Kent State is 2-0 in the Mid-American Conference for the first time since 2012. They also lead the MAC East for the first time since 2012.
Heading into Saturday's game, they are underdogs for the first time in conference play this season. Ohio is favored by 7.5 points. Here are five factors that could impact Saturday's game.
1. The availability of running backs Jo-El Shaw, Joachim Bangda and Xavier Williams is still unknown.
Kent State’s first three running backs are all questionable for Saturday’s game. Bangda and Williams each suffered injuries. Williams was “rolled up on” at Wisconsin, while Bangda suffered an injury on the third play from scrimmage in the 26-3 win at Akron.
Shaw’s 60 rush attempts for 298 yards and two touchdowns lead the running back group.
Bangda emerged as a quality option after a career-high 114 yards in a 62-20 win against Bowling Green on Sept. 21. Against Wisconsin, he finished with four of the 10 rush attempts from running backs. He started last week's game in Shaw's absence.
Prior to his injury, Williams received the second most reps behind Shaw. Williams had been used primarily as a speed back on outside runs. He is averaging four yards per carry on 24 rushing attempts.
Shaw, Williams and Bangda are all listed as questionable for Saturday's game.
In the absence of Shaw, Williams and Bangda, senior running back Will Matthews ran for a career-high 25 carries for 126 yards at Akron. Most of his yards came on inside runs.
“The way that he’s handled adversity and for him to be ready for when that opportunity came (was huge),” coach Sean Lewis said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “It was a tremendous job by the offensive line up front, paving the way for him and clearing the holes, but he did a great job seeing it and running really physical and not trying to do too much. I mean he knows who he is, he got north and south, and created some really crucial runs. He really helped sustain some drives.”
2. Pressuring Nathan Rourke will limit the Ohio offense.
Rourke is 95-for-162 with 1,270 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He threw three interceptions in a 45-25 loss against Louisiana on Sept. 21.
Last week, Rourke threw for a touchdown, rushed for a touchdown and caught a touchdown in a 39-36 loss to Northern Illinois. His 65 rushes for 330 yards and four touchdowns are all team-highs.
Last season, he finished 18-for-20 for 284 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a 27-26 win at Dix Stadium.
“He is a special playmaker,” Lewis said. “He is a difference maker with the ball in his hands so we gotta be very conscious of making sure that he doesn’t hurt us in a lot of different ways. We’ve got to pick our poison accordingly. There’s a reason why he’s been leading that team to a lot of success over the past few years. He’s a special talent.”
The Flashes are fourth in the MAC in sacks (16). Senior defensive linemen Theo Majette has four sacks, which ranks fourth in the MAC. He did not record a sack in the previous two games.
3. Dustin Crum will need to continue to take care of the ball.
Crum’s 153 passes without an interception is the longest streak in the nation.
“It’s not surprising that he’s where he’s at with that,” Lewis said. “I’m not an overly superstitious guy though so I whisper that, but I have confidence that he’s going to continue to do what he has done. He understands the value of the football; he knows the difference between a good, calculated shot versus a high risk throw.”
The offense relies heavily on Crum. He’s completing 72 percent of his passes this season, while throwing for 877 yards and six touchdowns. His 75-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Isaiah McKoy on Sept. 7 in a 26-23 win against Kennesaw State is the second-longest passing touchdown in the Mid-American Conference so far this season. The two have connected for four touchdowns of 40+ yards this season.
4. Kent will have to take advantage of a passing defense that ranks in the middle of the MAC.
Receivers Mike Carrigan, Antwan Dixon, Kavious Price and McKoy have combined for 806 yards on 76 catches. Carrigan and McKoy each have at least one touchdown of 50+ yards.
The Flashes challenged Akron early with deep throws. Carrigan drew a pass interference call on the first play from scrimmage. Four plays later, McKoy scored a 49-yard touchdown.
Dixon and Price will have to be productive in the slot for the offense to be effective. Crum will likely look to them early on short throws, and they need to be able to get quality yards after the catch.
5. Derek Adams and Matthew Trickett will have to continue to play well.
The Flashes have flipped the field regularly thanks to Adams’ punting. He averages a net of 41.6 yards per punt, and 11 of his 29 punts are inside the 20-yard line.
Trickett is 11-for-14 on the season. He made all four of his field goal attempts (36, 43, 45, 43) against Akron after missing at least one attempt in each of his previous two games.
Lewis wants to keep his team focused after their 2-0 start and emotional win at Akron last week.
“Coach Solich and his staff have done so it’s a great opportunity, it’s a tremendous challenge, and it comes at a good time for us to lock us back in right now and for us again to remain hungry and remain humble,” Lewis said. “I told the story to the kids (Sunday) about the season when we were at (Syracuse) and we beat Clemson, it was the fourth win of the season, we finished that year with four wins so let’s not let history repeat itself. Let’s lock in and know what’s coming on Saturday because it’s going to be a hostile place to go play. We need to make sure we prepare and we practice better than we did last week so that we can go have an opportunity and give ourselves a chance on Saturday.”
Kickoff is at noon on Saturday from Peden Stadium.
Contact Ian Kreider at firstname.lastname@example.org.