Wagon Wheel Win

Members of the Kent State football team celebrate its win against Akron on Saturday, Nov. 20 in Akron, Ohio.

Maybe it was because the Kent State Football team was playing for the Wagon Wheel.

Or because of the coaching change made on defense. 

Or because a win would make KSU bowl eligible. 

Or because a win would put the Flashes back into a tie for first place in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference. 

Whatever the reason, KSU had its most commanding win of the season, beating rival Akron 38-0 Saturday. 

Coach Sean Lewis said “it’s great to keep the wheel at home.”

“It’s great to continue to run northeast Ohio the way we’ve become accustomed to,” he said. “Three in a row. Really, really proud of our flash fast family. Anytime you shut someone out, it’s a big deal. Anytime you get the chance to do that against your rival is an even bigger deal.” 

It was the first time since 1949 that Kent State shut out the Zips, and its first shut out victory since 2009 against Coastal Carolina. 

The Flashes have not held a MAC opponent to zero points since 1994, when they defeated Ohio 24-0. 

Kent State came into the game 122nd out of 130 in the FBS in points allowed with 36.8 per game. It was the third-worst team in college football in total yards per game (497).

In addition to shutting out Akron, KSU held them to 195 yards. 

“We needed this game to show our true potential,” sophomore defensive lineman CJ West said. “That’s really what we focused on. We got together and said ‘We really have to show our character, show what we’re really made of.’”

Lewis said that the defense played with more confidence.

“They were able to play together as one,” he said. “They really let their ability shine through. We simplified some things, allowed them to get off the rock a little bit quicker and to be a little bit more disruptive.”

“Playing with a great sense of physicality really created some havoc on early downs that allowed us to get ahead of schedule. We really maximized our opportunities.”

The impressive defensive performance came with interim defensive coordinator C.J. Cox calling the plays after former defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman was relieved of his duties last week following Kent State’s 54-30 loss. 

“We were very excited for this new stuff,” West said. “It was exciting, we got a burst of energy. And we executed the plan very well, and we enjoy playing football."

The Flashes had given up 48 or more points in four of their last five games. 

Lewis said it was an unbelievable job by the kids and the staff. 

“It was a really hard decision,” he said. “But as a leader, you have to assess things, leave your emotions out of it and have the courage to act. But it was a heck of a performance by everyone involved.”

KSU’s defense limited redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Gibson, coming off of back-to-back 300+ passing yard performances, to only 111 yards. 

West said that limiting Gibson started with stopping the run.

“When you make a team one-dimensional, it’s easy,” he said. “Stop them from passing the ball, play your coverage right and get after the quarterback. And then they couldn’t pass the ball on us.” 

The Flashes’ secondary came into the game allowing the second-most passing yards per game in the FBS (297.9). 

Gibson was running for his life for most of the game as Kent State forced immense pressure on the QB. 

KSU sacked Gibson six times with West leading the way with three. Those three sacks are the most by a Flash in one game since 2016. 

West said that the defense’s mindset was different Saturday.

“We wanted to attack them,” he said. “We wanted to get at the quarterback, make more plays as a line by having people in the backfield. We wanted to make plays for ourselves and, as a team, just be dominant.” 

Before this game, West only had one sack in his career. 

West also added three tackles for a loss, and he now has eight on the season. 

Kent State held the Zips to 88 rushing yards, the second time this year that they’ve held a team to under 100 yards. 

Akron’s starting running back, freshman Jonzell Norrils, only rushed for 57 yards. Norrils ran into a wall of defenders numerous times as the KSU defensive line had its way with the Zip’s offensive linemen. 

“Being able to establish your dominance at the front line is one of the biggest parts of the game,” West said. “It really goes unspoken. It means a lot to us because we have a lot of people on this team, especially our d-line, that really want to show their character and what they’re really about. Our biggest thing today was showing that we can win the game up front.” 

The Flashes are 4-1 when they hold a team to under 200 rushing yards. 

Akron's 188 yards of total offense is the fewest KSU has allowed to a Division I opponent since 2013 against Miami. 

In addition to bolstering the run game, the offensive line didn’t allow one sack.

“From the first snap to the last snap, those guys were handling their business the right way,” graduate student quaterback Dustin Crum said. “They really won the game up front for us. They opened the whole game up for us.” 

Lewis said that he “likes our boys up front.”

“I like the ability we have to lean on them,” he said. “We got some unbelievable running backs that run really, really hard. Crum, with what he brings to the run game. His resiliency, his toughness. I felt like if we could take away [Akron’s] will to play, we could take control of the game.” 

Kent State’s offense looked to make a statement at the start. 

The Flashes ran on all nine plays on their 87-yard scoring drive to begin the game, including a career-long 62-yard run by Crum, who found a hole and got KSU into the red zone. 

Crum said it was a simple play.

“Just kind of looking at numbers in the box, pretty easy to read honestly,” he said. “And the boys up front just blocked it up right. I was able to sprint loose a little bit Would’ve liked to finish it, obviously don’t like getting caught there, but to be able to do that early was a good way to get us going.” 

Sophomore running back Marquez Cooper capped off the drive with a one-yard touchdown run. 

Kent State scored a touchdown on all four of its first-half possessions.

Crum finished with a season-high 114 rushing yards, and he led the team in rushing touchdowns with two. It was the most yards since he ran for 147 in the Flashes’ Frisco Bowl victory over Utah State.  

“Crum does such a great job of seeing the front,” Lewis said. “Making the proper reads. Not being greedy, but just being needy for when he’s going to give versus when he’s going to pull, and everything we do in the RPO game. It’s another gritty, tough performance by him.” 

KSU’s offense only had 66 passing yards, the fewest yards in a win since its 2002 against Buffalo. 

