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Hope for the Best: Kent State edition

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In terms of reality, there’s no chance the Golden Flashes will upset the Alabama apple cart. But what they can do is expose problems for future opponents...

NCAA Football: Kent State at Penn State
Expect to see a lot of this Saturday. A lot.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The Kent State Golden Flashes played the best game of their young season last week in a 27-7 drubbing of lowly Monmouth. Their defense smothered. Their offense moved the ball with efficiency not seen at Kent State since the 2012 season. The Golden Flashes dominated the hapless Monmouth squad in a rout that was worse than the score indicated.

Too bad for Kent State they can’t play Monmouth every week.

The tale of these two games couldn’t be more different, as the Golden Flashes have the unenviable task of taking on an Alabama squad that appears to have found its identity on the dark, lush soil of the Mississippi Delta last weekend. Though it wasn’t a perfect performance, as was the case in the previous two losses to the Rebels, something about Ole Miss brought out the best in Alabama, and with their backs against the wall, the Tide capitalized on the do-or-die situation to forge their core.

Poor Kent State. They wouldn’t have had much of a chance either way in this paycheck game benefitting Nick Saban’s college alma mater. But with Alabama apparently working through its problems on offense, one would have to imagine this weekend’s match-up in Tuscaloosa will result in something akin to the bludgeoning of a helpless baby seal pup…with a Tomahawk cruise missile.

There is no way to paint this coming contest that could create concern in the minds of Bama faithful. This isn’t David versus Goliath: it’s more like David versus Godzilla. And Mothra, for that matter. It’s going to be ugly for any fans of the Flashes who perceive that their team has a chance of dethroning the king of college football. They’ll put up a fight, sure…the way a little brother swats at his elder sibling’s back with an open hand while the older brother sinks in a figure-4 leg lock. There’s no escaping what is to come for Kent State, as the Alabama third-string has more raw talent than the KSU starters, truth be told.

So sidle up to the television this weekend for what will be a glorified scrimmage. Not like A-Day, though…because as previously stated, as the Tide’s reserves would outlast the Flashes’ starters. What it will be is an opportunity for Alabama to polish a few jagged edges in its game offensively against a good MAC defense, and that will be an important dynamic heading into the Tide’s month-long murderer’s row SEC schedule.

Alabama needs to make the most of the opportunity and emerge unscathed by injury. It’s as simple as that. The stakes won’t be high on the scoreboard, but they are high in terms of team health, team consistency-of-performance, and team chemistry.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the massacre to come…

The Alabama offense versus the Kent State defense

Though the mismatches will abound this Saturday when the Tide offense pairs off against the Kent State defense, the Golden Flashes are not as bad as one may think given their current record and their record last season.

The Flashes run a variant 4-2-5 scheme, and they return a great deal of veteran talent in the secondary. The pass rush is surprisingly effective for a MAC team in a conference which prides itself on spread-based passing offenses. In the previous season, the Flashes defense was solid, allowing an average of only 352.6 yards per game (208 yards passing, 143.9 yards rushing). Kent State easily had the best mid-major defense in the country last year despite being paired with one of the nation’s most impotent offenses, regardless of conference.

Realistically, none of that is going to matter Saturday. The Golden Flashes have good pass rushers in their own right (specifically the gifted ends Terence Waugh at 6-1, 262 pounds, and Theodore Oboigbe at 6-1, 252 pounds), and their tackles are a pair of stout 300 pounders in tackle Jon Cunningham and nose Chris Fairchild. But if Alabama chooses to assert its will to run the ball, then there won’t be much the Flashes can do to be anything but glorified moving speedbumps for the Tide offensive line and running backs.

Truth be told, the Golden Flash defense, while adequate against the rush, does not count its run defense as the strength of the defensive unit. They were able to largely stymy the anemic Penn State running game in the first half of their opener this season, though as expected, the defense withered in the latter stages of the game as the Nittany Lions piled up yardage. They may confound Alabama’s backs early, but that won’t be sustainable throughout the entire game. Alabama is too big and too strong up the middle (when it wants to be), and two quick and skilled to be contained outside. It’s just that simple.

What this will do is give Bama a chance to hammer out the straightening wrinkles in the running game. Alabama’s offense has used a lot of zone blocking in the last several seasons, with vestiges of power looks remaining at times. But with the explosive running ability of Jalen Hurts at quarterback, the Tide’s offense has utilized the tactic to even greater effect with Hurts running zone read schemes as a legitimate threat running the ball. As Alabama (and Hurts) have become more comfortable with the practice, combined with RPOs, these option looks have created an almost unstoppable array of vectors that Lane Kiffin can use for attacking defenses. Defenses can’t key on selling out to stop the pass AND stacking the box to stop the run AND play slow, patient football against the zone read options at Hurts’ disposal. It’s just too much to defend, with too much guesswork to allow for defensive consistency.

