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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. 99: Kent State

Though CSNY wrote "Ohio," its song "Helplessly Hoping" fits Kent State best.

Times change, teams improve, programs go on the decline. The Wing T begets the wishbone begets the option; Knute Rockne’s brilliance was followed by Don Coryell’s revolution, which led to the birth of the West Coast offense. We had Princeton, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania; then we had Notre Dame and Army; then it was the turn for Alabama, U.S.C., Nebraska, Penn State, Ohio State and dozens of others; now it’s Florida. Now we have the Air Raid, the spread, the Pistol, the zone read, the vertical game, and so on. Times change… yet Kent State, for nearly a century, has remained the worst program in major college football.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Kent, Oh.

Nickname
Golden Flashes

Returning starters
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 109

2009 record
(5-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 88

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    Murray St.
  • Sept. 11
    at Boston College
  • Sept. 18
    at Penn St.
  • Oct. 2
    at Miami (Ohio)
  • Oct. 9
    Akron
  • Oct. 16
    at Toledo
  • Oct. 23
    at Bowling Green
  • Oct. 30
    Ball State
  • Nov. 6
    Temple
  • Nov. 13
    Army
  • Nov. 20
    at Western Michigan
  • Nov. 26
    Ohio

Last year’s prediction

The MAC schedule doesn’t do the Flashes any favors; they get four teams with a similar talent level (E.M.U., Ohio, Akron and Temple) on the road. Their final three home opponents combined to win 23 games in 2008, including conference champion Buffalo. Past performance, combined with major question marks on offense, leaves me to believe Kent State will at best match last season’s win total (4-8).

2009 recap

In a nutshell For evidence that it’s defense, not offense, that wins college football games, look at the 2009 Golden Flashes. Last year’s team was not good offensively — in fact, worse than the Kent State team that won four games in 2008 — averaging only 327.7 yards of total offense and 19.2 points per game. Part of the struggles on offense can be tied back to first- and second-year starters littering the depth chart, as well as an injury to all-conference running back Eugene Jarvis. But how about that K.S.U. defense? Improvement was made across the board: 22.4 points per game allowed, down from 31.7 points per game in 2008; 356.0 yards of defense allowed per game, down from 395.2 yards per game; 137.1 yards allowed on the ground, down from 178.7 in 2008; and 33 sacks, up from a paltry 18. It stands to reason that if Kent State can find an average offense to go with last season’s defense, the Golden Flashes may land six wins for only the fourth time since 1978.

High point By far the season’s most impressive victory was a decisive – dare I say dominating – 20-11 win at Ohio, the eventual division champs, on Oct. 24. The Flashes held Ohio to -9 yards rushing (164 total yards) and to 3-15 on third and fourth downs in the win.

Low point At 5-5 through October, Kent State needed only one win in its final three games to reach bowl eligibility. It wouldn’t happen: losses by 28-20 at Akron, by 47-13 at Temple and by 9-6 to Buffalo in the season finale led to the team’s 5-7 finish. Don’t let the close loss to the Bulls fool you; Buffalo out-gained K.S.U. by 161 yards and allowed only 31 yards passing, but were stymied by four turnovers.

Tidbit Kent State’s most wins in consecutive seasons since 1978? Try 12: seven wins in 1987, five in 1988. In fact, the Golden Flashes have not had back-to-back winning campaigns since 1976-77, when the Dennis Fitzgerald-led teams went 8-4 and 6-5. Since then, Kent State has followed a six-win season in 2001 with a three-win 2002 and a six-win 2006 with a three-win 2007.

Tidbit (losing edition) Kent State has a losing record in the head-to-head series with each of its 11 F.B.S. opponents in 2010. Both Boston College and Penn State hold 2-0 marks over the Golden Flashes; Miami (Ohio) leads its series 44-13; Akron leads 30-20-2; Toledo leads 22-21; Bowling Green is ahead 55-16-6; Ball State leads 19-5; Army leads 1-0; Western Michigan is 32-18-1 and Ohio is ahead 38-22-2. Kent State and Temple are tied at 2-2, though the Owls beat the Golden Flashes by 34 points a year ago.

Former players in the N.F.L.

10 WR Josh Cribbs (Cleveland), WR Julian Edelman (New England), S Abram Elam (Cleveland), TE Antonio Gates (San Diego), LB James Harrison (Pittsburgh), DT Daniel Muir (Indianapolis), CB Rico Murray (Cincinnati), OL Jermail Porter (Kansas City), CB Jack Williams (Denver), S Usama Young (New Orleans).