Crum, who so often heaves the ball deep down field, averaged 6.9 yards a throw after going 8-of-13. He stuck to short passes for much of the day, with his longest play being 18 yards. 

The Flashes overcame nine penalties for 83 yards, five of those in the first half, by going 7-for-13 on third downs and 2-for-2 on fourth downs. 

Lewis said the penalties were the lone negative spot on the day. 

“Obviously we’d love to limit those self-inflicted wounds,” he said. “That’s a controllable that we want to be better at so that we limit those opportunities where we’re putting ourselves behind the eight ball. But it’s a testament to our kids and how resilient they are. They’re able to just bear down again, go forward and understand the plan for success.” 

Crum said the successful third and fourth down conversions comes down to execution.

“No matter what the situation is, just making sure everyone is executing and doing their 1/11th,” he said. “When you get caught up in doing too much, teams make mistakes or screw up, so to be able to rely on and trust each other in those moments is huge.” 

KSU rarely let a penalty completely kill the drive, outside of a delay of game in the third quarter, it always scored points on a possession, even with penalties. 

Crum Akron 2021

Graduate student quarterback Dustin Crum runs during the Kent State football team's win against Akron on Saturday, Nov. 20 in Akron, Ohio.

Following Cooper’s touchdown, Akron would drive all the way to the KSU five-yard line, but graduate student safety Nico Bolden would sack Gibson on second down. The Zips would go for it on fourth and goal, but their pass in the end zone would go incomplete. It would be the closest Akron came to scoring all day. 

West said that this was a great example of the defense showing its dominance.

“No matter where they are on the field, we showed that we can stop them,” he said. “Asserting our dominance and showing that we can win this game flat out, wherever we are.” 

Crum scored on a 10-yard run to put Kent State up 14-0, and the Flashes’ defense, which ranked fifth in the FBS in forced turnovers (20), stepped up when redshirt junior linebacker Matt Harmon knocked the ball loose from the hands of freshman wide receiver Konata Mumpfield. 

KSU recovered the fumble, and the offense scored on a 29-yard run by redshirt sophomore running back Bryan Bradford. 

Kent State had 410 rushing yards, the most against a MAC opponent this season. 

Cooper led the way with 135 yards. Four different KSU players rushed for 50+ yards, and two players rushed for 100+. 

Crum said that “a quarterback’s best friend is always the run game.” 

“Coming in we knew we kind of wanted to lean on them up front a little bit,” Crum said. “Trying to impose that from the first snap to the last snap was a big reason for that, and that’s the game plan we came in with today. Just to be able to physically impose our will, especially on our rival, is always something you want to emphasize and take pride in.”

Bradford finished with 66 yards, and graduate student running back Xavier Williams ran for 58. 

“We’re getting great knockoffs on the double teams,” Lewis said. “Kris Leach and Aaron Hackett and the added dimension they’ve brought to the run game, being able to control the edge of the line of scrimmage, that’s really added and opened up a new dimension to our run game.”

The Flashes, who often line up in an odd formation for the extra point before motioning back into a regular PAT setup, stayed in the weird formation and added a two-point conversion on a direct pitch from the snapper to redshirt senior defensive end Zayin West, who ran into the endzone untouched to extend the lead to 22-0. 

CJ West said it felt great seeing his defensive teammate score there.

“That’s somebody that I look up to,” he said. “That felt great seeing one of my fellow big men score, it was awesome. Me and him share the same last name, so we do a lot of stuff together. It’s like looking up to my big brother.” 

Lewis said they always have that option built into the plan.

“We got a premium look for what we wanted,” he said. “When we motioned, they motioned with, so we got a number count that we wanted. Zay did a great job finding the daylight and maximizing the opportunity.” 

Kent State seemed to have firm control of the game only 20 minutes in. 

KSU’s defense forced another turnover on downs to get the ball back to the offense, which would add another Crum touchdown run. 

Akron would miss a 46-yard field goal attempt to end the first half after Lewis called two back-to-back timeouts to ice the kicker. 

Down 29-0 to begin the third quarter, the Zips successfully tried an onside kick. But Kent State’s defense would force its third turnover on downs of the game. 

KSU would punt on its next drive, but Akron gave the ball back in excellent field position after Gibson fumbled when the ball slipped out of his hands as he was winding back to pass. The Flashes recovered at the nine-yard line. 

Freshman kicker Andrew Glass kicked a 20-yard field goal, his first of three straight in the second half, and KSU was now up by 32 points. 

Akron finished out by punting on their final two drives, and the Flashes took up much of the clock to seal their win. 

Crum is now 3-0 as the starting QB against Akron.

“It means a lot,” Crum said. “I remember my freshman year on this field, turning around and seeing them run off with the wheel. I just wanted to be a part of bringing that to and keeping it at Kent. Being able to be a part of this team that’s been able to do that is something that is really special to me. I take a lot of pride in it.” 

Akron (1-6 MAC, 2-9 overall) is tied for last place with Bowling Green in the East. 

Kent State is 5-2 in the MAC and 6-5 overall. It is tied for first place with Miami (5-2, 6-5), setting up a winner takes all, season finale game at Dix Stadium between the two teams. The winner will become the East Division champion, and play West Division champion Northern Illinois at the MAC Championship game in Detroit on Saturday, Dec. 4. 

“We’ve set a high standard for the program,” Lewis said. “I want it to become commonplace that you’re making your holiday plans around where the Golden Flashes are going bowling. So we get the opportunity to do that. We happen to have six wins now, and the next one is the most important one." 

It would be Kent State’s first division title since 2012. 

Crum said this season has been huge.

“Kent’s in a place right now where we can have a lot more sustained success than we’ve ever had,” he said. “To be a part of that is really special to me. It’s something I wanted to do when I got here as a freshman.”

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

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