By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 21, 2016
Alabama entertains Nick Saban’s alma mater, the Kent State Golden Flashes, this week in a game that threatens to be as one-sided as a two-headed penny.
Kent State slogged through an unimpressive 27-7 win over Monmouth last week, a team that doesn’t appear in a list of teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision. That win came a week after losing in overtime to North Carolina A&T, a loss that will wind up being the one of the worst on any FBS team’s record at the end of the year.
Alabama was beaten up a bit against Ole Miss, and could be without the services of three or four starters as a preventative measure. It shouldn’t matter, though, as Kent State may finish the year as one of the worst teams in the old Division-IA.
Whatever Kent State is trying to do on offense, it’s not working. The Golden Flashes are 119th in total offense, which includes a rating of 80th in rushing and 118th in passing. Ordinarily, there would be a comment here about sample size, but two of Kent State’s opponents have been from the FCS level. Kent State runs a fairly standard three-wide base set with a tight end and single running back, and its quarterback is a dual-threat player. Alabama counters with a multiple, pro-style offense that is currently 33rd in total offense, 26th in rushing offense and 54th in passing offense. Alabama began to rely on the QB run more often against Ole Miss, but with the primary objective here (outside of winning) being protecting the health of its starters, it would be a mild surprise to see a big day from Jalen Hurts on the ground.
Justin Agner started the opener but Mylik Mitchell has since taken over the job. Agner is listed as out for this game, so the game will be in the hands of the redshirt freshman Mitchell, who is the team’s second-leading rusher. He has also racked up the most carries of any KSU player in 2016 despite playing only part of the Penn State game. As a passer, his numbers are actually very good: 37-of-62 (59.7%) for 353 yards, 5 touchdowns and 1 interception. It’s the efficiency, particularly in the red zone, that Alabama will have to account for. Sophomore George Bollas will be the backup.
Alabama will start Hurts, who is already knocking on the door of 800 all-purpose yards, including nearly 200 on the ground. He showed plenty of poise in the win over Ole Miss and has probably been the second-best SEC quarterback so far in this season. Expect, though, to see quite a bit of Blake Barnett and perhaps even Cooper Bateman in this game, depending on how much work Hurts gets before the game gets out of hand. Mitchell has a promising future ahead of him, but Alabama’s Hurts is just better and the Crimson Tide has superior depth. Advantage: Alabama
Damien Harris is averaging 9.1 yards per carry at this point and his Ole Miss performance was nothing short of spectacular. He and Hurts will likely do most of the damage early on the ground. Harris is backed up by Bo Scarbrough, B.J. Emmons, Joshua Jacobs and Derrick Gore, each of which will probably make an appearance in this game. Other than Scarbrough, who has had trouble getting out of the gate in 2016, this group has a ton of potential and made strides against Ole Miss. Scarbrough was effective in short yardage but a late fumble while trying to run out the clock almost proved catastrophic.
For Kent State, it all boils down to Justin Rankin, because other than QB runs from Mylik Mitchell, Rankin is the only proven commodity in the KSU backfield. Myles Washington and Will Matthews haven’t run the ball enough to be truly evaluated; what is interesting is that KSU apparently recruits to a specific mold. All three of its top backs are roughly 5’7” and 210 pounds, so the Kent State staff must be chasing the bowling ball metric. Slot receiver Nick Holley has been effective in an offensive role roughly the same as the one Tennessee fashioned for Pig Howard. In the end, Harris is much better than Rankin, Hurts better than Mitchell and Alabama has better depth throughout. Advantage: Alabama
Nick Holley continues his Pig Howard-like role by being the Golden Flashes’ leading receiver, yet struggling with his per-catch average. Holley has caught 12 passes for 110 yards (9.2 avg.) and 2 touchdowns, but he’s the only receiver over either the 10-catch or 100-yard mark on the season. Kris White is out with a leg injury, leaving Johnny Woods and Ernest Calhoun as the other two starters. They’ve combined for 8 catches for 89 yards. Raekwon James probably has the most breakout ability of anyone on the roster besides Holley. Kent State will use the backs and tight ends; senior Brice Fackler is actually a fairly potent receiving tight end the Crimson Tide will have to monitor.
Alabama will be without ArDarius Stewart for this game, meaning Cameron Sims will elevate to a starting role beside Gehrig Dieter and Calvin Ridley. Robert Foster, Derek Kief, Trayvon Diggs and Raheem Falkins will provide depth. O.J. Howard, Hale Hentges, Brandon Greene and Miller Forristall will play tight end, and in this game Alabama might also get to use Truett Harris and others. Howard was a bit more involved against Ole Miss but still hasn’t had a eye-popping performance to rival what he did against Clemson in January. This category isn’t even remotely close. Advantage: Alabama
Despite having a mobile quarterback, Kent State is 119th in the country in sacks. What that says to Alabama’s defense is that this is a buffet and Kent State’s quarterbacks are the featured protein. Kent State is already dealing with injuries within this group, and have been shuffling the starting lineup. For now, it looks like Reno Reda will start at left tackle with Wayne Scott at left guard and Stefano Millin at center. The right side is sort of anyone’s guess. Connor Shinsky appears to be the starter at guard, while Brock Macaulay figures to be the right tackle. Nathan Puthoff’s status is unclear.
