Junior quarterback Dustin Crum wandered into the media room at The Westin Stonebriar Hotel & Golf Club clad in a navy blue “Be the Alpha” Kent State football shirt and clashing navy blue shorts on Wednesday afternoon.
His eyes were half open, a symptom of the past two days filled with practice reps, interviews and travel.
He stood in front of three cameras with two large studio lights with a Kent State backdrop to address the local media.
Crum, a junior from Grafton, Ohio, who came into the season as the Flashes’ backup quarterback, spent about seven minutes answering questions about his role in carrying the Flashes to their first bowl game since 2012.
Entering the season, everyone — coach Sean Lewis included — thought junior quarterback Woody Barrett would build on a promising first-year performance.
Barrett started all 12 games last season, while racking up 2,339 yards and 11 touchdowns through the air, with nine interceptions. In addition, his size and athleticism helped him shake off closing defenders and improvise, as evidenced by his 503 yards rushing and seven touchdowns through the Flashes’ fast-paced, run-pass option attack.
Auburn recruited Barrett out of high school as a four-star talent, but he only spent a season with the Tigers before transferring to Copiah-Lincoln Community College. He showed the same dual threat ability there, throwing for 1,294 yards with eight touchdowns, while running for 485 yards and six touchdowns.
In his first season at Kent State, Barrett broke the single-season record for completions with 229. It appeared he would build off a promising 2018 season, as several national reporters listed him on their All-Mid-American Conference preseason teams.
Four drives into the Flashes’ season, things changed.
Less than 18 minutes into Kent State’s season-opening game against Arizona State, Lewis pulled Barrett in favor of Crum. Crum finished 3-for-8 for -3 yards in less than one full quarter of play before Lewis went back to Barrett, who finished 9-for-16 for 83 yards and a touchdown.
“I thought that Crum could get in there, give us a little bit of life, so that’s why I made the move,” Lewis said after the 30-7 loss.
Lewis reassured everyone Barrett still had the job during the same postgame press conference.
“Woody is our guy,” Lewis said. “He’s our quarterback, but I feel very lucky to have two guys that we can go to. We used this as an opportunity to get both guys some game reps and took advantage of that moment.”
Despite Barrett being the Flashes’ “guy,” Crum started the following week against Kennesaw State. Barrett ran the ball one time inside the red zone, but the play gained zero yards.
Crum led Kent State down the field with under two minutes to play to tie the game. They would ultimately win 26-23 in overtime.
When Crum first stepped on campus two years ago, such a win seemed like nothing more than a fantasy. In Crum’s first two years at Kent, the Flashes combined to go 4-20, while Crum’s play (32-for-57, 408 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions) left a lot to be desired.
The Flashes were 2-10 with Barrett at the helm in 2018, losing four games by one possession.
After two years of inconsistent play and limited snaps, Crum got his chance. Barrett’s inconsistency showed through the first few games of the season, as he struggled to string together consecutive completions, particularly on intermediate to deep throws. His longest completion this season came on a 28-yard pass in a 48-0 loss to Wisconsin, during which the two quarterbacks split playing time.
Crum started each game after the Arizona State game and took most of the snaps, but Barrett still threw some passes, as the Flashes continued to try to find their stride offensively.
Two of Crum’s first four starts came against Power 5 programs that were at some point ranked in the AP Top 25 during the season. Auburn and Wisconsin sacked him a combined 12 times, as the Flashes lost by a combined score of 103-16.
But in the other two games against Kennesaw State and Bowling Green, Crum combined to throw for 502 yards and four touchdowns, while being sacked four times.
Lewis refused to name Crum the official starter.
“Really pleased with (Crum’s) continued growth week in and week out,” Lewis said after the win against Kennesaw State.
Lewis continued to keep the quarterback conversation vague. He rarely commented on the status of the quarterback position, calling it a “week-to-week competition.”
That changed after Crum kept the Flashes in a high-scoring game at Ohio University. He threw for 262 yards and four touchdowns in the 38-35 loss.
“There’s a reason that (Crum) earned the opportunity to start,” Lewis said after the loss. “He really managed all of the critical situations we put him in. We told him that there wasn’t a short leash, and if he took hold of (the starting job), then it was going to be his. He’s done that and earned the respect of the team.”
Crum’s accuracy on downfield throws stretched opposing defenses. He’s thrown for six touchdowns of at least 40 yards so far this season. Barrett threw for three such touchdowns in 2018.
His steady, turnover-free performances have led Kent State to a 6-6 record, despite opening the season against Arizona State, Auburn and Wisconsin.
The Flashes opened MAC play 2-0, winning by a combined margin of 88-23 against Bowling Green and Akron. The Falcons finished the season 3-9, 2-6 in the MAC, and the Zips finished winless at 0-12, 0-8 in MAC play.
Even with the dip in competition, Crum looked like a MAC starting quarterback, completing 43-of-53 passes for 462 yards and four touchdowns in the two wins.
Following the wins, Kent State dropped its following three conference games by one possession. Poor situational play calling mixed with the last ranked rushing defense in the conference and drops by receivers caused the losing streak.
During the losing streak, Crum had seven touchdowns and one interception, while averaging nearly 250 yards per game.
“Getting that start, proving to ourselves what we were capable of for the year (was a big deal),” Crum said. “Losing the next three in a row hurt, but those close games helped build us up as a team and face some adversity.”
Crum threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns in the first half against Toledo on Nov. 5. The Flashes trailed 28-17 at the half and opted to throw the ball just six times in the second half. They went on to lose 35-33, extending the losing streak to three games.
One week later, Kent State faced elimination from bowl eligibility, trailing Buffalo 27-6 with 7:39 left. Crum threw for eight yards in the first quarter on five attempts. He led an offense that gained only 112 yards on 40 plays through three quarters.
But in the fourth quarter, he threw for two touchdowns en route to a 24-point comeback, the largest fourth-quarter comeback of the season.
“We believe,” Lewis said after the win. “This ain’t the old Kent State anymore.”
The Flashes won their final two games of the season. Crum completed over 70 percent of his throws with three passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns in back-to-back single-possession wins.
In the final regular season game at Eastern Michigan, Crum and Barrett shared the field. Barrett lined up in the backfield and as a receiver. He finished the game with one catch for eight yards, but could prove to be a difference maker with his size and athleticism against Utah State.
“Playing college football you learn, (the potential lack of playing time) is part of it,” Crum said Wednesday, reflecting on the quarterback change. “You have to go and earn it. People aren’t going to give you things. It’s similar to life in the way that if you want something, you have to go earn it.”
From 4-20 with limited time to 6-6 with a chance to lead Kent State to its first winning season in seven years , Crum envisioned this moment from the time he signed his letter of intent to play at Kent State.
“I didn’t want to come here and be mediocre,” Crum said. “I wanted to come here and try to help change things and create a successful program. Coach Lewis, the guys in my class and my teammates are starting to do that.”