What makes Kent State dangerous? Iowa football not overlooking MAC team in upset-heavy season.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa football tries to avoid paying much attention at all to other teams across college football. But the players are looking around the country right now, no doubt. Not to compare themselves to anybody else.
They're simply noticing all the upsets.
In Week 1, alone, seven FCS teams defeated FBS teams, including Montana's 13-7 win over then-No. 20 Washington. Group of 5 schools Charlotte and Utah State defeated Power 5 schools Duke and Washington State, respectively. Last week, Jacksonville State defeated Florida State on a Hail Mary on the final play of the game.
Which brings us back to Iowa ...
The Hawkeyes' opponent this week is Kent State of the MAC, which will try to be next in line of major upsets. One MAC school has already pulled a Power 5 surprise: Northern Illinois defeated Georgia Tech, 22-21, in Week 1.
Iowa, the No. 7 team in this week's coaches poll, is riding high after two consecutive wins over ranked opponents but is not taking the Group of 5 school lightly. If anything, the Hawkeyes are on high alert.
"Looking at this game differently than the first two would be a shame on us," linebacker Jack Campbell said. "We're just really focused in on Kent State. If there's a change in preparation, there's a problem with your program.
"We just can't take anything for granted."
Kent State is a program on the rise under fourth-year head coach Sean Lewis. In 2019, they won their first bowl game in school history and last year finished with a 3-1 record in a COVID-shortened season. This year, they were the media preseason favorite to win the MAC East division.
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What specifically about Kent State presents challenges for Iowa? Here are three areas of the game where the Golden Flashes are dangerous:
Kent State's offensive philosophy is about operating at a fast pace. On average, they look to snap the ball every 16-18 seconds. Iowa, which does not play at that pace and doesn't see it that often in the Big Ten, will have difficulty replicating that in practice.
"Just like if you play an option team, it is hard to simulate," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "There are things you do in practice, but you can't get it just the way it's going to be during game time. It's one more adjustment. One more uniqueness."
The first two drives of the game will be critical for Iowa's defense. Kent State (like every offense) will operate on a pre-set script, meaning they'll be able to move even faster between snaps. If they start moving the ball efficiently, it will mean problems early on.
Look no further than their first game of the season at No. 5 Texas A&M. The Golden Flashes' first possession was a 10-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a field goal.
Communication is always a talking point within the Hawkeyes' defense, but this week will test their speed and cohesion. Campbell understands the consequences of plays not being relayed or pre-snap adjustments not being made in time.
"They might rip off a big play," Campbell said. "That's on me and the linebackers. We've got to focus on every single play. Kind of predict what they're going to do and what plays are coming. I take that upon the linebacker group to be prepared for that."
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Ball-hawking defensive backs
Like Iowa's defense, Kent State's has been the star of their team early in the season. They've forced nine turnovers through two games (second most in college football) with eight interceptions and a plus-seven turnover margin. Their two starting cornerbacks, Elvis Hines and Montre Miller, have three interceptions each.
"Their corners, they're opportunistic," Ferentz said. "They're where they should be; the football is in the air they're going after it. Tipped balls, those types of things. They're good, aggressive players."
Like Iowa State last week, Kent State runs a 3-3-5 base defense with two cornerbacks and three safeties. The test for Iowa's passing game will be two-fold: Continue to play turnover-free and create separation against this secondary.
Iowa's secondary certainly provides good preparation for Iowa's receivers.
"They play the ball really well," wide receiver Charlie Jones said. "It's pretty similar to our defense and the way we play. Our defense gives us a great look every week in practice and in camp when we were going up against them."
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Weapons in rushing game
The challenge with managing Kent State's tempo offense is compounded by their potent rush offense. Even in their 41-10 loss to Texas A&M, the Golden Flashes rushed for 223 yards. In their 60-10 win over VMI, they rushed for an eye-popping 494 yards with seven different players scoring by run.
It starts with their quarterback. Dustin Crum, last year's all-MAC first-team quarterback, is dual-threat and is averaging almost 7 yards per carry. Kent State's two running backs, Marquez Cooper (8.1 yards per carry) and Xavier Williams (6.6) are ones to watch, too.
Outside of sheer talent, their scheme will present potential matchup problems for Phil Parker's defense.
"They do a good job of really making you defend the entire field," Ferentz said. "They spread things out very well. Their backs do a good job. I mentioned their line is well-coached. The quarterback, he'll keep it and take off. In the run game, he'll hand it off. They're pretty fearless with their tempo."
Kent State's rushing offense will be a change of pace and test for Iowa, which faced a more pass-happy Indiana team and an Iowa State team that was forced to pass more than they would like to last week.
Iowa's defensive line bears most responsibility for stopping the run. The fact that they rotate up to nine players might serve as an advantage, as it'll be another hot Saturday. Zach VanValkenburg pinpoints discipline as the biggest key to slowing down Kent State's rushing attack.
"It's definitely going to be gap responsibility first and foremost," the senior defensive end said. "They want to get you out of your gaps and make you second-guess your responsibilities. We have to play fundamental football to combat that."
Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org