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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 98: Kent State

Kent State is the worst offensive team in the history of college football. There’s no debate about that. The Golden Flashes have scored 13,897 points over the span of 91 years and 849 games, an average of 16.4 points per game. The program has scored more than 300 points in a season only five times in its history: 1954, 1997, 2003, 2004 and 2008. If you were willing to do the math, you could combine the Golden Flashes’ two highest-scoring seasons – 335 points in 2004 and 337 points in 1997 – and still fall short of Houston’s 690-point outburst from a year ago. If you so chose, you could also argue the point that Kent State is the worst program in F.B.S. history. The Golden Flashes have the lowest career winning percentage of any program with roots dating back to the last century; Kent State is also the only such program with a career winning percentage below 40 percent. If you were willing, you could probably make the argument that housing the worst offense in F.B.S. history has been a primary factor behind Kent State being considered the worst program in F.B.S. history.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Kent, Oh.

Nickname
Golden Flashes

Returning starters
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 113

2011 record
(5-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 92

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    Towson
  • Sept. 8
    at Kentucky
  • Sept. 19
    at Buffalo
  • Sept. 29
    Ball St.
  • Oct. 6
    at E.M.U.
  • Oct. 13
    at Army
  • Oct. 20
    Western Michigan
  • Oct. 27
    at Rutgers
  • Nov. 3
    Akron
  • Nov. 10
    at Miami (Ohio)
  • Nov. 17
    at Bowling Green
  • Nov. 23
    Ohio

Last year’s prediction

Hazell doesn’t strike me as a one-year turnaround guy; he strikes me more as a coach with a blueprint, a strategy, one that likely involves replenishing a roster largely devoid of major talent while installing his philosophies on either side of the ball. So if it takes him a year to get things in order, I’m sure Kent State is willing to take a slight step back in order to reach six wins. What’s another losing season at this point?

2011 recap

In a nutshell In some cases, though not all, or even half, a rookie head coach and his new team work in concert from the first kickoff of the first game of the season to the final whistle of the final game of the season. That didn’t happen at Kent State, though due in some part to circumstances outside of the team’s control. Thanks to one of the toughest opening stretches in the F.B.S. – Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette, Kansas State, Ohio and Northern Illinois, all before Oct. 9 – Kent State scuffled out of the gate, losing six of its first seven games. The Golden Flashes started winning games once the schedule improved, but here’s guessing that K.S.U. was getting better every week under Darrell Hazell and his staff, even if the won-loss record suggested otherwise. While K.S.U. did not reach bowl play, instead winning five games for the third straight season, it’s hard to view Hazell’s debut as anything but a solidly satisfying omen for the future.

High point Four straight wins from Oct. 29 to Nov. 19. The best was the fourth, when Kent State slowed down Eastern Michigan’s running game just enough to score a 28-22 win. The victory left K.S.U. on the doorstep of bowl eligibility heading into the final game of the regular season.

Low point A 9-3 loss to Miami (Ohio) on Oct. 15. Ugly? You better believe it. Hideously ugly. I watched the game on television. If you were there, watching it live from the stands, may God bless you and Kent State with a comparatively beautiful victory at some point during Hazell’s tenure.

Tidbit Good news, bad news. The good news was that Hazell made an immediate impact on Kent State’s turnover margin: the Golden Flashes were plus-12 on the year, the second-best margin in the MAC. The bad new is that K.S.U. continued to commit far too many costly penalties, finishing last in the league with an average of 6.3 penalties for 64.0 penalty yards per game. The Golden Flashes ranked 12th in the MAC in penalties in both 2010 and 2009.

Tidbit (good losses edition) Kent State lost seven games in 2011. Only one, to Miami (Ohio), came against a team that wouldn’t reach bowl play. In fact, each the remaining six teams won at least nine games on the season: Alabama went 12-1, Northern Illinois went 11-3, Kansas State went 10-3, Ohio went 10-4 and Temple and Louisiana-Lafayette went 9-4. Counting the RedHawks, these seven opponents went 55-27 on the year; if you remove the RedHawks from the equation, the six remaining teams went a combined 51-19.

Former players in the N.F.L.

11 WR Josh Cribbs (Cleveland), WR Julian Edelman (New England), TE Antonio Gates (San Diego), LB James Harrison (Pittsburgh), WR Sam Kirkland (Washington), DT Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (Baltimore), TE Jameson Konz (Seattle), DT Daniel Muir (Green Bay), CB Rico Murray (Cincinnati), S Usama Young (Cleveland).

