Penn State fans this season have seen a too-close-for-comfort win over Appalachian State and a very fun road blowout of Pittsburgh. The biggest question so far has to be in regards to the defense. Which is the form we will see going forward? The one that gave up four fourth-quarter touchdowns in the opener and was gashed on the ground by Pittsburgh in the first half? Or the dominating unit that blanked the Panthers in the final 30 minutes?
We might not get a definitive answer in the next two weeks as the Nittany Lions get set to face off against perennial bottom-dwellers in Kent State and Illinois, but having more football to play before Ohio State comes to town should only be good for this developing defense.
Plus, the Golden Flashes are looking spry, having scored a combined 78 points in their first two games thanks to newcomers at head coach and quarterback. Penn State might be favored by a boatload of points on Saturday, but Kent State isn’t going to just lay down. We could even see another mid-major scare like two weeks ago if everything breaks right (or wrong).
To learn more about Kent State, we talked to James Snyder from SB Nation’s MAC blog, Hustle Belt. Thanks to James for taking the time to answer our questions!
Black Shoe Diaries: Former Syracuse co-offensive coordinator Sean Lewis is already looking like a good hire. There’s a new dynamic athlete at quarterback, and he helped Kent State put a scare into Illinois before stomping Howard. Does Lewis have the potential to get this program into yearly bowl contention, or is it too early to tell?
Hustle Belt: Obviously it is too early to tell, but the early returns do look promising. The offense has made a dramatic improvement from last season, and I don’t believe that is just because of the quarterback.
BSD: Junior college transfer Woody Barrett has breathed life into a passing game that was dismal last season. In his Division I debut against Illinois, he was fantastic, throwing for 270 yards while completing 68 percent of his passes and rushing for over 100 yards to boot. In the Howard game, though, he wasn’t nearly as effective even as the Golden Flashes rolled to a big win. Which game do you think best represents what Barrett brings to the table, and what should we expect going forward?
HB: The Howard game, because he affected the game tremendously. While his deep throws didn’t always connect, or usually, they still kept the defense honest. Its focus on his abilities allowed running backs Justin Rankin and Jo-El Shaw to have big games. Rankin rushed for 147 yards on just 12 carries, while Shaw added 105 on 12.
BSD: Rankin is off to a good start as the lead tailback, but he only has three receptions in the passing game after leading the team with 42 in 2017. Should new head coach Sean Lewis look to throw the ball more to Rankin, or is he developing an attack that focuses more on downfield passes?
HB: As is typical for this type of offense, it tends to take what the defenses give it. I think you’ll see the backs get more receptions as the year goes on.
BSD: Speaking of that passing game, Barrett has already completed throws to 11 different targets this season. So far, Raekwon James leads the team in receiving yards and is second in receptions. Is he now a full-time wide receiver, or is he going to get some carries going forward? Is he the most dangerous pass-catcher that Kent State has?
HB: Isaiah McCoy is a 6’3” freshman from Georgia. He didn’t get anything against the Illini, but did manage four receptions for 72 yards against Howard, including a 42-yard touchdown. There are a lot of new and converted faces at receiver — plus the passing game was so atrocious last season — that it really is a mystery what this group can do. With the way the coach likes to mix everything up, I am sure James will get some carries at some point, but I don’t think he will be a “regular” running back again, barring injuries.
BSD: The Kent State defense has been more impressive than the offense in recent years, but last year’s squad only came up with 25 total sacks. In 2018, the Flashes already have seven sacks in two games, including a pair from senior defensive end Theo Eboigbe. Do you expect the pass rush to continue to be this effective all season?
HB: Probably not against Penn State. The defense, like the offense, is more aggressive, so I do think we’ll see more pressure on the quarterback throughout the rest of the season, though.
BSD: Demetrius Monday was a huge factor for the Kent State secondary last year, recording five of the team’s 12 interceptions. With Monday having moved on, is there another player who can step up and have a similar impact on pass defense?
HB: Remember the name Elvis Hines. The sophomore safety is a playmaker who continues to improve. One thing coach Lewis did was take away single-digit jersey numbers, forcing players to earn them. Hines got his in the spring.
BSD: The Golden Flashes are five-touchdown underdogs against Penn State this Saturday. How do you see the game going for Kent State?
HB: I think it will be one of those games where the odds makers will be right on, but I do believe Kent State will have some success moving the football. I think it will be one of those games where it is 28-14 or 35-21 at the half, and the locals might be a little grumpy. Then as the Penn State rushing attack wears out the thinner Kent State defense, we’ll see a final score of 50-21.
Thanks again to James for taking time out of his busy schedule to help us out. For more on Kent State and the rest of the MAC, check in with Hustle Belt all year round!