 or fewer points in regulation. But the Zips’ last three outings feature a 41-point explosion by Bowling Green where the Falcons rushed for 214 yards and three touchdowns, as well as a 55-point bombardment from Northern Illinois where the Huskies attained 380 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.
Run defense has not been a specialty for Akron lately, but early season success has the Zips ranked 76th in this category. But this team is quite stellar at pass defense, allowing just 193 yards per game (24th in FBS) at a 53.7 percent completion rate (7th in FBS). Strong safety KJ Martin has played a massive role in this movement, breaking up a team-best four passes and picking off two for one of the MAC’s better secondaries.
Any time there is an over/under hovering below 40, there is usually a reason for that. This matchup features two bottom three scoring offenses and two bottom five total offenses.
Meanwhile, Kent State and Akron have observed some degree of success on defense this year. Expect a handful of three-and-outs, 10 punts at minimum, and a slew of incompletions on 3rd and long situations. It’s going to be a non-aesthetic defensive rock fight, but watch out for turnovers as those will be massive momentum swingers in a game where points are at a premium.
While Kent State’s defense showed fortitude with solid outings against the likes of Arkansas and Miami (OH), Akron has demonstrated more competitiveness thus far. With a greater footprint in the passing game, the Zips should be able to generate that one extra touchdown which is the difference between winning the coveted Wagon Wheel and falling to 1-8.
Prediction: Akron 17, Kent State 12