The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (4-0 overall, 2-0 B1G), coming off a hard-fought win over the Northwestern Wildcats (1-3 overall, 0-2 B1G) last Saturday now turn their attention to their last non-conference matchup of the season.
The Kent State Golden Flashes (2-2 overall, 1-0 MAC), coached by former Badgers TE Sean Lewis, will enter this Saturday’s game as heavy underdogs. Kent State has been blown out by Auburn and Arizona State on the road, squeaked by Kennesaw State in OT at home and steamrolled Bowling Green in their MAC opener.
The Golden Flashes play fast on offense but have given up the most yards per game on the ground on defense in the whole country. Could be a tasty matchup for Jonathan Taylor and the Wisconsin offense.
Steve Helwick of our SB Nation MAC cousins Hustle Belt is here to give us the lowdown on what to expect when a former Badgers’ new team comes to Madison.
1) Who are the key Kent State players to look out for on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball?
Offensively, keep your eyes on quarterback Dustin Crum. Crum spent his first two years with the program as a reserve quarterback inserted into power run sets, but in his last outing, he emerged as an impressive pocket passer. The junior entered an early-season quarterback competition with incumbent Woody Barrett and looks to have clinched the job for the forseeable future. Crum’s 26-of-31, 310-yard, 3-touchdown performance versus Bowling Green may be the best showing from a Kent State quarterback this decade. He also added 65 rushing yards that game, proving he still can contribute in that capacity.
Speaking of rushing production, running back Jo-El Shaw will play a great factor in Kent State’s offense as well. Shaw succeeded in limited starts last season and has progressed immensely throughout the first four games of 2019, earning his first 100-yard game of the season against the Falcons.
Defensively, outside linebacker Matt Bahr will be in charge of stopping Jonathan Taylor at the line of scrimmage. Bahr hits with power, but shedding the blocks of Wisconsin’s sturdy offensive line will be no easy task. The physical linebacker has attained three tackles for loss and a fumble recovery this year, leading the Kent State defense to strong starts against Arizona State and Auburn.
In the secondary, cornerback Jamal Parker is the centerpiece, and he’ll likely line up against Quintez Cephus. Parker picked off a pair of interceptions against Bowling Green and also contributes on special teams as a solid return man.
2) What sort of schemes does Kent State run on offense and defense?
Sean Lewis arrived at Kent prior to the 2018 season and installed an up-tempo offense, similar to schemes that have succeeded at UCF and Houston. Kent State, a program stuck in an ineffective power-run/speed option offense, began to emphasize passing and taking deep shots under Lewis, and that alteration in scheme has paid off. Kent State shattered a program record with 750 yards of offense in Week 4, flourishing equally in the rushing and passing departments with 375 yards allotted to each.
On defense, Kent State runs a 3-4 scheme and much of the defense’s talent lies within the four — the linebacking corps. Just like Lewis rebranded the offense, this is the second year the Flashes have run a 3-4, but getting the unit to perform consistently at a high level is still a work in progress.
3) Who should worry Kent State on Wisconsin’s offense and defense?
The answer to this question for Kent State, and just about every team in the country, is Jonathan Taylor. He’s one of the best running backs we’ve seen in college football history, and has already arrived as the next great Badger back to succeed Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and others. With 170 yards, Taylor becomes top 25 all-time, and that seems like a very achievable goal Saturday unless the Badgers rest him early in a blowout. Kent State’s 114th ranked run defense will have a tough time shedding blocks from Tyler Biadasz and the rest of the massive line, which should bode well for Taylor.
On the other side, Kent State should be wary of Zack Baun. Just like star running backs and linemen seem to grow on trees in Madison, linebackers are also organically grown and developed by Wisconsin. Baun is no exception and he appears to be on his way to achieving All-American status. With three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss through a third of the season, he’s been one of the most impressive components of the Badgers’ top-ranked rushing defense.
4) The Golden Flashes have had a brutal non-conference schedule, playing, and losing to, both Arizona State and Auburn, before their matchup with Wisconsin. What have the players and coach Sean Lewis (a former Badgers TE) learned from playing Power 5 teams?
Surprisingly, they’ve learned that they can hang for a half. This was a theme last year as well, considering Kent State played respectably with Penn State through the second quarter and hung within one possession of Ole Miss well into the second half. This year, Arizona State only led Kent State 10-0 at half and Auburn only led 24-10. The defense has done a phenomenal job at creating stops in the early going. The offense just needs to match that energy, and maybe the unit will loosen up after having its way all afternoon against Bowling Green two weeks ago.
But for a program hoping for its first bowl game in seven years, playing Arizona State, Auburn and Wisconsin will help in the learning department but not necessarily show in the win column.
5) Are there any key injuries that Kent State has suffered? Who is stepping in to fill those holes in the lineup?
Kent State hasn’t had any major injuries that have affected the depth chart.
6) What are your predictions for the final score as well as players of the game for both teams?
As much as I want to talk about how Kent State’s offense taking the next step against Bowling Green, that was Bowling Green — a program notorious for defensive lapses in the past four years.
This is Wisconsin, a team which scored 145 unanswered points to open the season and a team which boasts one of the most dominant defenses in the country — not too mention Taylor and the o-line. It’s not going to be close and Wisconsin will improve to 5-0 with a 52-3 win.
As for players of the game, I’ll predict Wisconsin inside linebacker Chris Orr has a memorable day on defense by stopping the run and getting to the quarterback a few times. For Kent State, wide receiver Isaiah McKoy might lead a few solid possessions down the field by getting open near the sidelines.