Arbitrary top five list

Best songs from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
1. “Almost Cut My Hair.”
2. “Helplessly Hoping.”
3. “Woodstock.”
4. “Ohio.”
5. “Guinnevere.”

Coaching

Doug Martin (Kentucky ’85), 24-46 over six seasons with the Golden Flashes. His best season came in 2006, when Kent State rode a stellar defense to a 6-6 mark, their most victories since 2001 and a five-game improvement over their 1-10 finish of 2005. They also won five games in conference in 2006, a number that accounted for more than half of Martin’s conference victories through 2008. His team surpassed expectations last fall in winning five games, which was Kent State’s highest output since that 2006 season. This improvement has quieted some of Martin’s critics. His detractors point to his career mark, which is in danger of reaching 20 games under .500, as well as his five losing seasons in six tries. To be fair, though last season does improve the outlook surrounding the program, it does remain true that Martin has yet to post a winning season at Kent State; the program as a whole has only one winning season since 1987, a stretch of ineptitude rivaling any in the modern history of college football. Before taking over the head coaching job at Kent State, Martin spent one year as the team’s offensive coordinator under Dean Pees (a 5-7 2003 season); prior to that, he spent 11 seasons as an assistant at East Carolina, first as the tight ends and receivers coach (1992-95), then as offensive coordinator (1996-2002). Martin, along with head coach Steve Logan, fielded some very impressive offensive attacks with the Pirates – especially those led by quarterback David Garrard – making his lack of success on that side of the ball with the Flashes all the more puzzling. However, Kent State could easily reach bowl eligibility if the offense can catch up with last season’s defense, which allowed roughly nine points per game fewer than in 2008. Martin may need a bowl trip – or at least a repeat of last season’s five-win finish – to save his job. As I wrote in last year’s preview, progress is nice, but most rebuilding projects don’t take seven years.

Players to watch

Two options at quarterback, though there is a clear leader as we enter the summer. Sophomore Spencer Keith started seven games under center last fall — missing the final game due to injury — setting new school freshman records with 2,147 yards and 14 scores. Truly a fine season for the sophomore, who completed 57.1 percent of his passes with 11 interceptions. Keith came on strong over his final five starts, throwing for at least two scores in each game from Oct. 17 through Nov. 7. His ascension to the starting role came at the expense of junior Giorgio Morgan, who started four of the first five games of 2009; unfortunately for Morgan, that time saw him throw five interceptions without a touchdown. Kent State has been very high on Morgan throughout his career, however, and he’s a solid second option behind Keith.

Welcome back, Eugene Jarvis. The pint-size former all-MAC running back was granted a sixth year of eligibility after playing in only four games last season due to injury. He should step right back into the starting lineup, though junior Jacquise Terry played pretty well in his stead: a team-best 647 yards rushing and 4 scores. At worst, should Jarvis not regain his prior form, he and Terry are a capable one-two punch. If Jarvis can come anywhere near his 2007 totals — 1,669 yards and 10 scores — look out; Kent State may have a very capable offense. This is especially true with the development of sophomore receiver Tyshon Goode, who formed an immediate bond with Keith once the quarterback was inserted into the starting lineup. Goode set program rookie records across the board: receptions (53), receiving yards (755) and touchdowns (5). His finest stretch came over three consecutive games against Ohio, Western Michigan and Akron, when he combined for 28 grabs, 435 yard and 4 scores. Also in the mix at receiver are juniors Sam Kirkland and Kendrick Pressley.

The offensive line is young, even though three starters are back from a year ago. Sophomore Brian Winters is back at tackle — though he moves from the right side to the left — as is junior Michael Fay at left guard and junior Chris Anzevino at center. A fourth 2009 starter, former left tackle Pat Reedy, will move to tight end as a senior. Youngsters will battle to step in on the right side of the line: freshman Tom Pizzuro and junior Charles Lester will compete at right guard, while sophomore Kent Cleveland and redshirt freshman Bryan Wagner — a tight end in 2009 — will compete at right tackle.

Though the defense lost four starters, it remains a veteran, experienced unit. I have to start in the secondary, where the underrated free safety Brian Lainhart, a two-time all-MAC pick, is the key to the entire defense. Lainhart was superb in 2009: 87 tackles and 7 picks, the latter tops in the conference and a new school record. His junior campaign came on the heels of a breakout 2008, when he led the team with 106 stops with a team-leading six interceptions; he has 15 career interceptions heading into his final season. Team Lainhart with senior strong safety Dan Hartman (72 tackles, 4 interceptions) and you have the best safety combo in the MAC. Junior Josh Pleasant is back at one cornerback spot, and junior Chris Gilbert and sophomore Sidney Saulter will compete for the second starting spot. Don’t count out Norman Wolfe, though he lacks the size of the aforementioned pair.

