Wow. We are just one day away from Penn State welcoming Kent State to Beaver Stadium and kicking off the 2016 season. We’ve already heard how the BSD staff thinks the game will go, so let’s get some outside perspective.
For that, I’ve asked some questions to Alan Rucker, the managing editor of Hustle Belt, SB Nation’s site devoted to all 12 teams of the Mid-American Conference. We know that Kent State had a tough defense and an anemic offense last year, so I asked Alan about some of the impact players from those units.
If the Golden Flashes are as bad as advertised on offense, they won’t pose much of a threat on that side of the ball. More likely, the focus of Penn State fans will be on how the new-look offense led by offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and quarterback Trace McSorley performs against a solid defense in the opening game. A good performance on Saturday will no doubt make some fans more optimistic about the direction of the program.
Black Shoe Diaries: Kent State is supposed to have one of the toughest defenses in all of mid-major land this season. In fact, last year they held Big Ten foe Minnesota to just 10 points in a close road loss. Will the Flashes serve as a good measuring stick for Penn State's new-look offense? Does the pass rush have the potential to give the maligned Penn State offensive line trouble the way Temple did in last season's opener?
Hustle Belt: Yes to both the former and the latter. Kent State's defense is good. Really good. And we aren't just talking mid-major good. The Golden Flashes consistently held teams to low points and low yards, even in the pass-happy MAC. People will point to 52 points given up to Illinois as some sort of indictment, but read beyond the box score. The offense shot themselves in the foot with four turnovers which completely killed every chance at a shutdown kind of game. It's a sad reminder that not even a championship-caliber defense can overcome a completely inept offensive unit.
It's a measuring stick for the Nittany Lions in so much that despite the skills and stats, this is still a MAC defense. A really good MAC defense, but even as a MAC fan, it is sort of expected that a program like Penn State should be able to do whatever it wants whenever it wants on the field. The pass rush should concern you, most especially Terence Waugh, as he can create havoc in both the run game and the pass game.
BSD: Kent State's offense was one of the worst in the nation last year with Colin Reardon and George Bollas splitting time under center. Neither quarterback reached 1,000 yards passing, and that made it easy for opponent to concentrate on stopping Kent's ground game. Which guy will be the starter as the Flashes open the 2016 campaign at Beaver Stadium?
HB: Freshman Justin Agner is at the top of the depth chart for the Golden Flashes, and will start, but expect to see three different QBs at some point over the course of the day. It becomes prudent here to point out the old adage that if you play two QBs you don't have a QB. Go ahead and extrapolate that out if you play three QBs. In truth, I think this is less deception and more lack of standout talent. Expect Kent to play a ton of different personnel and stick with whoever has the hot hand.
BSD: Trayion Durham led the Flashes in rushing last year, but he only gained 428 yards on 3.3 yards per carry. Now that he has moved on, will one of the returning sophomores like Raekwon James or Myles Washington take over the bulk of the workload, or will freshman Justin Rankin emerge as the new lead back?
HB: Honestly, until the QB situation works itself out, it really won't matter. If there's no credible passing threat, then teams can simply load the box with single coverage elsewhere and not have to worry. Both James and Washington are capable, and the offensive line isn't bad, but the Golden Flashes are one-dimensional by default and that means the rushing game doesn't have a ton of room to navigate.
BSD: Antwan Dixon was considered the big-play threat of the Kent State offense last season, but he's going to miss the entire 2016 campaign due to a blood disorder. How much will Kent State miss their sophomore receiver and who is the best bet to replace his production?
HB: He's a huge loss. Every Kent State supporter wants him to get healthy and have a long and successful life, but to call it anything other than snuffing out one of the few bright spots of this offense would be ignoring reality. Junior Kris White now has to shoulder the burden of being a WR1, and that's another big question of whether or not he's capable. He's a good second or third option, but put him at the top of the depth chart and let defenses key on him and it could be a long season. Of course, if there's no one in the QB role capable of passing it to him correctly it's sort of a moot point anyway. Hashtag sports.
BSD: Kent State is returning three All-MAC First Team performers to its defense. Two of those players — safety Nate Holley and cornerback Demetrius Monday — are in the secondary. Do you think Holley is more of a threat to Penn State's running attack or the passing game? Can Monday make life difficult for top receiver Chris Godwin?
HB: Holley is likely an equal threat to both. He's a true top-level talent that has a good chance of playing on Sunday. Hard hitting, but good coverage, and any receiver coming across the middle past the second level should probably make sure his mouthpiece is in. The same goes for Monday. He's a true shutdown corner and will force Penn State to look at different options than their primary targets, which is a good problem for the Kent State defense to cause if they have any hope of this game being respectable.
BSD: Penn State is favored by 21 points on Saturday. How do you see the game going for the Flashes?
HB: If this was a top level MAC program like Toledo with a high octane offense, I'd say anything is possible. This isn't that. In fact, even the occasional "hang around until the start of the fourth quarter" that some MAC schools employ against a P5 opponent seems a stretch. 21 points seems low for the final number, and I think most MAC fans are expecting this to be a blood letting that won't be worth watching past the first quarter.
Thanks again, Alan, for taking the time to answer our questions. Remember to keep reading Hustle Belt to stay up to date on MACtion all season long.