Alabama has always been difficult to stop on the ground, and that hasn’t changed. Alabama has a receiving corps that is the envy of nearly every offensive coordinator in the country. The addition of a mobile, fleet-footed quarterback running an offense loaded with almost infinite options isn’t even fair to Alabama’s Power-5 opponents…let alone the likes of Kent State.

The Golden Flashes do have an excellent secondary by MAC standards, and Hurts will get a chance to further polish his passing skills against better-than-scout-team opposition. Hurts has struggled fitting the ball into tight windows this season, and his touch on intermediate and deep balls has been wanting. Kent State will be the perfect remedy for this, as their skill will make Hurts work for completions in a steel-sharpens-steel scenario. Demetrius Monday had six interceptions last season, and he is salty enough to give Hurts pause in the passing game. But Monday can’t stop all of the receiving weapons in the Tide arsenal by himself. Even surrounded by a strong supporting cast, Alabama can shred Kent State’s secondary at will…if things are executed properly. The size mismatches Alabama’s receivers will enjoy over most of the five KSU starting defensive backs will increase Alabama’s chances of executing a successful air attack against Kent State.

Unlike Ole Miss, which runs a five-defensive-back system, the Golden Flashes don’t ask the DBs to do the myriad things Ole Miss defenders are required to do in Dave Wommack’s system. The Kent State 4-2-5 is more akin to Alabama’s nickel defense, only the Flashes use it on every down. The goal is to help the corners with additional personnel, but also to flood passing lanes with defensive backs while creating hesitation in the quarterback’s reads. If the quarterback’s execution is slowed, then the Golden Flash pass rush has a chance of making a play in the offensive back field.

In theory, that sounds great. But against Alabama’s offense, it’s simply not going to work consistently. And with Alabama’s penchant for the big play on the ground and through the air, there’s a good chance that anything the defense does will ultimately prove too little, too late.

The Alabama defense versus the Kent State offense

If the Kent State defense can’t get it done, then the offense is certainly not up to the task of tangling with the Tide. Rated as one of the nation’s worst offenses last season, there’s no reason to believe that the hapless Golden Flashes will be able to execute any kind of successful game plan against the Tide’s nasty defensive unit, neither on the ground nor through the air.

After a just plain terrible 2015 campaign, many players were shifted to new positions in an effort to refresh an approach which clearly wasn’t working. The Flashes have a pair of new quarterbacks this season in freshman Justin Agner (6-0, 200 pounds) and redshirt freshman Mylik Mitchell (6-3, 201 pounds), though after two consecutive starts, it appears Mitchell has taken the reins firmly. Mitchell is Jalen Hurts Lite: a dual threat quarterback with adequate passing skills and quick feet who contributes to the Golden Flashes game plan in both respects.

The Kent State offense is something of an anomaly amongst its spread-offense MAC brethren. The Golden Flashes don’t want to spread you out and sling the ball willy-nilly. No, they’d rather pound at a defense between the tackles to open up the play-action pass (no, Gene Stallings is not their offensive coordinator). Mark Dantonio acolyte Don Treadwell is, however, and he is as old-school as it comes in designing and executing what the Golden Flashes do offensively. The offense is accurately described as plodding, and the Golden Flashes are at their best when they can execute 12 play drives that suck time from the clock and consist of between-the-tackles runs, short horizontal passes to loosen the passing lanes, and vertical play-action attempts when defenses load the box.

The Golden Flashes’ offense only works well when the running game can generate four to six yards on first downs. Treadwell prefers to work on second- and third-and-short situations, where defenses can’t anticipate the play call. The pass or run are reasonable tools, which keeps defenses guessing.

Sounds like a good idea, right? But execution has prevented any type of synergy to occur for Kent State. More likely than not, the running game, led this year by the tandem of freshman Justin Rankin (5-9, 206 pounds) and sophomore Myles Washington (5-9, 218 pounds), cannot generate that early down success. That, in turn forces uncomfortable, predictable passes on second and third downs with long yardage, which most definitely doesn’t play the strength of the KSU scheme.

When the Golden Flashes can air the ball out without fear of series-killing third-and-longs, they have a pretty solid stable of wide receivers. Junior Kris White (6-1, 216 pounds) and sophomore Johnny Woods (6-2, 211 pounds) have Power-5 size, and are workmanlike in performance. Converted junior running back Nick Holley (5-10, 198 pounds) is dangerous in the slot, with great possession receiver skills and consistent performance. Another converted back, sophomore Raekwon James (5-9, 187 pounds) does a little of everything, a spark plug who can light fires in the slot or flare out wide and use his electric ability in space. Big senior tight end Brice Fackler is as steady as they come, and he has been a favorite target of Mitchell early in the season, especially in red zone situations.