Kent State has a good problem at linebacker, in a strange way. The two returning starters, seniors Corbani Mixon and Dorian Wood, are both penciled in at middle linebacker. Will it remain that way? Not if the coaching staff is wise, though Mixon was limited during the spring due to injury. Wood started on the weak side a season ago, leading me to believe that he could again play on the outside in 2010, though the depth chart likely won’t be settled until the fall. As it currently stands, sophomore Luke Batton will start on the weak side and senior Will Johnson on the strong side; however, expect some shakeup along the starting front.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line Two starters return up front: nose tackle Quinton Rainey and end Monte Simmons. Rainey is an average run stopper off the nose — not perfect — but he can be a disruptor. The senior made 29 tackles (11 for loss) and 2 sacks last fall in 12 games, 10 of which were starts. The only issue with Rainey? His lack of size: he stands 5’11, 235 pounds; not exactly prototypical size on the nose. Can Rainey stand up as the lead man on the interior of the Kent State line? Simmons is a sure thing. He started seven games last fall, splitting time with fellow senior Zach Williams, leading the team with 16 tackles for loss and 8 sacks. With added snaps, Simmons is a clear contender for all-conference honors in 2010. Speaking of Williams (21 tackles, 3.5 sacks), he’ll battle junior Lee Stalker in the race to replace 39-game starter Kevin Hogan. Williams was a more significant presence in the line rotation last fall than was Stalker, though Stalker found himself earning more first-team snaps throughout the spring. Taking into account Rainey’s slight build, it would behoove Kent State to team the senior with a tackle like junior Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, a larger, stouter interior lineman. It will be either Kitchen or sophomore Dana Brown starting at tackle, where Kent State must replace 2009 starter Aaron Hull.

Game(s) to watch

The schedule could be more difficult; Kent State only takes on a pair of B.C.S. conference opponents, and games against Murray State and Army are winnable. (The Golden Flashes had better beat Murray State, at least.) Keep track of how Kent State plays from Oct. 30 on, especially given the stretch of five home games in six weeks.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I like this team. Kent State is good enough to give conference opponents fits, and perhaps, if the offense can score points with any regularity, land a bowl berth. Another key for this team will be avoiding injuries, which was a major issue with the Golden Flashes a year ago. So, to recap: if K.S.U. can score points, play similarly strong defense and stay healthy, it could — could — land its first trip to postseason play in nearly 40 years. More so than any other team previewed thus far on the Countdown — by far — Kent State is capable of exceeding its ranking. So why don’t I have the Golden Flashes improving upon last season’s win total? For the reason most likely to infuriate the Kent State fan base… the program’s history. As noted, Kent State has not made a habit of putting together successive strong seasons; will this year be any different? My largest specific issue with this year’s team is the offense, paltry a year ago. Keith does return, as does Jarvis, and the line brings back three starters. There should be some improvement, but how much? Will it take a large enough step forward to push Kent State to an improvement in the win column? I’m higher on this squad than any Kent State team in the three years of the Countdown, but not high enough to predict a bowl trip for the Golden Flashes.

Dream season Kent State finishes with a winning record for the first time since 2001, and goes bowling for the first time since 1972.

Nightmare season For the second time under Martin, the Golden Flashes lose 10 games a year after winning five.

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. You can also check out Flash Fanatics. The best place for chatter? Check out Kent State Sports blog from local reporter David Carducci of the Record-Courier.

Tidbit (reminder edition) Just a quick note. If you’d like your favorite message board, blog or local beat reporter to be included in the above section, shoot us a line at audible@presnapread.com or send me a note on Twitter. I’d be happy to include any site you’d like, especially for the non-B.C.S. conference programs without a ton of options. That’s just the kind of guy I am, I guess.

Up Next

Who is No. 98? Our next program is located in the most populous U.S. city founded in the 20th century.

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Comments

  1. sy says:

    UNLV?

  2. charles says:

    “Almost Cut My Hair”?? Granted, if you count only the 5 best while Neil Young was there (their truly best work was before he arrived), you have to lower the bar, but that isn’t even in the top 5 on that _album_.
    Come to think of it, “Guinnivere” was pre-Young, so the absence of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Marrakesh Express” can only attributed to some sort of NYT effete East-Coast liberal nattering-negativistic-nabob inverse snobbery.
    -ch

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