The Kent State football team is coming off a tough last 10 days.
The Flashes were dominated by Central Michigan 54-30, it was the fourth Mid-American Conference game this season where they allowed 48+ points.
KSU’s defense is last in the MAC in total yards (496.3) and passing yards (297.9). It is the second-worst in points (36.8).
Kent State decided to part ways with defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman, who had been on the staff since 2018, two days after the game.
Lewis thanked Kaufman for his time here, but said the team had decided to go in a different direction.
“I believe with the defensive staff and talent that we have in place, there’s great potential in that group to be better going forward,” Lewis said. “I felt that a change in leadership would make that happen.”
Cornerbacks coach C.J. Cox will serve as the interim coach for the rest of the season.
Lewis described what went into his decision to promote Cox.
“[He’s] detail-oriented,” Lewis said. “[He has] a great relationship with the guys, and it’s the type of personality that our team needs on that side of the ball in this moment.”
But what better way to get back on track then by playing for the wheel?
Lewis said that the team remains in good spirits.
“We had an extra day of preparation and the energy was good,” he said. “The enthusiasm was right, whether that was the move or because it’s Wagon Wheel week. The kids have been good, they’re resilient and will continue to go forward.”
KSU (4-2 MAC, 5-5 overall) will play rival Akron (1-5, 2-8) Saturday at InfoCision Stadium with the kickoff scheduled for noon.
Lewis said that he hopes to see more consistency from the defense.
“So it’s not just a flash here or there,” he said. “It’s not that occasional greatness but that consistency. If we do that at a really high level, we’re going to be just fine.”
Lewis added that “the mentality towards tackling” is one of the biggest areas that needs improvement.
“Our tackling needs to be significantly better,” he said. “We have to allow our guys to think fast, know fast, do fast so that they can confidently come up and tackle. And we have the mindset of ‘I want to get you to the ground more than you want to keep running.’”
The Zips have lost their last four games, and their only win of the season is against Bowling Green (1-6, 3-8), who Akron has been sharing the bottom of the East Division with for much of the season.
Head coach Tom Arth, in his third season, was fired on Nov. 4 after only winning three total games in his time there.
Assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Oscar Rodriguez was named the interim coach.
In Rodriguez’s first game as head coach, he nearly led the Zips to their third win of the season.
Akron kicked a field goal to take a 40-38 lead over Western Michigan with two minutes and 22 seconds left. WMU scored a touchdown on a 45-yard pass with a minute left, and the Zips were unable to regain the lead.
Lewis said his team isn’t overlooking its rival.
“They are playing their best football as of late,” he said. “They’re right there. We know we’re going to get their best effort. They have everything to play for. Throw the records out. It’s a rivalry game. Roll your sleeves up. Bring your hardhat, and let’s get to work.”
Like Kent State, defense has been a huge issue for Akron all season.
The Zips’ defense is last in points per game (38.7), passing completion percentage (68.1) and rushing yards (229.6). It is the second-worst in total yards per game (455.1), only ahead of the Flashes.
No player on the Zips has more than one and a half sacks. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jeslord Boateng leads the team in tackles for a loss, with seven, and in tackles (77).
Akron is sixth in passing yards, with 225.5, but it is also the least passed against team in the MAC (251 attempts).
Junior defensive back Charles Amankwaa is tied for first in the MAC in interceptions, with three, and has a team-high six pass breakups.
KSU’s offense, which is first in the MAC in yards per game (474.1), is a big reason that the Flashes have maintained a .500 record despite their defense.
Kent State’s run game is the second best in the MAC (225.4) and 11th in the FBS. Sophomore running back Marquez Cooper is fifth in the MAC with an average of 81.4 yards per game and leads the team in rushing touchdowns with nine.
KSU is fifth in passing, with 248.7 yards per game, and fourth in completion percentage (63.9).
Graduate student quarterback Dustin Crum is coming off back-to-back 300+ yard games.
Crum is also a huge factor in the run game, he is the second-best running quarterback in the MAC with 446 yards.
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dante Cephas is third in the conference with 90.7 yards per game. He has had 96+ receiving yards in his last five games and a team-high seven receiving touchdowns.
Akron’s offense has not been much better than its defense. It is 11th in points per game (22.4) in the MAC.
The Zips have the least amount of rushing touchdowns (8) and are 11th in yards per game (119.6) in the conference.
Freshman running back Jonzell Norrils is the team's primary running back, and he leads the team in rushing yards with 433.
Akron started the season with redshirt sophomore DJ Irons at quarterback, but redshirt freshman Zach Gibson has put up two quality starts in the last two weeks.
Lewis said that the Zips have found consistency in Gibson.
“He’s completing the ball at around 72 percent,” Lewis said. “He’s not turning it over. He’s got a certain moxy about him that when you watch the games, the offense seems to feed off his personality. They have confidence because of him. It's really injected life into the whole organization.”
Gibson has thrown for 300+ yards in back-to-back games, and he has four touchdowns in his two starts.
“We have to vary our looks,” Lewis said. “We have to confuse him a little bit, so that we can get him seeing ghosts and he can’t confidently go through his progressions. If we’re able to do that, and we’re able to win at the line of scrimmage to get him off schedule so that they get a little more predictable, that gives us a chance to have some success.”
Freshman wide receiver Konata Mumpfield leads the Zips in receiving yards with 684 and sophomore wide receiver Michael Mathison is closely behind him with 669.
KSU is in second place in the East after Miami (5-2, 6-5) beat BG 34-7 Tuesday, so the Flashes must win Saturday to keep pace with the Redhawks.
Win or lose Saturday, Kent State will be playing for the MAC East title Saturday, Nov. 27 against Miami at Dix Stadium.
The winner will play Northern Illinois, which clinched the MAC West title with a 33-27 overtime win over Buffalo Wednesday, in the MAC championship.
KSU has won its last two games against Akron, and if it wins Saturday it’ll be its first three-game win streak since 2010-12.
“We know this is a different week, because it is special,” Lewis said. “It is unique. It’s what college football is all about. We’re playing for our wheel, we’re playing for bowl eligibility and we’re playing to stay pace to be able to go to [the MAC championship game]. There’s going to be some extra emotions there. It’s Wagon Wheel week. It’s rivalry week. It’s everything.”
Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com.