Alabama seemed to have finally found the right mix against Ole Miss; Jonah Williams and Alphonse Taylor will start at right tackle and right guard, Bradley Bozeman at center, Ross Pierschbacher at left guard and Cam Robinson at left tackle. Expect to see plenty of Alabama’s reserves, including Matt Womack and Korren Kirven at tackle, J.C. Hassenauer and Josh Casher at center, and Lester Cotton, Dallas Warmack and Brandon Kennedy at the guard spots. Again, not a close contest here. Advantage: Alabama
Like Ole Miss, Kent State likes a hybrid 3-3-5 look as a base front, with a roving defensive end, and statistically, the Golden Flashes have been very respectable: 31st in total defense, 50th in rushing defense, 41st in raw pass defense and 32nd in pass efficiency defense. But a ranking of 72nd in scoring defense is worrisome, especially given that two of the three KSU opponents have been FCS schools. It’s very probable that even Kent State doesn’t truly know what its defense is capable of doing yet. Alabama took a major hit in pass defense last week as a result of facing Chad Kelly (98th now in raw pass defense), but the sample sizes remain small. Alabama, out of its 3-4 over/under scheme, is just too athletic and fast for most opponents.
The biggest problem for Kent State is this unit, and its lack of push up the middle. The trio of Jon Cunningham, Chris Fairchild and Kalil Morris have combined for just 22 tackles – only 2 of them behind the line of scrimmage – and 2 sacks.
The other primary backup, Jontey Byrd, has just 1 tackle so far. But one of the defensive ends is stellar. Terence Waugh plays a hybrid linebacker/end position not unlike Alabama’s Jack spot, but the oddly-built-for-it Waugh (6’1”, 262) has already put up 8 stops behind the line and 5 sacks. That’s more than half the team’s sack total tied up in one guy. But Waugh literally does it all alone; Theodore Eboigbe, the other end, has been completely unproductive, while Anthony Johnson and Matthew Sommers are just sort of taking up space.
Alabama will start Da’Ron Payne in the middle, with Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen outside. Da’Shawn Hand, Dakota Ball, Joshua Frazier, O.J. Smith, Raekwon Davis and Jamar King will get relief work. It will be interesting to watch the impact Waugh has on the game, but other than him, there’s no comparing the quality of these two units. Advantage: Alabama
Production has been a problem for Kent State here, as neither James Alexander nor Nick Cuthbert have been particularly active. It’s all tied up in the aforementioned Terence Waugh, who will play as a defensive end as much or more than he will at linebacker. Depth is in better shape here, as both Jim Jones and Elcee Refuge have looked like capable players. Jones is coming off a concussion, however, and is not assured of playing in this game. There is likely some competition still present here for starting spots. Anthony Johnson, Waugh’s backup, is also in the mix.
Alabama will start Shaun Dion Hamilton and Reuben Foster inside, although it’s not clear how much Foster will play coming off a taxing physical game at Ole Miss. Rashaan Evans and Keith Holcombe figure to get more time inside than usual. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson will start outside, backed up by Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings and Jamey Mosley. True freshman Mack Wilson could also see some time here. This is probably the strongest unit on the Kent State defense by a hair or two, but Alabama still holds the edge. Advantage: Alabama
KSU’s most productive defensive player other than Waugh is almost certainly safety Nate Holley, who has already amassed 47 tackes, two of them for losses. But he has been fairly absent in pass defense itself. Holley will play close to the line and alternate a bit at the rover spot with Najee Murray and true freshman Akeem Peters. Murray is the team’s best ballhawk. Juantez McRae rounds out the safety group. At corner, Darryl Marshall will start on one side, but Demetrius Monday, who would ordinarily be the other starter, may miss the game with an ankle injury. Jerrell Foster will go if Monday can’t, with Jamal Parker serving as the spare corner.
Alabama will start Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett at the corner positions, with Minkah Fitzpatrick probably starting at Star but playing very little. Fitzpatrick appeared to suffer a concussion last week. Look for Shyheim Carter and Deionte Thompson to get most of the work in his absence. Eddie Jackson and Ronnie Harrison will start at safety, with Laurence Jones the primary backup. Aaron Robinson and Levi Wallace will provide depth across the board. There are some good players here and depth isn’t terrible, but with a starting cornerback likely out for Kent State, Alabama should hold a comfortable lead. Advantage: Alabama
As is often the case, while Alabama may be playing a struggling mid-major program in a should-win game, the Crimson Tide will have to face solid special teams nonetheless. Placekicker Shane Hynes is 7-of-9 on kicks, with one of the misses coming from long distance. Punter Derek Adams needs to improve his distance, but he gets high hang time on his kicks and is good at pinning teams behind their own 20. Net punting numbers are poor (99th) but Adams’ net average is just 2 yards shorter than his gross. Kent State is mediocre in both kickoff and punt returns.
Alabama will use Adam Griffith on kicks and J.K. Scott on punts. The story should be familiar by now: Scott is one of the nation’s best punters, while Griffith has a strong leg but is somewhat erratic. Alabama is 10th in punt returns thanks to Eddie Jackson’s touchdown against Ole Miss, while the Crimson Tide has managed to get up to 39th in kickoff returns without truly breaking one yet. Hynes is probably a better option at kicker, but Alabama wins in all other facets. Advantage: Alabama
It’s a straight eight for Alabama, and the Crimson Tide also holds solid control over both OL-DL matchups.
Basically, Kent State has 4-5 very good players surrounded by a lot of small linemen, and skill players that lack dynamic ability. In short, the Golden Flashes are on the schedule at this point for a reason, and that’s to collect a check (and a beating) and go home.
There won’t be much to talk about here unless Alabama struggles. Given the exhausting nature of the game Alabama just played, a slow start is almost accepted as fact. Look for Alabama to go to its bench early and try to rest some of the players that found themselves out of the Ole Miss game late for one reason or another.
Kent State 7
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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