When graduate student quarterback Dustin Crum and the other 26 percent of the Kent State football roster set to graduate after this season first came to the team in 2017, it was quite the different program.
The Flashes had just come off a 3-9 record, something they were used to as they only had seven winning seasons since 1972, the same year they last won the MAC Championship, a game they had only appeared in once (a loss to Northern Illinois in 2012).
KSU went 2-10 in the next season, and head coach Paul Haynes, who had recruited Crum and the others, was fired.
Kent State hired Sean Lewis, a co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from Syracuse, to take his place. This move set in motion the greatest Kent State football era since the 70s.
Lewis went 2-10 in his first season, but won its last three conference games in 2019 to become bowl eligible. He led the Flashes to their first bowl win in program history with a 51-41 victory over Utah State.
One season later, he coached a team that scored the most points per game (49.8) in the FBS and were a top 10 offense in both passing and rushing.
This season he led the Flashes to only its second MAC East Division championship, but fell to Northern Illinois 41-23 in the MAC Championship.
“Obviously we were disappointed with the outcome of the game,” Graduate student cornerback KJ Sherald said. “But it just took us 24 hours. We reviewed the film and we just moved on. We can't change anything that happened in the game, we only can make up for it in this next game.”
Lewis said the kids have reacted well to the loss.
“Our kids are resilient,” he said. “That’s the same characteristic that they have shown all year, and they continue to show it. That’s why I’m so impressed and humbled to lead them. It was a disappointing day. We picked a bad day to have a bad day. But our kids own it, and they always have.”
But it's the first time since the 70s that Kent State has had three consecutive non-losing seasons.
While the loss was heartbreaking, it wasn’t the end for KSU.
Kent State was named to its second bowl game in three seasons, and the Flashes are set to play Wyoming University on Tuesday in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho.
Now these graduating athletes have one last chance to go out the right way.
Coach Sean Lewis said the graduating players are what has made KSU so successful.
“Every time we go out to compete we're going out to win,” Lewis said. “And to do it with this special group of guys who have bought into what we've asked them to do from the very, very beginning and have changed the way that Kent State football is perceived nationwide.”
“We get to bring our brand of football to another part of the country and put a little bit more respect on the way that we do things, and hopefully we can come away with another bowl victory. And now you start talking about instead of this being an outlier for what Kent State football does, we're consistently going to bowl games, consistently winning bowl games. That's what we want to do and that's what we want to be embodied by, and we couldn't do that without the guys.”
Crum said he has been taking it all in as he experiences his last practices and game.
“It's been a little bittersweet the last week or two,” he said. “But I'm just looking forward to having an opportunity to go out there one more time with my guys and compete.”
It is KSU’s fifth bowl game in team history.
The Cowboys started the season hot, winning its first four games, including two wins over the 2020 and 2021 MAC Champion (Northern Illinois 50-43 and Ball State 45-12).
But Wyoming went 2-6 in the Mountain West, with their only two wins against Colorado State and Utah State.
It is Wyoming’s 17th bowl game in program history, and its second appearance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
KSU enters the game 7-6 overall and 6-3 in conference play, including the MAC Championship loss.
The Flashes finished first in the MAC East while the Cowboys finished in a tie for fourth place in the Mountain Division.
Wyoming is 10th in the MWC in scoring with an average of 23.2 points per game, and it averages 360.8 yards per game (eighth).
One of the most important factors for Kent State to find success will be stopping the run.
The Flashes are 1-5 when they allow 200+ yards rushing, which includes the championship game game where they gave up 266 yards rushing.
KSU is seventh in the MAC in rush defense, allowing an average of 190 yards per game.
Wyoming has one of the best running backs in the MWC in senior Xazavian Valladay. He is third in the conference with an average of 82 yards per game.
Junior Titus Swen is a solid second running back, and he has two 100+ yard games this season. He is ninth in the MWC in rushing yards with 737.
“For us it's just being in your gap and doing your assignment,” Sherald said. “We don't ask anybody to do anything they're not supposed to do, just do your job and we'll be fine.”
Lewis said that the run game is, as it has been all season, one of the most important factors for success.
“First and foremost we have to find a way to run the ball,” he said. “And we have to stop the run. Because, as we learned [in the MAC Championship,] if we can’t get off the field and limit those possessions, then one team will be able to dominate and impact the flow of the game. We know we’re going to get tested in those realms.”
Junior quarterback Sean Chambers started the first seven games of the season, but he was benched in favor of sophomore Levi Williams.
Williams has started five games, but played in parts of three other games. He has thrown for 863 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions.
“He's been very good with the football and distributing it around to their playmakers,” Lewis said. “And obviously starts with their run game first and foremost, and that's where they're going to lean heaviest with their two talented backs that they have. But he's a talented trigger man that's able to do a lot of different things, and obviously they're riding that success they've had with him with that big win late over Utah State to get them into this situation and to be here in this moment.”
Wyoming has allowed only 19 sacks this season, the second-least amount of times in the MWC.
Lewis said that “relentless pursuit” will be key to breaking through the offensive line.
“Great pad level,” he said. “They do a good job protecting the quarterback because so much of it is predicated off of run-action passes where you have to stop the run because they are so good at it. Our guys up front need to be disruptive, and they need to win their one-on-ones.”
Sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Neyor leads the team in receiving with 791 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is a deep-ball threat, averaging 20.7 yards per catch (second in the MWC).
KSU’s secondary is last in the MAC. It allows around 277 passing yards per game.
Wyoming boasts one of the top passing defenses in the country. It is seventh in the NCAA and first in the MWC in passing yards (177.5 per game).
The Cowboys have the fourth best total defense in the MWC. They allow 346.6 yards per game.
But run defense is Wyoming’s weak spot as it is 10th in its conference in yards per game (169.1) and has allowed 150+ yards in each of its last five games.
The Cowboys, however, have one of the best linebackers in college football. Senior Chad Muma was named a Second Team All-American by the Walter Camp Football Foundation and by Pro Football Focus. He is fourth in the FBS in tackles per game (10.8) and second in solo tackles (6.7).
“It just comes down to execution,” Crum said. “They honestly have guys from top to bottom that can make plays for them defensively. You just have to keep that in mind and try to attack where you feel like you match-up advantages. He's kind of a guy you have to keep in mind at all times, but they have guys all over the field, so we just have to execute and play our style of ball.”
Muma has the ability to make explosive plays, and he is tied for second in the country in pick-sixes with two this season.
The Flashes are the best running offense in the MAC, averaging 243.2 yards per game. Sophomore running back Marquez Cooper leads the team with 1,080 yards this season. He is the first KSU running back to rush for over 1,000 yards since Dri Archer in 2012.
The Cowboys have the best pass defense in the MWC. They only allow 177.5 yards per game and 6.1 yards per catch.
Crum is third in the MAC in passing yards this season (2,922) and has 16 touchdowns to only six interceptions.
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dante Cephas is third in the conference in yards with 1,124 along with eight touchdowns.
Win or lose, the KSU football program has come a long way. And that is something that Crum is proud of.
“From where we started to where we are now is night and day,” Crum said. “And to be able to see that growth and see guys come in and be a part of that success [is awesome.] I've been blessed with that and it’s been special for me and all the guys that have been involved. Just to be able to have a football team that people can be proud of again is something that means a lot to me.”
Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.