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Marquez Cooper rushes in for a fourth quarter touchdown during Kent State's 52-47 win over Northern Illinois on Wednesday night. 

It all comes down to this. 

After 11 weeks of ups and downs, victories and defeats, the Kent State football team heads into its regular season finale against Miami tied for first place with the very team it's facing.

The winner will become the Mid-American Conference East Division Champion and will play Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game on Saturday, Dec. 4 in Detroit.

It is quite possibly the biggest game that has been played at Dix Stadium since the 1970s. 

On Nov. 10, 1973 No. 15 Miami, which was undefeated, traveled to Kent State, which was 7-1 and undefeated in conference play. The MAC had no divisions back then, and they wouldn’t be created until 1997. All other teams were mathematically eliminated from finishing with the best conference record, so the winner would become the MAC champion (no divisions meant no championship game). 

Miami, whose team name was the Redskins until 1997, beat the Flashes 20-10, winning the conference title. 

Fast forward 48 years, and those very same teams will clash in the very same stadium for similarly high stakes.

Kent State became bowl eligible in its win against Akron last week, so even with a loss the Flashes will play at least one more game. 

But Lewis has preached all season that winning the East Division is one of the team’s main goals every season, so expect to see a fired up KSU squad come out ready to play come Saturday. 

“We talked about the daily fight when we got here back in January [2018] to earn this opportunity,” coach Sean Lewis said. “It’s everything that you could ask for. For it to culminate on senior day with this group of seniors, who have an opportunity to go out as one of the all-time winningest groups in the history of Kent State football, is really cool.” 

The Flashes last won a division title in 2012 under coach Darrell Hazell. 

Lewis has led KSU to back-to-back second place finishes in the East. 

Both Kent State and Miami are 6-5 overall and 5-2 in the MAC.

The Redhawks were dominated by Cincinnati, currently fourth in the nation, 49-14 before nearly beating Minnesota the next week. Miami scored early in the fourth quarter to pull within one point, but the Gophers scored a touchdown and a field goal to go ahead 31-20. The Redhawks scored with just under four minutes left, but Minneosta ran out the clock to win 31-26. 

Miami beat Long Island (FCS) 42-7 and lost 23-10 to Army to finish out its non-conference play.

The Redhawks won their conference opener in comeback fashion. Entering the fourth quarter trailing Central Michigan 17-14, they scored two touchdowns while keeping CMU off the board to win 28-17. They narrowly lost to Eastern Michigan 13-12 in a defensive battle before bouncing back to beat Akron 34-21.

Miami scored early in the fourth quarter of its game against Ball State to take a 24-17 lead, and its defense would keep the Cardinals off the board to preserve the win. The Redhawks lost to Ohio 35-33 after the Bobcats scored with a minute and a half left to go up by 11 points, which Miami was unable to overcome.

The Redhawks come into the game off of back-to-back commanding wins against Buffalo (45-18) and Bowling Green (34-7). 

Miami’s defense is first in the conference in points allowed to MAC opponents (18.3) and in yards allowed (343.1). 

Kent State’s offense is first in the conference in points scored against MAC opponents (37.1) and second in yards (494.4).

So it will essentially be the MAC’s best defense against the MAC’s best offense.

Lewis said that Miami has an especially dynamic defense. 

“They make you earn it,” he said. “They make you go the long way. We’re going to have to strap it up, get on it, and be ready to roll.” 

The Redhawks have a fearsome front four, with its defensive line placing third in the conference in sacks with 34 this season. They are also first in the MAC in rush defense, only allowing around 137 yards per game. The most yards it has given up rushing in a conference game was 150 yards against Bowling Green. 

Sophomore defensive lineman Lonnie Phelps has a team-high eight and a half sacks, second among all MAC players. Junior defensive lineman Kameron Butler is not far behind in fourth place with seven sacks.

Butler and Phelps are third and fourth on the conference leaderboard in tackles for a loss. Butler has 13 and Phelps has 12 and a half. 

“I’m going to say a couple hail marys this week,” Lewis joked. “A couple more than I usually do. Because they got multiple guys that they line up all over the place. It’s just guy after guy after guy up front. They keep sending them in waves. They rotate a lot so they can keep fresh.” 

The Flashes are the best in the MAC in rushing, and are third in the FBS. They average 242 yards per game and have 30 touchdowns.

Sophomore running back Marquez Cooper is fifth in the MAC in rushing with 86.3 yards per game and 949 total rushing yards this season.

