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Previewing Alabama versus Kent State: The Golden Flash defense

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While the point spread forecasts a blowout, don’t underestimate the Golden Flash defense

NCAA Football: Kent State at Penn State
The Golden Flashes maybe MAC, but they aren’t pushovers.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

While Saturday’s match-up with the Kent State Golden Flashes will be a definite step back in terms of quality of opponent from the previous foe Ole Miss, don’t underestimate for a moment the quality of this particular MAC defense.

Penn State did. The result: a 16-13 halftime lead that would have been a 16-16 tie if not for a missed Kent State field goal just before the half. Though the Nittany Lions eventually pulled away en route to a 33-13 victory, the Golden Flashes gave their struggling offense all they wanted in the opening stanza.

The Golden Flash defense is veteran, and they have been, top-to-bottom, the best defense in the MAC conference for several years running. Last season, they were able to hold Illinois to 5.3 yards per play, Minnesota to 4.1 yards per play and Marshall to 3.5 yards per play. Though none of those teams are necessarily offensive powerhouses, the Golden Flashes proved themselves salty against teams that should have beaten them handily.

As Alabama coach Nick Saban told his players this week, the Golden Flashes are a team capable of causing problems if underestimated, just as Oklahoma State underestimated Kent State’s MAC counterpart Central Michigan. And everyone knows how that turned out, blown call or not.

There’s no doubt Alabama should be able to manhandle Kent State this weekend with little anxiety. But will Alabama be able to continue its offensive ascent against a salty, experienced defense that returns a ton of veteran depth in the two-deep? After all, Kent State returns eight of its top 10 defensive linemen, five of its top six linebackers, and eight of nine top defensive backs. The unit is loaded with returning starters, and experienced depth is a leading indicator of defensive quality, especially in the secondary.

Alabama needs to continue to gain confidence in its offense, particularly in the running game and in regard to the longer passing plays in the Tide’s offensive game plan. That, however, may be difficult against this particular MAC defense, at least in the early going.

Will Jalen Hurts continue his development and gain quality work against an above-average MAC pass defense? Will the Tide interior offensive line be able to get some running game grind work in between the tackles? Or will Alabama have a sub-par, ugly performance that will raise far more questions than it answers? We’ll see in a few days. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

Kent State defensive coordinator Ben Needham, a young coach just three years removed from his beginnings as a graduate assistant at Arkansas, is a disciple of Kent State head coach Paul Haynes, who himself served under Jim Tressel at Ohio State. Needham’s preferred system (at least the one he’s using at Kent State) is yet another iteration of the 4-2-5 defense, something Alabama saw last week against Ole Miss. The Flashes play four down linemen, two traditional linebackers (an OLB and an MLB), a hybrid safety-corner nickel-type defensive back that goes by the name “Apache” (unlike the Ole Miss “Husky,” which is more of a safety-linebacker hybrid), and four additional defensive backs in more traditional roles.

The Golden Flashes are gifted with good depth along the front four, and the starters are excellent pass rushers who are equally adept against the run. Sophomore Theodore Eboigbe (6-1, 252 pounds) is new to a starting role this season, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have plenty of snaps beneath his belt. He’s aggressive and has a good jump off the snap, and as a reserve player last season, he accounted for 12 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He is spelled by junior Matthew Sommers (6-2, 260 pounds), another seasoned player who has seen plenty of time in the Golden Flash scheme.

At the other end position, senior pass-rush specialist Terence Waugh (6-2, 262 pounds) holds the starting role, and deservedly so. Probably the best pure pass-rusher on the Golden Flash defensive roster, Alabama’s offensive line will have to account for Waugh on each and every down. Waugh had a terrific 2015 campaign, during which he was responsible for 57 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, nine sacks and a forced fumble. Waugh is a jack linebacker-styled defensive end, as he’s quick off of the ball and aggressive in slipping blocks en route to the passer. Waugh will challenge Alabama’s tackles throughout the contest, though he can only do so much against the Tide’s skilled tackles in Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams. Subbing in behind Waugh will be senior Anthony Johnson (6-4, 235 pounds).

The interior of the defensive line has good size for a MAC school, with nose tackle manned by redshirt senior Chris Fairchild (6-2, 309 pounds), a run-stopping plugger with decent pass rush skills. Fairchild recorded 33 tackles, last season with four of those going for loss. Redshirt junior Jontey Byrd (5-10, 269 pounds) backs him up, and in a reserve role last year he accrued 16 tackles.

As good as Cuthbert is, he splits time with another high performer at outside linebacker in senior Elcee Refuge (5-9, 230 pounds). Refuge is a fireplug of a ‘backer, who while not particularly spectacular in coverage, is an excellent run-stopper who often wins the leverage battle with opposing blockers and backs. Refuge was a starter for much of 2015, and can be considered a co-starter on this year’s squad. He accounted for 70 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. So impactful is Refuge for the Golden Flash defense that he has accounted for a turnover in each of the Golden Flashes three previous games this season.

