Summer Vacation: The Kent State Golden Flashes And Discovery

CHESTNUT HILL MA - SEPTEMBER 11: Spencer Keith #3 of the Kent State Golden Flashes passes in the first half against the Boston College Eagles on September 11 2010 at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Part of what makes this preview series fascinating for me (and thank god something does, otherwise what's the point...) is the sense of discovery. Without any writing or numbers whatsoever, I would still be something much more than a casual fan (after all, I didn't commit to blogging or pursue football numbers until 2007), but even obsessing over this silly sport at all times, you still miss things. This series is forcing me to live life as a fan of each school at the FBS level and discover things I'd have never fully realized about teams I didn't see on TV four times last year.

This is a long way of saying that 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. But there are reasons to be interested in Kent State, whether they're ever truly good again or not, and that's something I wouldn't have known to say a couple of hours ago.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk**: 93
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Murray State
41-10 W 18.2 - 20.0 L
11-Sep at Boston College 13-26 L 19.1 - 30.1 L
18-Sep at Penn State 0-24 L 8.7 - 31.9 L
2-Oct at Miami-OH 21-27 L 26.5 - 24.8 W
9-Oct Akron 28-17 W 12.6 - 22.7 L
16-Oct at Toledo 21-34 L 28.5 - 28.0 W
23-Oct at Bowling Green 30-6 W 19.1 - (-5.0) W
30-Oct Ball State 33-14 W 25.0 - 17.2 W
6-Nov Temple 10-28 L 15.5 - 29.1 L
13-Nov Army 28-45 L 30.6 - 34.6 L
20-Nov at Western Michigan 3-38 L 19.2 - 34.4 L
26-Nov Ohio 28-6 W 22.8 - (-6.6) W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 21.3 99 22.9 42
Adj. Points Per Game 20.5 106 21.8 26

Kent State came across its solid defensive ratings by playing at a consistently average level and exploding for a couple of perfect performances. Considering 27.1 Adj. PPG as the national average, the Golden Flashes' defense played within five points of average in six games, within eight points in three others ... and completely wiped the floor with Bowling Green and Ohio. And before we use that as proof that they did not 'earn' their ratings because they dominated a couple of inferior opponents, realize again that these numbers are opponent-adjusted, meaning even if an opponent was weak, you can still earn good ratings by dominating them at a much higher level than anybody else. That's what Kent State did with Bowling Green (who scored 21 points on Michigan, 21 on MAC champ Miami, and 27 on Troy) and Ohio (who scored 30+ points eight times).

If only the offense could have produced. Kent's O improved ever-so-slightly as the season progressed (though that could have just been home field advantage), and they do return their quarterback, running back, top two receiving options and four linemen, but the turnovers hurt, and even the "improved" offense left something to be desired.

Kent State Offense, First Seven Games: 19.0 Adj. PPG
Kent State Offense, Last Five Games (four of which were at home): 22.6 Adj. PPG

Despite the offense, KSU was holding it together at 4-4 before a three game losing streak eliminated them from division contention and clinched a ninth straight year without a winning record. That was enough to force Martin's resignation.

Now aboard: Darrell Hazell. Like Miami coach Don Treadwell, Hazell has Jim Tressel ties (he spent the last seven years on the Ohio State staff; again, that was much more impressive a while ago than it is now), MAC ties (he spent a couple of years at Western Michigan) and further Ohio ties (he went to school at something called Muskingum in New Concord and coached for five years at Oberlin) ... plus, he's got 25 years of experience overall. He doesn't rank quite as high for me as Miami's Don Treadwell, simply because he's spent much of his career as a position coach instead of a coordinator, but he's got a great resume for a mid-major Ohio school to pursue.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 107 109 101
RUSHING 79 85 64 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 113 110 112 109
Standard Downs 115 112 112 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 95 108 84 45
Redzone 103 107 99
Q1 Rk 93 1st Down Rk 113
Q2 Rk 104 2nd Down Rk 99
Q3 Rk 117 3rd Down Rk 110
Q4 Rk 101