Arbitrary top five list

Neil Young’s studio albums
1. “Harvest,” 1972.
2. “After the Gold Rush,” 1970.
3. “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” 1969.
4. “Tonight’s the Night,” 1975.
5. ”Harvest Moon,” 1992.

Coaching

Darrell Hazell (Muskingum ’86), 5-7 after one season at Kent State. While the Golden Flashes failed to top the five-win mark – the program’s current nemesis – it’s fair to deem Hazell’s debut season a success. The Flashes remained stout defensively, holding six MAC opponents to 22 points or less, though the offense was again a major issue. Hazell is Ohio through and through, from his college days at Muskingum to his first job at Oberlin College to his stay at Ohio State, where he spent seven years as an assistant. His time under Jim Tressel began in 2004, when he was hired away from Rutgers, and extended through the 2010 season, with Hazell starting as wide receivers coach before eventually adding assistant head coach duties. It was in the latter capacity that Hazell began to draw attention, even if he was largely a behind-the-scenes figure for those only familiar with the big names associated with one of the nation’s power programs. As one of Tressel’s lead assistants, however, Hazell was involved both in game-planning and in Ohio State’s recruiting machine, which will undoubtedly help Hazell into Buckeye State living rooms long closed to Kent State’s advances. His B.C.S. experience doesn’t stop there: there’s three years at Rutgers and another two at West Virginia, as well as two seasons both with Army and Western Michigan. The latter was 15 years ago, but it did give Hazell at least a taste of what MAC football is all about. Hazell should feel more comfortable in his second season with K.S.U., and likewise for the returning players entering their second season in his system.

Players to watch

Boiled down, Kent State’s season can potentially be described using one fact. When Spencer Keith doesn’t throw an interception, the Golden Flashes win. When he does – and when Keith throws picks, he really throws picks – the Golden Flashes lose. Since the start of the 2010 season, K.S.U. is 9-2 when Keith remains turnover-free; on the other hand, the Golden Flashes are 1-12 when he throws at least one interception – with the lone win coming against Murray State in the 2010 season opener. When Keith is on, Kent State can hang with nearly any team in the MAC.

The good news: Keith ended last season playing the best football of his career. He threw seven touchdowns without an interception over Kent State’s 4-1 finish, throwing for more than 260 yards twice and only once, in the win over Eastern Michigan, completing less than 54.8 percent of his attempts. This was a great sign for the Golden Flashes a year ago, one that helped the team close strong, and it’s a wonderful sign for Keith as he enters his senior season.

Now look for Keith to end his career in a reserve role. In February, Hazell signed JUCO transfer David Fisher, who began his career at Nevada. As you might think, given his original college of choice coming out of high school, Fisher could give this offense the sort of dual-threat aspect its missed since Julian Edelman’s final season in 2008. One worry with Fisher is that after taking a redshirt at Nevada and serving as the backup during his first JUCO season, he hasn’t taken enough snaps to be ready for starting his debut season in the MAC. But merely having Fisher in the fold has helped Kent State; either he outplays Keith, earning the starting role on talent and potential, or he’s a valuable reserve this fall and the heir apparent a year down the road.

Fisher was one star of Kent State’s spring game – he completed 7 of 11 attempts for 103 yards while Keith struggled. A second star was junior running back Dri Archer, who sat out all of last season due to academic issues. In shorts and sneakers, Archer is the quickest player on this roster; he’s also the fastest in full pads, as evidenced as his 66-yard touchdown run during the end-of-spring scrimmage. With Archer back, Kent State can take some pressure off of sophomore Trayion Durham (team-leading 630 yards), who seemed to tire down the stretch last fall thanks to a heavy workload. This is a very nice pair: Durham’s a bruiser, Archer a speedster. A second sophomore, Anthony Meray (240 yards), rounds out the top group.

It took seven or eight games, but Kent State had identified a starting offensive line by the end of October. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the team began turning the corner at roughly the same time. Four of the five linemen who started the final four games of last season are back in the fold: left tackle Brian Winters, left guard Josh Kline, right guard Tyler Arend and right tackle Kent Cleveland. Winters, Kline and Cleveland are seniors; Arend is a junior, as is Phil Huff, who holds Chris Anzevino’s old spot at center. Huff, who is undersized, will give it his best shot: Anzevino started all 48 games of his career, earning all-MAC honors as a junior. And while Winters – the line’s best – Cleveland and Kline are locked into starting roles, springtime injuries led Arend to drop out of the lineup in favor of sophomore Robert Kearney, a lightly-used reserve last fall.