At middle linebacker, Kent State starts junior James Alexander (5-11, 245 pounds), one of only a few new faces on the Golden Flash defense this season. Though Alexander is a first-time starter in 2016, he still saw enough playing time to record 15 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a sack in the previous campaign. Behind Alexander is sophomore Jim “Drink the Kool-Aid” Jones (6-1, 227 pounds), an athletic speed demon who is decent in coverage when called upon in that role.

At Apache, the Golden Flashes start another returning stalwart in senior Najee Murray (5-9, 180 pounds). Unlike the Ole Miss Husky (which does a little of everything, defensively speaking), the Kent State Apache is a roving defensive nickel back similar to Alabama’s “Star” DB in the nickel package. Murray is small in stature, but he’s lightning quick, and can be quite disruptive by following his ball-hawking instincts. In 2015, Murray accounted for 31 tackles, a tackle for loss and nine passes defended, stats which highlight his role as an extra helper in the already-solid defensive back field. Behind Murray is true freshman Akeam Peters (5-10, 183 pounds), who because of his lack of experience is something of an unknown commodity.

The Kent State corners are speedy and of smaller frame, with sophomore Darryl Marshall (5-10, 166 pounds) and junior Demetrius Monday (5-10, 197 pounds) holding down the edges for the Golden Flash secondary. Marshall played sparingly in his first season, with only four tackles to his stat line. Monday, however, is an anchor in the secondary, with 35 tackles, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and six (SIX!) interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, in 2015. Backing up Marshall is solid junior Jerrell Foster (6-0, 182 pounds), with freshman Jamal Parker (5-8, 170 pounds) spelling Monday.

The safety position is a strength for the Golden Flashes, with all-MAC junior free safety Nate Holley (5-11, 210 pounds) serving not only as the best player on the Kent State defense, but possibly the best defensive player in the entire MAC. Holley is a tackling machine, accounting for 139 tackles in 2015, along with two sacks, five tackles for loss and three passes defended. Holley, whose brother Nick is a running back/ wide receiver for the Golden Flashes, is gritty and strong, with prototypical size for the position uncommon on many MAC rosters. Jalen Hurts will need to be aware of Holley’s presence on passing downs, and he is obviously an effective impediment to opposing running games.

At strong safety, the Golden Flashes start sophomore Juantez McRae (5-10, 196 pounds), another thudder who is called upon in coverage and run support. McRae is no greenhorn, accounting for 15 tackles and an interception last season, and one can expect him to only get better as the season creeps along.

Backing up the steady and consistent Holley is junior Marcus Elliot (6-0, 201 pounds), and McRae is spelled by junior Kevin Bourne (5-10, 190 pounds).

How the Golden Flash defense will attack the Alabama offense

Let’s face it: Kent State will be fighting an uphill battle on both sides of the ball, though their odds of frustrating the Tide and having a face-saving showing are greater on the defensive side of the ball. That said, a rather anemic Penn State offense with a fraction of the Tide’s offensive firepower still managed 33 points against the Flashes, so one would expect the Tide to pummel them into submission without much trouble.

While that is the likely eventual outcome, the Golden Flashes can do things defensively to test the Tide’s passing game and stress both the run game and air attack, if only slightly. Despite an obvious talent disparity, Kent State runs an effective, aggressive pass defense scheme, and they are not too shabby against the run.

Needham, the Kent State defensive coordinator, is a relative newcomer to coaching, having served as a graduate assistant under current head coach Paul Haynes during his stint as defensive coordinator of Arkansas in 2012. In his time at Kent State, he has helped to sew a bit of a silk purse out of sow’s ear in regard to the level of talent afforded MAC schools, as the Golden Flash defense finished 2015 ranked 27th in passing defense (and 31st in sacks) nationally. This year, through three games (and a 1-2 record), Kent State is ranked 31st in total defense, 32nd in pass defense, 50th in rushing defense, and 72nd in scoring defense (the latter undoubtedly not helped by the Golden Flashes’ wretched offense that keeps the defense in front of opposing firing squads longer than is optimal.)

Though Kent State runs a version of the 4-2-5, Needham’s iteration differs from his Ole Miss peer Wommack. Whereas Wommack uses defensive backs, especially the Husky, in run support and to rush the passer on blitz packages, Needham uses his extra defensive backs in typical nickel package roles. It’s not dissimilar from Alabama’s nickel schemes, only instead of using it only on likely passing downs, the Flashes line up in it routinely. Needham trusts his defensive linemen to do enough up front to clog the running lanes and pressure the passer so that he can flood the passing lanes with experienced defensive backs. The roles aren’t non-traditional at all, and neither is the way they are utilized. It’s a simple system, and it allows players to play a fast, aggressive style of defensive football that, if executed properly, generates a lot of stalled, unproductive drives.

You’ve heard of the “bend-but-don’t-break” style of defense, right? Well the Kent State defense is the exact opposite of that. Rather than letting offenses move down the field easily only to stifle them in the red area, the Kent State defense places an emphasis on three-and-outs while ceding the occasional explosive play. The philosophy is based on the fact that most defenses will make mistakes that allow explosive plays. Playing that style also allows a MAC defense to make the most of its limited talent and depth, since defensive players play in short spurts, either because of successfully stalled series or explosive plays.

