MACtion is back on Wednesday night, and the conference’s six-game slate kicks off with Kent State hosting Eastern Michigan. The Golden Flashes were one of the conference’s biggest surprises last season. In coach Sean Lewis’ second year, Kent State finished 7-6 and won the first bowl trophy in the program’s history. Eastern Michigan has emerged as a consistent bowl team under coach Chris Creighton. The Eagles are coming off their third bowl appearance in four years.
Kent State brings back 11 starters from last year’s seven-win team, including quarterback Dustin Crum, receiver Isaiah McKoy and three starters up front. The Golden Flashes were set to face a brutal schedule in 2020, which would’ve made progress difficult for Lewis in his third year at the helm. However, non-conference dates against Penn State, Kentucky and Alabama and crossover matchups against Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Central Michigan were canceled. With a wide-open East Division, a six-game MAC slate gives this team a chance to compete for the division title.
Eastern Michigan returns 10 starters from last season’s squad, but Creighton has some retooling to do on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Eagles will have a new quarterback and must find production at running back. Defensively, Creighton’s team surrendered too many points and yards last fall, so generating all-around improvement is a priority. While this is one of the toughest jobs in college football, Creighton has found a way to guide Eastern Michigan to three bowl trips since 2016 and is 25-26 after starting 3-21 in Ypsilanti.
Kent State holds an 18-14 series edge over Eastern Michigan. The Golden Flashes have won five out of the last six against the Eagles. Three out of the last four matchups between these two teams have been decided by eight points or less.
Eastern Michigan at Kent State
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 6 p.m. ET
Spread: Kent State -6.5
When Kent State Has the Ball
The catalyst for Kent State’s offensive improvement in 2019 was quarterback Dustin Crum. In head coach Sean Lewis’ debut season in 2018, Crum and Woody Barrett combined for 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. However, Crum seized the starting job last year and finished with 2,622 yards and 20 touchdowns to just two picks. Additionally, he connected on 69.2 percent of his throws and tied for seventh nationally with 10 completions of 50 yards or more. Crum’s development helped Kent State average 29.2 points a game (up from 23.9) and 5.83 yards a snap (up from 5.04) last fall.
The unusual offseason could slow Kent State’s offense early as it looks to knock off some of the rust. However, Crum’s development into one of the top Group of 5 quarterbacks should be more than enough for this unit to take another step forward in 2020. But outside of the timing and rhythm questions early on, Lewis’ offense does have question marks to address in the personnel department. Kent State’s line improved over the course of the 2019 season but still surrendered 41 sacks last fall. Crum led the team with 707 rushing yards, while top running back Will Matthews finished his eligibility. Xavier Williams (393 yards) returns, but true freshman Marquez Cooper is slated for a key role in the backfield. Isaiah McKoy (57 catches) is back as the No. 1 receiver and should be penciled in for an even bigger role this fall. However, three key playmakers on the outside – Mike Carrigan, Kavious Price and Antwan Dixon – are gone. Crum needs Keshunn Abram, Ja’Shaun Poke, and true freshman Luke Floriea to emerge as key targets this season.
Eastern Michigan led the MAC in scoring defense (22.1 ppg) in 2018 but slipped to seventh (30.6) last season. The Eagles also allowed 6.1 yards per snap and finished eighth in the MAC against the run and pass efficiency defense. This unit needs better production out of the pass rush but the front should be solid with Turan Rush, Woo Scott and Mikey Haney back. The secondary lost Vince Calhoun, Brody Hoying and Kevin McGill, but Freddie McGee III and Blake Bogan are a good duo to build around. The Eagles have questions here and will be tested right away against the MAC’s top quarterback.
When Eastern Michigan Has the Ball
Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton will have some extra duties on his plate this year, as he’s slated to handle the play-calling after Aaron Keen left to be the head coach at Washington University, a Division III program. The Eagles are usually hovering in the middle of the conference in terms of scoring average since Creighton’s arrival. However, this unit averaged 5.97 yards per snap last fall and has enough returning talent to push that total over six in 2020.
Last year’s starting quarterback Mike Glass finished with 32 overall touchdowns and led the MAC in total offense per game (299.8). Although Preston Hutchinson has a lot of production to replace, the first-year starter is a promising quarterback for Creighton to build around. The junior completed 31 of 36 throws for 357 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-27 win over rival Western Michigan last fall. Hutchinson won’t replicate Glass’ production as a runner, but the junior should be among the MAC’s top quarterbacks in passing output, especially with Quian Williams, Dylan Drummond, Hassan Beydoun, and Bryson Cannon back to anchor the receiving corps. The offensive line returns three starters and should be one of the better groups in the conference. Production on the ground might be the biggest question surrounding this offense. Just one player has eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards under Creighton’s tenure, and Shaq Vann, Willie Parker and Breck Turner must be replaced from last year’s backfield. Freshman Darius Boone and sophomore Karmi Mackey – a combined 10 career carries – are slated to handle the bulk of the work. Converted quarterback/receiver Jairus Grissom and true freshman D.J. Smith are the names to watch here.
Kent State’s defense has struggled in recent years and may not show marked improvement on this side of the ball. This unit has finished ninth or worse in scoring defense in each of the last three years and had major issues against the run (244.7 ypg allowed) last fall. The Golden Flashes also gave up 6.3 yards per snap and ranked near the bottom of the MAC in pass efficiency defense. Five starters are back, but two (linebacker Cepeda Phillips and safety Keith Sherald) are expected to miss Wednesday’s game. Help could come in the form of transfers Tony Butler (Nebraska) and C.J. Holmes (Notre Dame) in the secondary, but the defensive front is likely to be vulnerable once again.
With the unusual offseason and personnel changes for both teams, it’s tough to get a read on this matchup. Kent State won a close one (34-26) in Ypsilanti last season and another tight game should be expected again. For the Eagles to reverse their fortunes from last fall, the defense has to find a way to pressure Crum and limit the big plays from the Golden Flashes’ passing game. Hutchinson and Eastern Michigan’s offense has a favorable matchup against Kent State’s defense but some balance will be needed from an inexperienced stable of running backs. This game could go either way. However, a slight edge goes to Kent State due to a better quarterback and home-field advantage.
Prediction: Kent State 31, Eastern Michigan 27
(Isaiah McKoy photo courtesy of Kent State Athletics)