Happiness is being disappointed with allowing 324.6 yards per game. This is Kent State: defense isn’t the problem. The Golden Flashes replaced six starters heading into last season and suffered only the slightest decline on defense, giving up less than an added field goal and 18 yards of total offense per game. While five starters must be replacing heading into September, there’s absolutely every reason to think that K.S.U. will continue playing defense as well as any team in the MAC – and with Temple out of the picture, likely better than any team in the conference. The Golden Flashes don’t always win games, but when they do, they win with defense.

Let’s talk about Roosevelt Nix. How he looks before kickoff: 245 pounds, maybe 6’0. Not imposing. Then the whistle blows, and Nix turns into the most dominant linemen in the MAC – and, perhaps, one of the most dominant defenders on the non-B.C.S. conference level. His numbers were down slightly last fall (39 tackles, 17.0 for loss, 4.5 sacks), but that was due solely to the attention he received from opposing offenses; Nix remained a menace, earning first-team all-MAC honors for the second straight season after being named the MAC Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman. He had a sack and two tackles for loss against Alabama, so don’t think for a minute that Nix is racking up crooked numbers against the MAC but staying quiet in September. He’s the most dominant linemen in this league – he just doesn’t look the part.

But even with Nix in the middle, K.S.U. has some issues to address along the defensive line. There’s a hole at nose tackle without Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, though this gap has more to do with Kitchen’s immensity – I sincerely doubt that he weighed only 335 pounds – and less to do with his production, which Kent State can easily replace with senior Dana Brown, a six-game starter last fall. But can Brown (26 tackles, 4.5 for loss) stand tall in the middle of the line over the span of an entire season?

One player who takes full advantage of Nix’s presence up front is senior end Jake Dooley (45 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 5.0 sacks). Dooley, who lines up right alongside Nix, will be joined at end by junior Mark Fackler (21 tackles, 5.5 for loss). Fackler will step in for Lee Stalker, the second lost starter along the defensive line; after he played well as a reserve, Fackler is one new starter to watch on this defense. With Dooley, Fackler and Jake Hitchens, Kent State looks in fine shape at end.

And the Golden Flashes are in steady hands at linebacker. Luke Batton (102 tackles), the team’s leading tackler, earned third-team all-MAC honors a year ago. Weak side linebacker C.J. Malauulu (83 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks) was a second-team all-conference pick. While K.S.U. will spend a good portion of snaps with a fifth defensive back in place of a third linebacker, you’ll typically see Batton and Malauulu on the field from start to finish. When K.S.U. adds another defensive back, it’ll be at the expense of sophomore strong side linebacker Andre Parker, who replaces Kyle Reese.

Last year’s secondary intercepted four Alabama passes in the season opener, held Louisiana-Lafayette to 46 yards passing a week later and made life beyond difficult for six of Kent State’s eight opponents during MAC play. When all was said and done, K.S.U. ranked 26th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 24th in yards allowed per attempt and 5th in touchdowns allowed. If you remove games against Ohio and Northern Illinois from the equation, Kent State had one of the top 10 pass defenses in college football.

And the secondary returns largely intact; cornerback Josh Pleasant is the only main contributor that must be replaced. Not that it’ll be that easy: Pleasant, a second-team all-MAC pick, was Kent State’s best cornerback last fall. But the Golden Flashes do return three cornerbacks with starting experience in seniors Norman Wolfe and Sidney Sauter – the likely starters in 2012 – and junior Darius Polk. Sauter will move into the starting lineup after serving as the nickel back a year ago.

Expect more from free safety Calvin Tiggle (66 tackles) and strong safety Luke Wollett (65 tackles). Not that either struggled last fall as first-year starters – far from it, in fact. But it’s only natural that Tiggle, a sophomore, and Wollett, a junior, will be even better with last season’s experience under their belts. Tiggle has athleticism to burn; Wollett can stick his nose in against the run but also play the pass, as his team-best four interception can attest. This secondary is very strong. The same can be said of the defense as a whole.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver Dri Archer will also make an impact at receiver, especially if Durham can step into the 18-carry role Kent State envisions him filling in this offense. If Durham stays healthy, look for Archer to spend most of his time in the slot, where K.S.U. can pit his speed against larger defenders, like a safety or outside linebacker; in addition, Archer can run the ball out of the slot, as he did during his touchdown run in the spring game. Perhaps Archer’s athleticism will take some pressure off of senior Tyshon Goode (24 catches for 316 yards), who had a very disappointing 2011 season. Goode’s issue was one shared by other skill players: he didn’t get comfortable in the new offense until the second half of the year. Goode made 19 receptions for 281 yards over Kent State’s final five games; he was missing in action through September and much of October.

