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2023 Week 2 Game Preview: Kent State Golden Flashes @ Arkansas Razorbacks

Kent State looks for vast improvement in Fayetteville after accruing much-needed experience at UCF.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Central Florida Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 9 at 4:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: SEC Network
  • Location: Razorback Stadium — Fayetteville, AR
  • Spread: Arkansas (-38)
  • Over/under: 57
  • All-time series: No previous meetings

Setting the scene

Kent State ushered in the Kenni Burns era under the lights at the Bounce House last Thursday night. The result on the final scoreboard was anything but desired, as the Golden Flashes were pulverized by a heavily-favored UCF in 56-6 fashion. But with a young and inexperienced roster and a first-time head coach, gaining experience was the most essential part of last Thursday’s opener. Now, Kent State looks to channel what it learned in Orlando into another tough environment in Fayetteville, AR.

Arkansas is marinating on the fringe of the AP Poll, situated three spots away from a coveted ranking. The Razorbacks were on the favorable side of a lopsided blowout in Week 1, obliterating Western Carolina of the FCS, 56-13. This Saturday, Arkansas seeks a repeat of last week in order to crack the top 25 for the first time since time since last September.

Kent State Golden Flashes outlook

Kent State is one of three FBS programs to be handed a 50-point defeat so far this season, but the Golden Flashes can’t the let result of Week 1 snowball into something greater. Week 2 presents another challenging opponent in SEC country, and this time Kenni Burns and the Golden Flashes look to fix the correctable mistakes from Orlando.

The greatest advantage UCF held over Kent State belonged in the trenches. The Knights’ defensive line registered three sacks, six tackles for loss, and provided loads of pressure on quarterback Mike Alaimo all night, forcing the Purdue transfer into quick deliveries — as evidenced in a 12-of-31 outing. But Alaimo still showed signs of promise in the contest, completing six of his first nine attempts and directing the offense into UCF territory three times in the first half.

In order for Alaimo to sustain that level of play throughout an entire contest, rather than just a quarter or half, Kent State’s offensive line needs to gel better together. The offensive line combined for two starts (both belonging to left tackle Jimto Obidegwu) heading into the season, but now, all five linemen — including true freshman center Andrew Page — have valuable experience under their belt. They’ll look to fortify their run blocking and provide better lanes for Gavin Garcia and Xavier Williams after the rushing attack averaged 2.6 yards per carry in Orlando.

In his first collegiate start, Mike Alaimo threw for 145 yards on 31 attempts. He added 23 yards as a rusher, and has Kent State’s longest run of the season at 24.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Garcia and Williams combined for 58 yards on 25 carries against UCF, but the running backs — specifically Williams — have proven capable of taking over games before. In Williams’ previous two contests before Thursday night, he attained an aggregate 261 rushing yards on 21 attempts.

Elsewhere in the skill positions, Kent State will look for a No. 1 receiver to emerge after losing a pair of All-MAC standouts at the position. Chrishon McCray (3 receptions, 61 yards) and Trell Harris (4 receptions, 36 yards) were the main proponents of the passing game in Week 1, and those receivers will look for openings on the boundaries as Kent State runs its up-tempo, RPO-infused offense in Fayetteville.

Kent State’s defense did not have a stellar night in Orlando surrendering a Week 1-high 723 yards of offense, but one area was executed tremendously. While the Golden Flashes only forced one UCF punt the entire contest, they recorded a total of four stops on the Knights thanks to winning the turnover battle 3-1. Cornerback D.J. Miller and New Mexico State transfer outside linebacker Nick Giacolone both provided top-notch coverage in the end zone to pick off UCF, while the team also pounced on a fumble in the first quarter.

How sustainable is this turnover output? We’ve seen some teams like 2022 USC maintain that aggressive, high-risk, high-reward style of play the entire year, but Kent State will need to record more stops to prevent another 50-piece from coming Saturday. There are viable pieces throughout the lineup, ranging from three-year starting defensive tackle CJ West (who clogs the middle well at 6’2”, 315 pounds) to Missouri transfer Devin Nicholson. From the outside linebacker spot, Nicholson logged a game-high 13 tackles including 11 solo stops and two tackles for loss in his Kent State debut. The former SEC starter is more than familiar with Arkansas, as Saturday marks his fifth time pitted against the Razorbacks.