Doug Martin's coaching tenure matched that of Eugene Jarvis' as Kent State running back -- hints of hope shadowed by injury and disappointment. Jarvis was a sixth-year senior in 2010 and managed to play in parts of just six games in his final two seasons after teasing over his first three years (from 2006-08: 3,265 yards, -3.4 Adj. POE). In the end, Kent's offense was really no better when he played and when he didn't in 2010, but he officially hands the reins over to senior Jacquise Terry in 2011. Terry has racked up 1,191 yards (+9.4 Adj. POE) over the last two years, and depending on how much Tressel Ball is in Hazell's bloodstream, he could see a hefty load of carries this fall.

Relatively speaking, the run game was a strength last year despite Terry posting a below-average Adj. POE and the line failing to do too good a job from an Adj. Line Yards perspective. The Golden Flashes should see at least minor improvement in this regard, which can't hurt quarterback Spencer Keith and the passing game. Keith was able to evade the pass rush and occasionally help himself with the run (149 pre-sack rushing yards), but there was not much to love about the receiving corps. Keith's top two targets -- Tyshon Goode (743 yards, 12.6 per catch, 62% catch rate) and Sam Kirkland (589 yards, 10.7 per catch, 57% catch rate) -- return, though if somebody wanted to challenge Kirkland for No. 2 status, that might not be a bad thing. Goode is a keeper, but with a 57% catch rate, Kirkland should have averaged more than 10.7 yards per catch.

Other tidbits:

  • It's hard to know what to expect from this offense because it's hard to know what to expect from the coaching staff. Hazell has a Tressel background, while new offensive coordinator Brian Rock was most recently Purdue's receivers coach in a more pass-happy attack. Chances are, KSU will run a bit more than they did last year, particularly on standard downs, and considering the personnel this probably isn't a bad thing.
  • The Kent State line has slowly racked up the experience over the last couple of years. (As if there were a fast way to rack up experience...) Center Chris Anzevino has started all 36 games of his career, and left tackle Brian Winters has started all 24 of his (including every game of his true freshman season). Throw in right guard Kent Cleveland (13), right tackle Josh Kline (12), and left guard Tyler Arend (4), and you've got a stellar 89 career starts. Now they just need to open up a few more holes for Jacquise Terry.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 63 59 64
RUSHING 61 23 84 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 67 99 51 1
Standard Downs 46 31 67 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 72 99 50 32
Redzone 78 71 78
Q1 Rk 70 1st Down Rk 46
Q2 Rk 60 2nd Down Rk 33
Q3 Rk 77 3rd Down Rk 93
Q4 Rk 9

If Miami didn't have the best defensive line in the MAC, Kent State did. They allowed the fewest Adj. Line Yards in the country, and though the defense struggled a bit if a play got past the line, run defense was still an overall strength, and opponents knew it. On both standard and passing downs, opponents passed on Kent State more than the national average; this despite the fact that half of Kent State's games ended in a double-digit loss.

There is still quite a bit to like about the defensive line, even though they must replace two key contributors in end Monte' Simmons (28.5 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks in nine games) and tackle Quinton Rainey (15.0 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FR). It all starts, of course, with Roosevelt Nix. His 20.0 tackles for loss placed him 10th in the country, second-best among mid-major defenders. He was easily the most successful freshman in the country in this regard (next best: Tulsa's Shawn Jackson at 15.5), and only one of the players ranked above him was even a sophomore (Florida State's Brandon Jenkins). Despite being undersized (6-foot-0, 240 pounds) and under-recruited (other offers: Air Force, Ball State, Eastern Michigan), Nix thrived less than 12 months after his senior prom.