The receiver corps will be interesting. On one hand, you have seniors like Goode, Matt Hurdle (20 receptions for 251 yards), Eric Adeyemi – he’ll team with Archer in Kent State’s return game – and Larry Dawson. This group, thanks in large part to experience, will open the season as the top targets in the passing game. On the other hand, however, you have somewhat-new faces like Archer and completely-new faces like freshmen Josh Boyle and Chris Humphrey.

It’s a nice mix, even with ample rationale for concern: Goode and the seniors are inconsistent, even if they stand as Kent State’s best options; Archer’s learning a new position; and it’s impossible to predict what the freshmen will bring to the table. In addition, K.S.U. needs to find a replacement at tight end for Justin Thompson, who tied for the team lead in catches as a senior. Tim Erjavec will move over from fullback to help fill Thompson’s shoes, even if he’ll continue to spend some time in the backfield. Erjavec, a former walk-on, is on his third position; he played linebacker as a freshman. He’s also the team’s hardest worker, and the sort of no-nonsense skill player with an offensive lineman’s mindset. If you look beyond the numbers, Erjavec is a key figure on Kent State’s offense.

Game(s) to watch

Keep an eye on the swing games, most of which come on the road. These include games like Buffalo, which Kent State should win, but also toss-ups like Eastern Michigan, Army, Miami (Ohio) and Bowling Green. Whether Kent State reaches bowl play hinges entirely on its record in these games. But the schedule as a whole is far from imposing, even if it includes road trips to Kentucky and Rutgers. Kent State can beat Kentucky, by the way, which does leave the chance that this team starts on a tear – which would mark quite the change from a season ago.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell This defense will be the best in the MAC. From Nix and Dooley up front to Batton and Malauulu along the second level to the league’s best secondary, it’s hard to imagine any offense on this schedule – perhaps outside of Ohio – blowing the Golden Flashes out of the water. This defense is more than imposing enough to keep K.S.U. in every game on this schedule. Unfortunately, the offense remains such a looming question mark as to prevent the Golden Flashes from being a true MAC East contender. This is nothing new: Kent State’s offense has been the cause of its woes for years – generations, even – and, perhaps, this year won’t be any different. But I waffled on Kent State for the simple reason that this team seemed close to breaking through a season ago against an extremely difficult schedule; the Golden Flashes should be a better team in the second year under Hazell, and the schedule is far weaker than it was in 2011. In addition, this does seem like the first team previewed thus far that has a genuine chance at breaking out: K.S.U. is confident, for starters, and also loaded defensively. And the offense could take a big step forward if the line gels and either Keith solidifies his game as a senior or Fisher proves himself ready to take on the starting job. Kent State’s a fairly good team, albeit one with enough question marks on offense to be considered a step behind the top teams in the East division. Is this defense good enough to carry an offensively impotent team all the way to bowl play? I don’t think so, but if any MAC defense is good enough to do so, it would be Kent State’s.

Dream season The offense takes a step forward while the defense remains its customarily stingy self. The end result is eight wins – a program-high since 1976 – and the MAC East title.

Nightmare season That the offense fails to move the ball with any consistency isn’t surprising; that the defense takes a huge step forward is the MAC’s most disappointing surprise. Even with an easier schedule, K.S.U. falls to 3-9, 2-6 in conference play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Kent State fans congregate? Plenty of Kent State fans meet up at this MAC message board, though Kent State Insider is also an option. Check out the Kent State Sports blog from David Carducci of the Record-Courier. It’s been pointed out that Carducci now does all his online work via his Twitter feed, which is amazing.

Kent State’s all-name nominee FS Calvin Tiggle.

Word Count

Through 27 teams 91,463.

Up Next

Who is No. 97? The president at tomorrow’s university has nearly the same last name as a former U.S. Surgeon General. It’s a four-lettered name; the surnames would match if the president’s last name repeated its second letter, not its third.

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Comments

  1. Cole says:

    That would be Marshall and Koop/Kopp I suppose?

  2. Monty says:

    That might be the harshest team intro I can remember from you, Paul!

  3. DMK says:

    Certainly a harsh intro! I’m not prepared to argue that Kent St. isn’t the worst program ever, but the 300 point scoring insult is no good. In the old days plenty of teams won national titles without scoring 300 in a year. And Kent could (and did) lose 10 games in a season without giving up 300 points.

    In a different offensive era and with a max of 11 games it was tough to hit the 300 mark unless you played Birmingham High School twice.

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