In 1972, the Rolling Stones' grimiest album, Exile On Main Street, was released, and a gutty Kent State team coached by Don James, with Jack Lambert at linebacker, Nick Saban at safety, and Gary Pinkel at tight end won the Mid-American Conference and earned what would be the school's only bowl bid to date, a trip to the Tangerine Bowl.
James would take the Washington job in 1975 and win a national title 16 years later. Lambert would end up an NFL Hall of Famer. Pinkel would go on to a successful coaching career in both the MAC (at Toledo) and at Missouri. Saban would go on to an incredibly successful coaching career, winning his third national title this past January. Kent State, meanwhile, has struggled. They have finished with just three winning seasons since James left, and only one since head coach Glen Mason departed for Kansas in 1988. But they have created an interesting formula for winning in the near future.
The MAC has, shall we say, a reputation. A fun reputation, of course -- the funnest of reputations, even -- but a reputation nonetheless. Defense is optional, and 100-point shootouts are not only conceivable, but likely. Last year's MAC champion, Northern Illinois, scored 38 points or more 10 times (they beat Toledo, 63-60) and won 11 games despite allowing over 30 points per game; they actually LOST twice while scoring over 40.
While offense is the standard, one would think there might be value in going in the other direction. TCU has had some of the best defenses of the last decade, and they now join a Big 12 conference that features Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and some of the most ridiculously explosive offenses in the country. Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, one could find a winning strategy out of learning how to shut the Joneses down.
At least, that's what Kent State is hoping. One of just two current MAC teams (not including UMass) to have never made the MAC title game, they were the anti-MACtion team in 2011, and it almost got them to a bowl game. The Golden Flashes ranked a horrid 117th in Off. F/+ last year, but a Top 15 defense kept them in games, and a late offensive surge (and four-game winning streak) have bumped expectations up in 2012.
You do have to move the ball a little bit, however. The Golden Flashes learned how to pass in November, but can they sustain that momentum? Can a hefty, and reasonably highly-touted, running back raise his game? Can things click in an experienced offensive coordinator's second year? And … if the offense does improve, can the defense replicate its occasional dominance?
Kent State had a damn solid defense last year. That's an odd thing to say about a team that went 5-7, finished three games out in the MAC East race, allowed 45 points to Army, and watched their head coach resign after seven years without a winning season, but hear me out. This is a defense that...
a) ...featured a defensive end (Roosevelt Nix) who posted a ridiculous stat line (31.0 tackles, 20.0 TFL/sacks, 4 FF, 2 PBU) and won MAC Defensive Player of the Year as a true freshman;
b) ...had five other players who registered at least seven tackles for loss and sacked opposing quarterbacks 35 times; and...
c) ...had to pick up the slack for one of the worst FBS offenses in the country, one that committed 27 turnovers and played at an average-or-better level just twice all season.
In all, Kent State ranked 49th in Def. F/+ last year, sixth-best of all mid-major teams. Roosevelt Nix is absolutely a name to remember, but he has company, especially on an impressive defensive line. Whether the Golden Flashes can account for a new coaching staff, losses at linebacker, and an offense that probably isn't going to be significantly better, we will see.
For each of the last three seasons, Kent State has been defined by a decent defense (which has gotten slightly better each year) and a horrid offense (which has gotten a little worse). The Golden Flashes took things to creative levels in 2011, however. They allowed 159 yards to Louisiana-Lafayette … and lost, 20-12. They allowed 166 to Miami (Ohio) … and lost, 9-3. They consistently held teams below their season offensive averages, but they won just one of their first seven games.
Something interesting happened at the end of the season, however: the offense perked up. After averaging a nation's-worst 17.9 Adj. Points per game through seven contests, Kent State averaged 27.6 over its last five. The passing game came out of nowhere, and the Golden Flashes won four games in a row to get to within one game of bowl eligibility. Unfortunately, a 34-16 loss to Temple (they outgunned the Owls, 363-315, but scored just three times in seven trips inside Temple's 40) meant they would finish 5-7 for the third consecutive season.
While our tendency is to severely overreact and too heavily weight bowl performances, it bears mentioning that a full month's worth of positive (or negative) late-season performances typically carries over to the next season. At least, as long as most of the reasons for such a surge return. To figure out whether Kent State's late discovery of these things called "offense" and "the forward pass" mean good things about 2012, let's look at how Kent State's improvement appears to have happened.
Kent State committed to the run... In their first seven games, KSU ran the ball 59 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and 32 percent of the time on passing downs (national average: 33). Perhaps because of either their ineffectiveness through the air, 245-pound freshman running back Trayion Durham's development throughout the season, or senior running back Jacquise Terry's slow return from a nagging shoulder injury, they leaned more on the run late in the year. Over the final five games, they ran 63 percent of the time on standard downs and a whopping 40 percent on passing downs. In all, that isn't a huge increase -- one extra run per 25 standard downs, two extras per 25 passing downs -- but it was apparently enough to make a difference.