Nix has some help up front -- ends Lee Stalker and Jake Dooley (combined: 46.5 tackles, 13.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) were either nice complements to Nix or beneficiaries of distracted offensive lines, while tackles Dana Brown and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen (combined: 37.0 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) should be able to account for the loss of Rainey. One has to figure the line does not quite thrive as much in 2011, simply because it was so good in 2010, and it is now under the control of a completely new coaching staff, but it will still be a strength and easily one of the best in the MAC.

Other tidbits:

  • While the run defense was efficient but struggled with big plays, the pass defense was the opposite. Kent's secondary allowed cushions to opposing receivers and was sieve-like in its efficiency, but the Golden Flashes were solid in terms of bending without breaking on Pass D. It is a bit difficult to understand that dichotomy, but ... there it is. New defensive coordinator Jon Heacock (get this: he's got Jim Tressel ties!) will go to battle without two of last year's three best defensive backs, however, after the departures of Brian Lainhart (69.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU) and Dan Hartman (47.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 2 FF, 3 PBU). Tiny safety Norman Wolfe (5-foot-8, 163 pounds; 63.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 5 PBU) is a keeper, however, as is cornerback Josh Pleasant (2 INT, 8 PBU).
  • The linebacking corps took a hit as well with the departures of Cobrani Mixon (61.0 tackles, 11.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 3 FR, 4 PBU) and Dorian Wood (67.5 tackles, 11.5 TFl/sacks, 5 PBU). Luke Batton (52.0 tackles, 3.5 TFl/sacks, 2 FR) is the only returnee who racked up solid tackle totals last year, though at least he'll likely be flanked by a pair of seniors (Kyle Reese, Byron Tyson).

Kent State's 2010 Season Set to Music

Because the Golden Flashes last went to a bowl game in 1972...

Best Songs From 1972
"Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On," by The Temptations
"Honky Tonk," by Miles Davis
"I Call My Baby Pussycat," by Funkadelic
"Little Child Runnin' Wild," by Curtis Mayfield
"Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters," by Elton John
"The Needle & The Damage Done," by Neil Young
"One One Cocoa," by Gregory Isaacs
"Spirit In The Night," Bruce Springsteen
"Superstition," by Stevie Wonder
"Tumbling Dice," by The Rolling Stones

I limited myself to one song per artist, otherwise I'd have created the entire list from Exile On Main St., Talking Book, Superfly and America Eats Its Young.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Ten Best MAC Defenses According to F/+, 2005-10
1. 2009 Ohio (+5.8%, 31st overall)
2. 2008 Temple (+3.6%, 39th)
3. 2009 Central Michigan (+2.7%, 42nd)
4. 2008 Ball State (+2.0%, 55th)
5. 2010 Kent State (+1.4%, 49th)
6. 2008 Northern Illinois (+0.9%, 60th)
7. 2009 Kent State (+0.5%, 51st)
8. 2008 Bowling Green (+0.3%, 62nd)
9. 2009 Temple (+0.1%, 53rd)
10. 2010 Buffalo (+0.0%, 55th)

Oddly, only four of the teams on this list finished with winning records. Apparently offense is what sets you apart in the MAC, and most MAC teams don't have it.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 103
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 88
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** 0 / +1
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (10, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +1.4

Kent State rose from horrendous to just below average in Martin's tenure, but that's not exactly inspiring improvement. Regardless, their recruiting averages aren't terrible for a MAC team, and their YPP margin should improve a bit. Throw in an improved offense that could offset some regression on defense, and you've got ... well, you've got a team right around the quality of last year's.

When Miami (Ohio) surged forward in 2010, they didn't do it by actually improving that much; they did it by taking better advantage of their opportunities. They ranked 90th and went 10-4 while Kent ranked 93rd and went 5-7. If the Golden Flashes can keep things tight and close out better (often a Tressell Ball specialty), then they could very easily compete for the division title. But that might be a lot to ask for a team bereft of recent success and breaking in a new staff. Give them a year, then look out. Nix is but a sophomore, and perhaps the next-best player, receiver Tyshon Goode, is a junior. The foundation is reasonably solid, but it might take a year for everything to gel.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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