Rather than attempting to play every play in perfect fashion and allowing opponents to string together long, clock-consuming, exhausting scoring drives, the Kent State defense would rather do enough to limit the number of plays an offense can run, knowing full well that they will get a few explosive plays in the course of a game regardless of what the defense does. (To that effect, the Golden Flashes allowed 19 passes of more than 30 yards last season, which can be…problematic.) The defense remains fresh (in theory), and is able to make crucial stops late in games that will mean the difference on the scoreboard.

Sounds like it could work, right? Maybe? It's a workable philosophy…so long as the defense is supported by an offense that can score and match explosive plays with the opponent. Unfortunately for Kent State, that has not been the case, as the Golden Flashes struggled to a 3-9 record in 2015. The Kent State offense has been rancid through last season and the early part of this campaign, and it doesn’t really matter what scheme a defense runs, if there is no offensive support on the scoreboard, the effort will be a losing one.

Don’t mistake that low win total as indicative of defensive ineptitude, however, as the defense for Kent State did its part last season. The Golden Flashes finished 2015 with an extremely productive pass defense (ranked 8th nationally in adjusted sack rate and 18th in completion rate). The Kent State defense only allowed an average of 208 yards per game passing and 143.9 yards per game on the ground (351.9 yards per game of total offense), respectable numbers against a MAC schedule that featured several prolific, high-powered offenses.

The front six defenders are excellent pass rushers, led by Waugh, but the pass rush attack was far from a one-man show. In fact, seven Golden Flash defenders recorded more than 1.5 sacks last season, as the Kent State defense attacks from a number of angles along the front. As for Alabama, Kent State isn’t going to break out of its shell, plain and simple. They’ll continue to attempt to pressure the passer up front. They’ll give Hurts a lot to look at in the passing game, with defensive backs flying all over the place. They’ll try to clog up the middle in run defense and dare the Tide backs to break it outside. They’ll let their defensive backs play aggressively at the line in hopes of gaining any bit of advantage they can to minimize the size mismatches at most of the skill positions. It really is that simple.

The Outcome

Quite simply, Kent State can only hope to do so much to stop Alabama. Alabama’s tailbacks are physical, as is the offensive line in run blocking. If the Tide ground attack replicates its second half performance against Ole Miss, there won’t be much that an outgunned Golden Flash defensive front can do to stop it.

The passing game will be a bit of a different story. Hurts’ limitations are a passer are beginning to be exposed. He is comfortable with the short passes, the quick outs, the wide receiver and bubble screens. He throws the deep ball with little accuracy at this point, though one can tell his arm is strong and is a work in progress. He has lacked touch on some of the mid-range passes, and it is these weaknesses that Kent State can target with their veteran secondary to frustrate the Tide offense.

If Lane Kiffin decides to let the young quarterback test his mettle against a good-enough secondary in preparation for bigger, badder defenses in future contests, then so be it. It will be a good exercise for Hurts, as the Golden Flashes have enough pop in pass defense to move the pocket and keep Hurts on his toes while giving the quarterback enough to look at in the passing lanes to either sharpen his steel, or produce a dull performance that will raise questions for the Tide offense.

As previously mentioned, some of the size mismatches the Tide receivers will enjoy over the Kent State defensive backs are simply too great for the Flashes to overcome. It doesn’t matter how well a DB sticks a route and blankets a receiver, if he gives up six inches to said receiver, he’s usually going to get torched. There will be a lot of that going on this weekend, to be sure. But expect to see Kent State make a few plays in the passing game as well. Monday had six interceptions last year, and Refuge has forced a turnover in each of the three games the Flashes have played this season. If Alabama lets down its guard, plays a sloppy ball game a week removed from the pinnacle of a hard-fought victory over Ole Miss, then the Tide could look impotent against a game Kent State defensive unit.

Realistically, there’s not much else to say about this match-up. Alabama will win handily. Schematically, it’s a mismatch. In terms of the roster talent, it’s a mismatch. Coaching staff vs. coaching staff? Total mismatch. There’s just no two ways around it. Alabama will win, and they will win handily.

The more interesting dynamic will be how Alabama responds this week in the wake of a huge, emotional victory last week. Will they stay sharp and execute the game plan? Will the running game continue to develop behind a gelling offensive line? Will Hurts take advantage of the “steel-sharpens-steel” dynamic of the steady Kent State secondary versus his corps of wide receivers? If the answers are affirmative, then one can assume the Tide is heading in the right direction.

If Alabama stumbles, however, questions will abound. The Golden Flashes aren’t a championship-caliber team, and even with a flawless defensive performance, the offense won’t be able to position them for victory. If Alabama is who we think they are, they’ll dispatch a plucky Kent State team and roll the second (and third) stringers in for quality reps.

If that doesn’t happen, then one will have to wonder if this Alabama team truly is who we think they are.