The Flashes like to use a lot of three-wides/ one-tight sets, with a Y, a Z, an X, and an H as available targets in the passing game. It’s not something that Alabama hasn’t seen before, and after tracking the Rebels’ elite corps of targets around the field last week, hemming up the Golden Flashes WR corps will be like child’s play. Alabama’s secondary got shelled last week by Chad Kelly and the Rebel receivers, but let’s face it: Kent State is on a much different, much lower level. Alabama will be able to lock down receivers with little chance of giving up an explosive plays, and man coverage will be the letter of the day when the Flashes go three wides.

The Golden Flashes have a solid line with good size, with four of five linemen either juniors or seniors. Left tackle Reno Reda (6-6, 300 pounds) is a load to deal with, but he lacks the quickness of Power-5 tackles and may be victimized routinely by Alabama’s elite ends and jack linebackers. After all, the Golden Flashes offensive line gave up seven…yes, seven…sacks to the Penn State defense in Week One. No amount of “gelling” between Week One and Week Four will prevent the onslaught that Tim Williams, Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne and Ryan Anderson will unleash on this offensive line. It could get ugly, and Allen may catch Derrick Thomas’ record-setting sack pace if the coaches allow him to stay in the game for longer than two quarters.

No one…no one…can successfully run the ball against Alabama for four quarters. The defense prides itself on stopping the run, and Kent State has little chance of establishing any running game momentum against this Alabama defense. The game plan that predicates itself on early-down running success will burn in the scorch of the Alabama sun against the Tide. If Treadwell elects to try his hand in doing so, his offense will join countless other carcasses in the boneyard of rushing offenses that were scoured gleaming clean by the Bama run defense.

With an ineffective scheme and talent mismatches across the board, expect to see Alabama’s defense just plain dominate. The third-string will see playing time in this game as Saban attempts to help his alma mater save face. Even still, the Flashes are simply outgunned, and what they couldn’t do against Penn State they definitely won’t do against this Tide defense.

Special Teams

Alabama may have found its return man in senior safety Eddie Jackson, as Jackson sparked the Tide’s historic comeback last weekend with a punt return for touchdown that looked amazingly like his many previous pick-sixes. He bobbed, he weaved, he waited for blockers…Jackson is the Tide’s Javy Arenas of the 2016 campaign. Thank goodness.

Aside from an egregious shank that produced a punt of single-digit yardage, J.K. Scott once again proved his worth with a booming canon leg. He may not see the field at all this week, as Alabama may not have to punt until the latter stages of the game, if at all.

Adam Griffith continues to struggle with longer kicks, but he’s acquitted himself with enough makes to stay in good graces. He certainly has the leg, but his accuracy is still a little scatter-gun. Let’s hope the Tide offense in the future doesn’t create situations in which Griffith is counted on to win games single-handedly.

The Flashes have a pretty solid place kicker in Shane Hynes, who in 2015 was 6-of-9 on kicks under 40 yards, and 50 percent on kicks over 40. Hynes has already performed this season, as he had two FGs against Penn State, accounting for half of the Flashes scoring single-handedly. Derek Adams handles punting duties for Kent State.

Punts are returned by Zaquon Tyson, a sophomore who averaged 4.3 yards per return in 2015. Kicks are returned by the uber-skilled Raekwon James, who averaged 20.4 yards per return last season.

Again, there’s no reason to believe that the Tide won’t steamroll the Golden Flashes this Saturday. How the Tide responds to an emotional, comeback win last Saturday will be indicative of the mindset of this particular Tide team as it heads into the teeth of the SEC schedule.

Will Alabama be lackadaisical and lethargic against a lesser opponent, as has been the case at times in the past? Or will Alabama come into the game with a professional approach, handle business, improve where necessary, and move on to the next? The latter is most definitely the desirable option, though the latter wouldn’t be a disaster.

It could be troubling, however, if Alabama stumbles and sleepwalks through a game it should handily win. Alabama is about to dive head-first into a treacherous stretch of conference games against opponents who are all out for blood…and are all capable of drawing it. Alabama doesn’t need a speedbump this week…it needs a dominant performance that allows the offense to prepare for future battles and the defense to polish its arsenal.

Anything less will be a disappointment, even if not catastrophic. A good, clean game with no injuries and plenty of chances to develop depth is what the Tide needs. Will they get that? Or will they create more questions than they answer. Hope for the best…