Arkansas Razorbacks outlook

If there’s one thing to know about the Arkansas Razorbacks under fourth-year head coach Sam Pittman, it’s that you can count on them come September. Since 2021, Pittman has posted an 8-1 record in the month, and now, he’s eyeing the program’s third consecutive 3-0 start, an instance which hasn’t occurred since 1977-79. But before improving to 3-0, Arkansas must not overlook Kent State despite status as 36-point favorites.

The Razorbacks trot out a longtime reliable quarterback in KJ Jefferson. The 6’3”, 247 pound Mississippi native is renowned for his dual threat capabilities and his ability to utilize his size to his advantage. The powerful quarterback is coming off consecutive 2,600-yard seasons with a combined 45 touchdown passes to nine interceptions over that span. As a runner, he’s attained the 640 yard threshold in back-to-back years, capable of breaking out for 100 in a single game on occasion.

Saturday’s debut showed the same old Jefferson Razorback fans have acquainted themselves with over the years. He completed an efficient 18-of-23 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1 while adding a rushing score in the 43-point victory.

He’s equipped with one of the best SEC running backs on offense in Raheim “Rocket” Sanders. Saturday wasn’t Sanders’ most explosive outing, but the reigning first team all-conference back still contributed two touchdowns, launching his follow-up act to a 1,400-yard rampage in 2022. As a whole, Arkansas’ rushing attack didn’t produce the expected results against Western Carolina, averaging 2.9 yards per carry. But Sanders, along with secondary back AJ Green, look to feast on a Kent State run defense which is currently 133rd of 133 FBS teams in ground defense — allowing 389 rushing yards to UCF last Thursday. Editor’s note: Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman announced Sanders is out with an injury during his Wednesday night radio show.

Western Carolina v Arkansas
Arkansas RB Raheim “Rocket” Sanders rushed for 1,443 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2022, earning First Team All-SEC honors.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Arkansas’ receiving corps is one position group without as much established talent, and the Razorbacks are looking for emerging stars. The transfer portal was heavily utilized to stock up on this position, luring small-school prospects Andrew Armstrong and Isaac TeSlaa as well as Bowling Green wide receiver Tyrone Broden. Armstrong and TeSlaa both had solid openers with 65+ receiving yards and a touchdown, as did redshirt sophomore Jaedon Wilson, who accumulated a team-high 83 yards on three catches.

Like Kent State’s struggles with run defense, aerial defense has been a heel for Arkansas recently. The Razorbacks ranked dead last in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game in 2022 at 295, but those struggles were addressed through the transfer portal. Three of Arkansas’ starting five defensive backs are new to the team this year. Strong safety Al Walcott was a force at Baylor last year with 10 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and four pass breakups, while cornerback Jaheim Singletary arrived from a loaded Georgia defensive backfield. Additions like Walcott and Singletary worked wonders in the defense immediately, and the Razorback secondary totaled four interceptions in Week 1.

As UCF demonstrated, stout front seven play is the key to shutting down Kent State’s offense. The Razorbacks are replacing talented linebackers Drew Sanders and Bumper Pool, but the unit hopes to remain sturdy under the direction of Chris Paul Jr., who contributed five tackles against Western Carolina. Paul is not only one of the team’s premier run-stoppers, but also one of the top pass rushers from 2022. Arkansas hopes to spearhead that pass rush with the likes of Trajan Jeffcoat, who totaled 11.5 sacks in four seasons at Missouri, and Zach Williams, who registered 4.5 sacks in 2022 — most among returning Razorbacks.


Even after snatching three takeaways against UCF, it’s clear Kent State’s defense has plenty to work on. The Golden Flashes couldn’t register sustainable stops, allowing 723 yards to the Knights — with no particular strength established in the run defense or pass defense.

Kent State looks like a team tied for the fewest returning starters in the country right now, and it shares that title with Colorado. But the difference is, the Buffaloes are relying on significantly more transfer portal talent with starting experience. The Golden Flashes should show flashes of improvement in Fayetteville, but Arkansas likely showcases a repeat of last week.

That would involve efficient quarterback play by KJ Jefferson, a stifling performance from the defense, and probably better rushing numbers than those attained against Western Carolina. The end result could be lopsided, but Kent State is no stranger to these difficult non-conference clashes, and games like this could pay off come MAC play.

Prediction: Arkansas 52, Kent State 10