The above picture isn’t a hipster lumberjack from Brooklyn who got suddenly thrust into an athletic polo and headset. It’s Kent State head coach Sean Lewis. If you’d asked me to name the Kent State head coach, Sean Lewis is about the last combination of names that I would’ve come up with. Either way, Sean Lewis will lead the Kent State Epic Beards (Golden Flashes) into Jordan-Hare Stadium for a mid-September payday game as the Tigers prep more for the start of SEC play than anything else.
We’re going to preview the Flashes below, but this is a game wherein Auburn should have zero trouble pulling away and winning easily. Of course that means that we’ll head into the second quarter tied 7-7 or something, and people will be screaming “WHY CAN’T WE JUST BLOW THEM OUT LIKE BAMA DOES WITH TUA??” This is Gus Malzahn. Unless you’re a slow B1G team, he’s not going to show anything and this game will be closer than usual.
The main positive for me in this game is that it’s an opportunity for the Tigers to cross another name off of the list below:
That’s an image that Clint Richardson created before the 2017 season showing teams that Auburn’s never played. You can see that over the past couple of seasons, we’ve crossed a couple of those names off the list like Washington and Purdue, and there are games with other teams we’ve never played on the horizon, like our series with Cal and a game with Toledo.
Kent State will leave that list this September, bringing the number down one notch. So what will the Golden Flashes bring to the Plains in terms of a football team? Spoiler alert: it won’t be pretty.
Sean Lewis’ first year in Northeast Ohio resulted in a 2-10 record, with only one of those wins coming over an FBS team. Kent beat Howard 54-14, and then beat Bowling Green 35-28 later in the year. Now, they didn’t get just blasted on a regular basis, losing four games by one score (two of those by a single point), but when they were outmatched, they got pounded.
Losses to Penn State (63-10), Buffalo (48-14), and Toledo (54-36) were rough, but there’s a ton of room for improvement, especially with a returning quarterback. Kent averaged just 23.9 points per game last year, which ranked 105th in the country, and they weren’t particularly good at any one thing either.
On defense, they were... worse than that. 116th in points allowed (36.7 ppg), and 117th in yards per game allowed (467), and their best FBS defensive performance of the year came against rival Akron in the Wagon Wheel game. In that loss, Kent allowed 24 points (0.1 ppg higher than their own scoring average). After that, they gave up 48+ four times. Ouch.
Point is, 2019 may not be that much better for the Golden Flashes, but there’s really nowhere to go but up for Sean Lewis and company.
Wait... is that... Woody Barrett’s music???
Remember that guy? He was a quarterback at Auburn for like five seconds, but transferred after the 2016 season (Jarrett Stidham too much of a challenge to beat out, I guess), went to Copiah-Lincoln and then Kent State, where he started last year as a redshirt sophomore.
Barrett completed 59% of his passes for 2,339 yards and 11 touchdowns with 9 interceptions. He averaged just 6.0 yards per attempt, so you can see that the Flashes didn’t exactly have the capability to toss a Golden Shower on opposing defenses. It was a lot of dink and dunk stuff, and Barrett ended up having to be a primary runner as well, carrying the ball the most of anyone on the team. He ran for 501 yards (3.1 ypc) and 7 touchdowns, but they’d prefer to have either Jo-El Shaw (4.8 ypc, 657 yards, 7 touchdowns) or Justin Rankin (4.9 ypc, 574 yards, 4 touchdowns) carry the rock. Both guys will be seniors, and Rankin will be a four-year player for the Flashes in 2019.
Remember how we said that the passing offense didn’t ever really hit the big play? There were only three guys that averaged more than 10 yards per catch. The leading big-play guy, rising senior Mike Carrigan, averaged 13.3 yards per catch with 5 touchdowns. You have to go down to Auburn’s seventh-best guy in terms of yards per catch to match that (John Samuel Shenker - 13.3 ypc). The Tigers had six guys in 2018 with better per catch averages than Kent State’s best. It won’t be an offense that’s likely to hit the big play. Carrigan, Antwan Dixon (leading receiver with 52 catches), and rising sophomore Isaiah McKoy (42 catches, 3 touchdowns) all return for Barrett’s arsenal, though, so improvement is likely in the Flashes’ passing attack.
Oh, but you can bet that improvement will come even faster due to the fact that Kent returns all five starters on the offensive line. True, it wasn’t a particularly good line, but the cohesion will be there and the protection should hold up a little better for a more lubricated passing attack. The only problem is that the line is little — averaging about 270 pounds — that won’t fare well against SEC competition.
Where the offense should get better in 2019, the defense will take a step back from its spot as the worst unit in the MAC.
After allowing 220 rushing yards per game in 2018, the entire defensive line is gone. They run a three-man front, and those three guys move on to greener pastures, leaving a hole that needs to be filled in a hurry to help the rest of the guys behind it. Even with three upperclassmen guys on the front, the defense only created 24 sacks, which was 73rd in the country. Expect whoever takes the snaps at quarterback for Auburn to come out of this game with a relatively clean jersey.
Behind the unknown defensive front, the linebackers should be pretty good as they get back Mandela Lawrence-Burke from injury — he missed all of last season — and should have the experience to make some things happen. It really depends on how often they’re able to move and make plays compared to how often they have to contend with a lineman coming up to block them.
The secondary didn’t make many plays, but then again, they had zero help with quarterback pressure. Just 9 passes got intercepted in 2018, and that’s not going to cut it when they’re probably going to have limited opportunities if teams find out that the running lanes are open. That said, defensive back Keith Sherald might be the top player on the defense after a 2018 season that saw him finish with 91 tackles and 6 pass breakups.
MATCH-UP WITH AUBURN
It won’t be pretty. You read above that the Kent State offensive line averages only about 270 pounds. Auburn’s defensive front should eat all day and get after Woody Barrett play after play. He’s not that mobile, and I would expect 5+ sacks by Derrick Brown, Nick Coe, and Marlon Davidson. Kent State runs a hurry-up offense, and so we may see a humongous discrepancy between the time of possession early if Auburn gets pressure and forces some throwaways.
On the other side of things, Auburn should be able to run almost at will on this team, and I would expect that we see the Tigers put together some quick drives in the first half thanks to more ball-control offense with Boobee Whitlow toting the rock. Other than that, the Tiger attack should have no trouble taking care of the worst defense in the Mid-American Conference. If the starters play more than a series in the third quarter, we’ll know that A) everyone is hurt, B) Gus is really working in the vanilla gameplan to prep for SEC play, or C) the teams switched jerseys at halftime.
Up next: 9/21 @ Texas A&M