Jimmy Miller

KENT: For the 59th time in program history, Kent State will play the University of Akron in its annual installment of their Wagon Wheel rivalry game and the Flashes will do so with a new starting quarterback.

The Flashes (1-3) struggled through their four-game nonconference schedule that included losses to Big Ten foe Penn State, FCS opponent North Carolina A&T, and defending national champion Alabama. In their game against the Crimson Tide, Flashes quarterback Mylik Mitchell sustained a right wrist injury and will miss the rest of the season and Mitchell was already replacing redshirt freshman Justin Agner.

Now the Flashes will start sophomore George Bollas (Aurora) at quarterback. Bollas played six games last season and on an offense that finished last in the conference. Colin Reardon, a fifth-year senior who began this season as a wide receiver but once started at quarterback for the Flashes, will revert back to his old role as the backup.

“It’s next man up,” Flashes coach Paul Haynes said. “I know this: On Saturday at 3:30, the ball is going to be kicked off and we’re going to have guys out there who will play their tail off.”

The Flashes host the Zips (2-2) to open Mid-American Conference play, which Haynes discussed during a weekly news conference Monday. The Zips shut out the Flashes last season 20-0 in the regular-season finale and lead the all-time series 34-24-2.

For Haynes, a former safety at Kent State, the rivalry is still personal. In team meetings earlier this week, he asked his players to write down what they needed to do each day to beat UA on Saturday.

“They have something that we want,” Haynes said, referencing the Wagon Wheel trophy. “I think that’s the main focus.”

Saturday’s game exhibits the contrast in the teams’ approaches on offense. Freshman running back Justin Rankin has rushed for 230 yards, leading a KSU offense that’s rush-first, especially with Bollas. Even when Agner and Mitchell were under center, Haynes found a way to work in Bollas. He’s rushed nine times but just completed five passes. Freshman receiver Kavious Price and junior running back Nick Holley have combined for 118 yards on 21 attempts.

The Zips have tallied nearly 1,300 yards in the air, which ranks third in the conference. Junior quarterback Thomas Woodson, has accounted for all but 46 of those yards, often going to receivers Jerome Lane, JoJo Natson and Austin Wolf. Lane, a junior Firestone alum, leads the team in yards receiving with 488, which ranks fifth in the nation, but redshirt senior Natson leads the group with five touchdowns. Wolf, a junior, has managed 235 yards and two touchdowns.

“You’ve got to be smart on how you mix it up defensively,” Haynes said. “This is a big challenge for our defense.”

The defense is paced by senior safety Nate Holley, who leads the nation in solo tackles with 39. Senior defensive end Terence Waugh couldn’t play against UA last season, but he anchors the defensive line and has eight tackles for a loss and five sacks.

It’s a tall task for the Flashes — they’ll need to stop a high-octane offense while mustering enough points to win with a third-string quarterback — but Haynes said all the odds go out the window for this game.

“Are we excited? Yes, we are. Is it a big deal? Yes, it is,” Haynes said, “but it still comes down to our preparation and execution.”