KENT: Kent State and Ball State are showing signs of improvement this season, and they meet at noon today at Dix Stadium.
The Cardinals might have the edge in momentum, coming off victories over Big Ten and Big East opponents. After Ball State rallied for a last-second 41-39 victory at Indiana, they followed up the performance with a 31-27 win over South Florida last week.
“This is a big game for our football team,” Kent State coach Darrell Hazell said this week. “Their offense is extremely explosive, and they have a great quarterback.”
As Hazell said the last part of the statement, a slight shake of his head indicated that he is well aware of how much Cardinals junior quarterback Keith Wenning can pick apart a defense.
“He’s very precise with his throws, gets [the ball] out of his hands fast and is very confident,” Hazell said. “He has a great presence about him.”
Wenning isn’t the Flashes’ (2-1, 1-0) only concern. The Cardinals (3-1, 1-0) feature a 5-foot-10, 225-pound steamroller of a running back in Jahwan Edwards, whose five touchdowns are tied for the Mid-American Conference lead.
“They have a big running back that pushes the pile backward, so it’s a formidable task on hand,” Hazell said. “He’s very physical, a between-the-tackles kind of runner.”
One area where the teams are above average, yet even, is on special teams as each squad relies heavily on the often-overshadowed unit.
“The special teams, they’re very comparable to ours,” Hazell said, noting the Ball State game-wining field goal against Indiana. “And the punter [Massillon native Steven Schott] is outstanding. He’s knocked so many kicks inside the five-yard line, it’s almost like he’s using a 9-iron or a wedge.”
So far this season, the Flashes’ success can be directly attributed to two areas. Kent State ranks second in the country in turnover margin (thanks to its play-making defense) and kick return average (featuring the world-class speed of junior kick returner Dri Archer).
After being embarrassed in a 33-point loss at Southeastern Conference-member Kentucky on Sept. 8, KSU’s defense rebounded to lead a league-opening 23-7 win at Buffalo last week that included four turnovers (three interceptions).
After being gouged by the passing game of the Wildcats, the Flashes defense recovered to not only prove opportunistic, but to also limit the Bulls to just five complete passes (26 attempts) and one score — a fluke touchdown via a Hail Mary at the end of the first half of the Sept. 19 game.
Further, KSU’s defensive unit contained Buffalo’s standout running back Branden Oliver, who didn’t rush for more than 10 yards in 16 carries before suffering an injury that cost him the second half of play.
KSU’s return game is thriving and the defense appears to be back on track, but the team’s main source of concern to date is the reoccurrence of an old problem — uninspiring quarterback play.
With senior starter Spencer Keith playing too conservative in the throwing game over the first two and a half games, Hazell inserted junior backup David Fisher to finish the game at Buffalo.
After a week of splitting time with the first-team offense, Hazell plans go with the same approach today in the game as KSU looks for its sixth consecutive MAC win in a streak that dates to last season.
“You’ll see them both sometime on Saturday,” Hazell said. “They’re different guys who bring something a little different to the table.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at https://ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.