The Flashes have two additional 500+ yard runners, graduate student quarterback Dustin Crum (560) and graduate student running back Xavier Williams (551).

Against the Zips, Crum finished with a season-high 114 rushing yards, and four different KSU players rushed for 50+ yards. 

Lewis said a key to breaking Miami’s defense is to “stay in front of them.”

“Move your feet,” he said. “Play with tight hands. We’re going to have to earn every blade of grass that’s out there. We have to match their fundamentals, their physicality and their desire to move someone against their will because they take great pride in being gap sound and knocking people back.” 

Miami is fifth in the MAC in passing defense (211.5 yards per game). 

Redshirt freshman defensive back Matthew Salopek and redshirt senior defensive back Cedric Boswell led the team with five pass breakups each.

Senior defensive back Sterling Weatherford and freshman defensive back John Saunders led the team with two interceptions in addition to their four pass breakups. 

Crum is third in the conference in passing yards this season with 2,469. He has a completion percentage of 64.1 and hasn’t thrown an interception since week one against Texas A&M, when he threw two. 

Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dante Cephas is third in the MAC in yards per game with 85.7. He has 943 total receiving yards, and could have the first 1,000 yard season by Flashes’ wide receiver since Eugene Baker in 1997. 

Miami’s offense is eighth in the MAC in points (27.5) and sixth in total yards (414.4).

The Redhawks run game is the weaker component of the offense, it averages around 143 yards per game (eighth) and only has 13 touchdowns (11th). 

Miami has a young backfield, with freshman running backs Keyon Mozee and Kevin Davis leading the team in rushing. Mozee has rushed for 456 yards and four touchdowns, and Davis has 253 yards and three touchdowns. 

Sophomore Brett Gabbert is the Redhawks’ quarterback. He is second among MAC QBs in yards per game (251.6) and has 20 touchdown passes this season. 

Lewis said the defense has to get pressure on Gabbert to disrupt his passing ability.

“Anytime a quarterback’s comfortable and can throw on time and on rhythm and be on script, life’s a little bit easier,” he said. “We have to do a great job generating some pressure and getting him off his spots and getting him to feel us. And in the back end, we have to do a great job disguising looks and then being opportunistic.” 

Redshirt senior wide receiver Jack Sorenson is second in the conference in receiving yards per game with around 110. He has a team-high nine receiving touchdowns, and he has had 100+ receiving yards in his last six games. 

Redshirt junior Mac Hippenammer is second on the team with 696 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He has scored a touchdown in three straight games. 

“Those guys require your focus,” Lewis said. “They require your discipline to where your eyes are supposed to be where they’re supposed to be. Identifying the splits, the sets, knowing the tendencies and the different route combinations, communicating that with your brothers in the back. As boring as that sounds, that’s the individual fight for our secondary.” 

Gabbert is not on the ground often, he is the third-least sacked QB in the MAC, only going down 17 teams. 

The Flashes defense is coming off its most dominating performance in the Lewis era. 

Following the dismissal of Tom Kaufman, who had been the defensive coordinator since 2018, and with CJ Cox at the helm for the defense, KSU shutout Akron 38-0. It was its first one since 2009, and the first against Akron since 1949. 

Kent State held Akron to just 195 total yards. 

The Flashes still sit at or near the bottom of the MAC in nearly every defensive stat despite the controlling victory, showing how deep of a hole the defense has been in for much of the season.

Kent State is still last in yards per game (468.3) and passing yards per game (280.9).

But the Flashes forced two fumbles against the Zips, and are eighth in the FBS with 22 forced turnovers. 

Lewis said that the defense played with confidence.

“There were guys that were playing with conviction,” he said. “They just had a relentless attitude and a fanatical effort to get to the ball. We simplified some things. We took a step back in the 10 days that we had to evaluate what guys had done best and where we could put them in the most consistent spots to have the most consistent success.” 

KSU is also sixth in the MAC in rushing yards per game (187.4), and after such an outstanding performance against Akron, headlined by sophomore defensive lineman CJ West’s three sacks and three tackles for a loss, it’s hard not to imagine what this defense is capable of. 

Lewis even said that “I just had a belief that we could be better on that side.” 

And Kent State may have just found the person capable of bringing out that potential. 

If the Flashes can continue that kind of performance, KSU very well could have its first division title in nine years come Saturday afternoon. 

“No matter how you spliced it in the preseason, you always kept coming back to this one being big,” Lewis said. “To have it at home with these seniors and with everything on the line? Sign me up. Let’s go get it on.”

Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at joswald9@kent.edu.

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