Terry's return to health was, in and of itself, quite beneficial. Through seven games, the running back who had gained a combined 1,329 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in 2009-10, had gained just 120 yards in 33 carries in his senior season. But he was able to carry more of a load down the stretch and form an interesting thunder-and-lightning type of combination with Durham. He gained 240 yards on just 41 carries in those final five games. Durham's per-carry averages, meanwhile, increased from 2.8 per carry in those first seven games to 3.9 in the final five.
...which appears to have opened up the pass. Kent State threw the ball with slightly lower frequency late in the season, but they were infinitely more successful when they did so. Quarterback Spencer Keith completed just 46 percent of his passes and averaged 3.5 yards per pass, with three touchdowns and eight picks, in his first seven games. Those are some of the worst numbers you will ever see. (His backup's were even worse; when Keith was injured against Northern Illinois, Cedric McCloud came in and completed six of 22 passes for 63 yards.) Everything changed in those final five games, however: 59 percent completion rate, 7.5 yards per pass, seven touchdowns, no interceptions. Tyshon Goode and Chris Gilbert, meanwhile, emerged as downfield weapons. They caught 14 passes for just 141 yards in the first seven games, 37 for 574 in the last five.
So is this sustainable? Possibly. Keith returns (and will be pushed by three-star junior college transfer David Fisher); so does Durham, a three-star signee (one of head coach Darrell Hazell's most highly-regarded to date) who, for better or worse, is now listed at 260 pounds. Terry is gone, but shifty Dri Archer, who missed the 2011 season because of academic issues, is back and could at least potentially fill the role of Durham's speedy complement. If he can't, maybe sophomore Anthony Meray or incoming three-star freshman Julian Durden can. And whoever is carrying the ball will be doing so behind a line that returns seven players with starting experience (101 career starts), including second-team all-conference tackle Brian Winters.
Tyshon Goode returns, as well. The Golden Flashes must find replacements for battery mates Sam Kirkland, Gilbert and tight end Justin Thompson, but aside from the November version of Gilbert, those lost were entirely replaceable.
In 2011, defensive coordinator Jon Heacock was tasked with providing continuity to a defense that lost some key pieces from its stellar 2010 unit and had to learn from an entirely new set of coaches. He not only succeeded in maintaining form, but he made the unit better. The Golden Flashes ranked 15th in Def. F/+, 31st in Rushing S&P+ and 18th in Passing S&P+. Theirs was the eighth-best defense in the country on third downs. They attacked from every angle, with three players registering at least 9.5 tackles for loss and nine recording at least 3.5. They were wonderfully deep in both the front and back of the defense, with only linebacking registering as any sort of question mark.
While it may be difficult to present quite the same upside in 2012, one should once again expect Kent State to field one of the best mid-major defenses in the country. Six of the top seven on the line return (though enormous tackle Ishmaaily Kitchen will be missed), including all-world junior Roosevelt Nix and rush end Jake Dooley; the two combined for 27.5 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles last fall. Nix in particular is one of the oddest, most fascinating players in the country. Just 6-foot-0 and 244 pounds, he is listed as a defensive tackle in what is basically a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense. But despite his lack of stature (both in terms of size or recruiting rankings), he has reeled in 37 tackles for loss in two seasons. Either due to opponent adjustments or a new scheme, he got off to a bit of a slow start in 2011; he had a combined 2.0 tackles in losses to UL-Lafayette and Ohio. But in the last seven games, Old Roosevelt showed up. He had two TFLs each against Northern Illinois and Miami, 1.5 against Akron and 4.0 against Eastern Michigan.
Nix alone gives Kent State a unique, interesting identity, but a secondary that returns eight of its top 10 and adds a three-star freshman (Adam Maxie) should help, too. Departed Josh Pleasant (two interceptions, 11 passes broken up, two tackles for loss) was an interesting cornerback, but with the return of Sidney Saulter, Darius Polk (a former three-star signee) and Chevin Meadows, they are deep enough to replace him. They can attack with linebackers Luke Batton and C.J. Malauulu, as well, but they are incredibly thin after those two.
Bowl or bust, right? Three straight 5-7 seasons have pretty clearly defined what "the next step" should be in Kent. Home games against Towson, Ball State, and Akron should give them a boost, but road games versus Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, Army, Miami and Bowling Green will likely determine whether they can lock down that ever-elusive sixth win. After a solid finish to Hazell's first season, this would be, to put it lightly, lovely progress.
I have already professed quite a bit of excitement for Miami in the MAC East, and Ohio is quickly becoming a solid, stalwart program in the upper half of the division. But Kent State has as much star power as anyone in the division, and they should be able to once again be able to boast of the rarest of commodities in the MAC: a stellar defense. If their November offensive display was not a mirage (it looks to have been built on a reasonably stable foundation), then they should absolutely expect to compete for a division crown. And title or no, their long bowl exile could quite possibly come to an end in 2012.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: