Craig Has The Scout - Kent State 2018
Editor's Note: This will be your yearly reminder to check the byline. From the end of basketball to the first football game it's all Robert. But this is a Craig post. And there will be other posts by other writers as well. You know, I guess this one is fairly obvious with the whole "Craig Has The Scout" in the title and all. But you get the idea. Posts are coming. From others. Including a new writer!
So, this one is under my byline (Robert), mostly because there's an issue with formatting posts under other bylines. But once that's fixed... watch for the byline. OK, here's Craig:
Who: Kent State Golden Flashes
When: 11:00 am - September 1, 2018
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: Sean Lewis. Lewis is 32 freaking years old and takes over a moribund Kent State program. He takes over for Paul Haynes after five years. Lewis is a Chicago native, and played at Wisconsin. After a few seasons at Oak Lawn Richards, he coached TEs for a season at Nebraska-Omaha before getting on the Dino Babers train at Eastern Illinois. He stayed with Babers through Bowling Green and Syracuse before mvoing to Kent State this off-season. Lewis' mentors are Dino Babers and Paul Chryst, and he is an interesting pick at a MAC program that counts a single season (Darrell Hazell's last) as its sole shining light in Lewis' lifetime. Kent State could have caught a rising star in Lewis similar to an Urban Meyer or Matt Campbell. Conversely, he could be Craig Cirbus, who took over a horrific Buffalo team in the late 90's and made them more horrific. Cirbus was clearly not ready to be a head coach and floundered quickly. Lewis is a bold move by the Golden Flashes, and we'll have to wait and see how this one pans out.
Offensive Style: The Lewis hire means the Dino Babers' offense is coming back to the MAC. Lewis will probably stay very close to the offense Babers utilized at Bowling Green for two seasons, and they will try to air it out. The offense should be familiar to Illinois, South Florida shredded the Illini last year with it. The good news for Illinois is Quinton Flowers will not be taking snaps.
Defensive Style: Tom Kaufman takes over as the DC for Kent St. He is also a longer term assistant on the Babers tree, starting in 2012 with Eastern. He was the DC last year for Chattanooga. Whereas the rest of the Babers' defensive staff was a 4-3 Cover 3 look, Kaufman is a 3-4 Cover 3 guy. Last season Kent St. was a 4-2-5 scheme similar to that of the Beckman era (replete with a STAR), so it will be quite the adjustment to a 3-4. Luckily, Kaufman did the same conversion last year at Chattanooga.
Specialists: This game could contain the greatest display of punting in Champaign since Nick Harris left town. The Kent St. punter, Derek Adams, is on the preseason Ray Guy watchlist.
Three Things to Watch
- The Golden Flashes OL vs. the Illini DL. The Illini DL should be a strength this year, and the Kent St. offensive line is undersized. And by undersized, I mean MAC undersized. The Golden Flashes offensive line needs to give the QB minimal time to run the quick game I suspect they will leverage, but if the Illini DEs are arriving with the snap, it will force Kent St. out of the offensive gameplan.
- Number of plays run. Tempo, tempo, tempo. Both of these offenses would like to run north of 80 plays in the game. If both offenses are clicking, this could mimic the Pitt-Syracuse game from 2016 which had a combined 165 plays. Syracuse ran 106 of those by the way. I suspect a little more defense will be played in this game, but I would not be shocked to see them run 80 combined first half plays.
- The Illini OL vs. the Kent St. DL. Kent St. is going to try and slow down the Illini using 2-gap DL. Rod Smith is looking to utilize an outside zone blocking scheme (essentially, the OL is move one person to the play side and blocking what is in front of that guy). This will require the OL to block players who are a full player over from them at the snap. That is not an easy task, and may look ugly in the first game of the season.
Scouting Review - Offense
Sean Lewis inherited a tall task overhauling the Kent St. offense, and he brought in Andrew Sowder as OC to start the transformation. Sowder and Lewis worked together on the Babers' staff at Eastern and Bowling Green. Sowder then spent a year as an offensive quality coach at Texas (under Sterling Gilbert) before moving to San Jose State last year as OC. Sowder is at Kent State to bring the Briles offense to life.
Bringing it to life is going to be a tall order in year 1 though. The Golden Flashes are in the middle of an open quarterback competition between Dustin Crum and Woody Barrett, and are dealing with an offensive line that was thin before losing their top OL Adam Gregoire in fall camp. Only two of their top 7 OL return from a year ago. They supplemented this with a JC transfer, and 4 newcomers for their top 7 this year. That is a group thin on experience and size. With a full blown QB competition and rotation on the offensive line, this will be an offense trying to establish a rhythm.
The bright notes for Kent St. is that they seem to have a decent stable of running backs, and at least four wide outs who can catch the ball. This should slow down the defensive rush, and set up the play action the offense prefers. It should also open up the quick game, lots of slants and hitches. Both of those would be instrumental in protecting the offensive line. Expect them to run off tackle often to the weak side and break some runs. The hard part will be stringing together a scoring drive when the deep ball is effectively negated early on.
What will the offense look like? Well, I truly don't know. Dino Babers has been running a version of the Briles system that is more pass heavy than Baylor and Tulsa ran, and for that matter USF last year. The wide splits and the deep passing game are still employed, but there are many more intermediate routes in the Babers version, and less emphasis on the run. I'll use Syracuse for inspiration from last year and pull a few things, but I'm not entirely sure this is what Lewis will deploy against Illinois. Especially if the Illinois defensive backfield is missing some key pieces.
The first play to watch for is the a play action pass opening up the post route. In the play, the Orange are faking the veer and running deep routes. Louisville was running man coverage, and the post was opening up when they went deep down the sideline.
Illinois could be very susceptible to the post, USF lit them up with it. I suspect if the Illini are lacking DBs for any reason, they might move to a Cover 3 Robber look instead, with the Strong Safety playing pass first. It would mean the corners are playing soft on the perimeter opening up bubble screens, but would slow up the play action game since the SS would slow down the play action looks.
When they get in 3rd and mid range, I would expect a lot of empty backfield. In this example, the offense has three options for the QB. Oddly enough, the Syracuse QB actually checked down which is very rare for the Briles system. On the top of the screen, they have both a screen going against the Hurricane defense. On the bottom, they are running a rub route utilizing a pick, with a deep sideline route.
If Kent St. tries to establish the run, I would expect numerous third down opportunites. Once again, the Illinois Cover 3 Robber look would slow this type of play down. It would leave a safety as a midfield defender to cut off the post route. Additionally, the Nickel would be able to flash hard to the top on the sideline action to stop the screen action.
There are two main types of runs out of this offense. The first either a counter or Power O.
The other is a backside off tackle run. With the Illini running a very similar scheme to Miami, expect them to utilize the counter similar that Syracuse ran here. If the Illinois D line dominates, I can guarantee that the pulling linemen will stop right away. When that occurs, here comes the backside dive.
If Woody Cumby wins the role, the QB draw comes into play. Normally, Babers used the scrambling QB, but rarely intentionally ran the QB. The Clemson game last year was the only game where it happened with frequency. The primary driver of that was the Clemson DL and slowing down the rush. Kent St. will run it. Here is one version
I expect them to utilize it again to slow down the Illini pass rush.
Scouting Review - Defense
Tom Kaufman takes over as noted above, and he inherits a unit with some solid players as defense was a hallmark of Paul Haynes. The defense lacks quality depth though. The DL has a true nose and three serviceable DEs, but nothing behind it. The linebacking corps has five adequate bodies for the four spots (including last year's starting WDE). The LB depth is the most concerning, as it is schematically the most crucial part of the scheme. With LBs not being shielded by DL up front, they need to be strong gap defenders in the middle and agile defenders on the perimeter. Kent St. lacks both currently at the ILB and OLB spots. Faulkner should be a solid pass rushing presence out of the 3-4 (last year's starting DE), but the Illini offense will try to isolate him in space with the TE and RB. That will not be a strength of his. How well the Flashes perform at LB will be the difference between getting shelled and playing very competitively with Illinois.
The defense is going to be a crapshoot. The 1st string is MAC quality, but they all lack experience with the scheme. If they allow Illinois to build long drives at tempo, they will be gassed quickly, and the 2nd unit is not MAC quality. They will not get much relief from the offense either, as they too will be trying to run tempo against Illinois. Kaufman showed some improvement on D last year, but the wear at Chattanooga that occurred during the year should happen at Kent St. this year. Implementing new schemes that do not mesh well with personnel on both sides of the ball is a tall order out of the gate. Familiarity with schemes and solid decision making will be key, and the key for Kent St. will be to minimize mistakes. A game that may feature 160 plays is a hard way for teams to minimize mistakes. The lack of experience in the scheme and the depth needed for the game will work against the Golden Flashes.
The base formation for the Golden Flashes D will look like this.
It was hard to decipher any major trends from the single game I watched, but I would suspect a great deal of stunting on obvious pass downs and blitzing linebackers on first down to confuse the Illini blocking scheme.
What does it mean?
Dino Babers rolled into Bowling Green his first year, averaged 30 PPG and won 8 games. Sean Lewis has inherited a decidedly less impressive roster than Babers, and countering the Briles offense has become a little more advanced since 2014. As a result, the Lewis offense will put up points this year, but out of the gate I would expect something closer to the 17 points per game BGSU put up against their top competition that season. The offense will struggle as they break in the OL and a new QB.
The Golden Flashes defense has some decent depth, and will challenge Illinois in the passing game. The effectiveness of the OL making lanes in the run game will be the determining factor. Both OL lack quality depth, so any advantage will be overly exploited. I suspect Illinois will have more opportunities to exploit than Kent St.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois has to establish a run game. Pure and simple, the OL needs to create lanes, and AJ Bush needs to make the correct reads to get the playmakers in space. Kent St.'s 3-4 defense is a solid counter against the outside zone running scheme of Illinois, but it puts an onus on the DL to win a lot of man to man battles. The NT, Kalil Morris should challenge the Illini interior, but the tackles are both undersized against a much bigger Illini OL. If they lose consistently against the Illini OTs, it could make for a long day for the Golden Flashes' defense.
For Kent St. to Win:
Kent St. has to exploit the Illinois secondary and pass to run. If they can establish an offensive rhythm, they will be able to get into the 90 play range which will mean they break some big plays. They also need the Illini offense to completely implode.
I think this game remains close thorugh most of the first half, and then the depth factor takes over for the Kent St. I'll take Illinois to cover.
YTD Against the Spread: