Today marks the 100 day countdown to the start of the 2020 Penn State Football season, and what better way to celebrate than taking a look at the Nittany Lions first opponent of the season — the Kent State Golden Flashes of the Mid-American Conference.
Quick 2019 Recap: Kent State’s 2019 season was shaping up like most of the others, with just a few victories and the season ending in November. There were visible improvements and the team was no longer an easy victory for MAC foes, but the wins were hard to come by. Then, things all changed during a Thursday night contest against Buffalo.
Down 27-6 with under eight minutes in the fourth quarter, the Golden Flashes somehow managed 24 unanswered points to win the game in regulation. This was the start of a three-game winning streak to end the regular season, launching them into a bowl game for just the third time in program history. The surprises weren’t over yet, as they went on to upset Utah State in a 51-41 shootout in the Frisco Bowl. It was the first time the Golden Flashes had ever won a bowl game, coming in their 100th season as a football program.
Offensive Player to Watch: QB Dustin Crum
Crum improbably wrestled the starting quarterback role from Woody Barrett, an Auburn transfer who had a strong first season with the Flashes in 2018. But Crum proved too effective to return to the bench after some early reps, and it paid off in a big way. Crum blossomed as a passer, competing nearly 70 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. He also led the team with in rushing yards and touchdowns, accumulating 707 yards and six scores along the way. It was an outstanding first season as a starter, and now Crum has the potential to be the MAC’s Offensive Player of the Year as a senior.
Defensive Player to Watch: LB Cepeda Phillips
Phillips has gradually improved during his time in Kent, and really exploded during his junior season in 2019. Phillips is the team’s leading returning tackler with 93 this past fall, to go along with 6.5 TFLs and two sacks. There is a strong chance Phillips will be playing on Sundays after this season, and his veteran leadership will pay off as the quarterback of the Golden Flashes in 2020.
Major Changes for 2020: Kent State had a stable offseason and returns most of its key players, making them a candidate to win their first-ever MAC title. However, if the team puts together another winning season in 2020, expect some bigger programs to come calling for head coach Sean Lewis. Entering his third season as head coach of the Flashes, Lewis is just 34 years old and seems to be a rising star of his profession.
Penn State Wins If: The Nittany Lions come prepared and ready to play, as they are the more talented team by a large margin. Kent State won’t roll over and could make things interesting if Penn State takes them lightly. That hasn’t been an issue under Franklin, and I can’t see starting this season with so much veteran leadership returning.
Kent State Wins If: The Golden Flashes defense would need to find a way to prevent Penn State’s offense from getting into a rhythm. On top of that, they would still need to follow the usual upset recipe - several long time-consuming drives, winning the turnover battle by a margin of four or more, avoiding penalties and other careless mistakes, and making a big play on special teams or two. Sean Lewis has quickly built a reputation for getting the very most out of his players, and the Flashes will leave everything on the field, regardless of what the oddsmakers have to say.