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Illinois vs. Kent State 2015: Game Preview

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Illinois looks to start the 2015 season off right with a win over the experienced Kent State Golden Flashes.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

THE WHEN AND WHERE

Game: Kent State Golden Flashes vs. Illinois Fighting Illini (-14.5)

Time: 8:00 PM Central Time - Friday, September 4th

Place: Memorial Stadium - Champaign, Illinois

TV: BTN - Eric Collins, Glen Mason, J Leman

THE UNIFORMS

These are the Illini uniforms for Friday night. Like any other uniform combination Illinois has, they'll look pretty good. Cool.

THE INJURY REPORT

Jihad Ward being probable to play is the only significant news here. Ward was expected to sit out until the third week against North Carolina due to an arthroscopic knee surgery, but apparently he's healed remarkably quickly. If he plays, that would be absolutely huge for the Illini run defense.

THE THEM

THE OFFENSE

Kent State's 2014 season was about as mentally and emotionally challenging as it gets. Due to complications with an enlarged heart, the Golden Flashes' starting center Jason Bitsko passed away unexpectedly just prior to the start of the football season.

Whether correlation or causation, Kent State then began its season with six consecutive losses and its offense failed to score over 17 points in any contest. The team was also shut out by Ohio State, though it can probably be forgiven for that effort.

The biggest issue with Kent State's offense last season was their inability to run the football effectively, resulting in a pass-happy attack relying heavily on a quarterback, Colin Reardon, who threw two more interceptions than touchdowns in 2014. It's hard to blame the Golden Flashes for such a strategy though, when projected starting running back Trayion Durham missed the entire season due to a foot injury.

According to numbers compiled by Bill Connelly of SB Nation, Kent State passed on ~55 percent (!) of standard downs (1st and 10, 2nd and 7 or less, 3rd and 4 or less). The national average was just 40 percent. KSU also passed on ~79 percent (!) of passing downs (2nd and 8+, 3rd and 5+), when the national average was 67 percent.

The good news for the Golden Flashes is that Durham, a power back who was preseason All-MAC before his injury last year, returns this season and should split carries with Nick Holley. Holley ran for just 516 yards on 125 carries (4.13 per) last season as the primary back. He brings a little more speed than Durham, so KSU is hoping to re-enact the mash-and-dash success it had back in 2012 with Durham and now-NFL speedster running back Dri Archer.

There's hope for a better KSU run offense this year, partially because of Durham's return but also because a once-young offensive line has a year of experience under its belt. The left side of the Golden Flashes offensive line started all 11 (one game snowed out) games for Kent State last season, so you can expect to see them run it that way early and often.

Right guard Anthony Pruitt, a senior, also returns after missing the entire 2014 season due to academic issues. More optimism for a rebound from KSU's O comes from the hiring of a new offensive coordinator, Don Treadwell, who was previously the offensive coordinator for Michigan State.

Treadwell is installing a gratuitously hyped, up-tempo offense at Kent State. Expect him to be much more balanced than the Golden Flashes were last season, focusing on establishing a power running game against an Illinois defense that couldn't stop a single play with a pulling guard last season (Minnesota first half and Penn State game excepted).

This is where Jihad Ward's return comes into play: Kent State has recruited like one of the worst teams in Division-I college football over the last five years, and even Illinois has athletes who should be able to overwhelm the smaller Golden Flashes. Ward could have an absolutely massive impact on this game if he's healthy, as could Dawuane Smoot, Rob Bain, and Chunky Clements.

The entire starting defensive line should abuse this offense and make them throw the football. It should be a good first test for a unit that could go from the defense's worst last year to its best this season. This was one of the worst offensive lines in all of college football last season-- 127th in adjusted line yards, an advanced statistic that separates an offensive line's performance from the team's running backs-- and an extra year of experience shouldn't make enough of a difference that the Illini can't handle it.

When Reardon does throw the ball, don't expect him to get sacked too often. He took sacks on fewer than 2.5 percent of passing plays last season, one of the best marks in the country. Though Reardon was able to get plenty of throws off, he didn't exactly do much good with them.

Reardon completed 57 percent of his 400 passes last season for 2,466 yards (6.2 YPA, not good). Worse still, he completed 14 touchdown passes to 16 interceptions. Reardon wasn't particularly interception-prone two seasons ago in his first as a starter, so it could be a case of a green offensive line allowing pressure in his face and forcing him to make ill-advised decisions in lieu of taking sacks.

Reardon might want to consider holding the ball and just taking the five yard loss to avoid giving the ball away as frequently as he did in 2014. What won't help Reardon is the loss of his two top targets from last season, tight end Casey Pierce and wide receiver Chris Humphrey. Those two combined for nearly 200 targets last season and nearly half of Reardon's completions. Kent State will need some skill players who produced very little in the passing game last season to step up and deliver in 2015.

Other key players to watch on offense include a few newcomers, which Kent State beat writer Allen Moff mentioned in our Behind Enemy Lines preview from yesterday:

The Flashes lacked breakaway threats last season, so they brought in several freshmen with above-average speed - running backs Myles Washington and P.J. Harrison, along with Antwan Dixon, who is probably the team's fastest player. All three players are southern recruits.

THE DEFENSE

Kent State's defense was the reason they were able to win even two games last season. The Golden Flashes ranked 79th in defensive S&P+ last season, a surprisingly good ranking given their 2-9 record. It kept them in several games, such as a 17-14 loss to Ohio and a 10-3 loss to Miami (OH).

The Kent State defense is sort of weird, in that it doesn't really have any weak spots. Like with the offense, it is a mostly small unit compared to the Illini's starters. KSU returns all 11 starters from last season, which could transform their defense from a good MAC defense to a good defense, period.

The defensive line probably holds the best athletes on the defense, with senior DE Nate Terhune (six-foot-four, 265) and sophomore nose tackle Jon Cunningham (six-foot-zero, 295) bolstering the strong side of the line. Illinois would be wise to stick to the weak-side of Kent State's 4-2-5 defense (basically identical to the Illini's, by the way), where relief from those two awaits.

Kent State supposedly has the best linebackers in the MAC, at least according to the immortal Bill Connelly. This dude is like 14 times better at this than I am, so read about KSU's linebackers from his yearly preview article:

That Kent State ranked 60th in Rushing S&P+ despite almost no push up front -- 90th in standard downs line yards per carry, 118th in opportunity rate, 119th in power success rate, 116th in stuff rate -- is remarkable. And while tackle Nate Terhune had his moments, this success speaks volumes about Kent State's linebacking corps, one that, again, was without Strickland. And while we're at it, only Dellinger played in all 11 games; KSU's linebacking corps represented well despite constant turnover.

West Virginia transfer Davonte James joins the rotation up front, which can't hurt, but between Dellinger, Elcee Refuge, exciting sophomore Marques Moore, Strickland, and maybe three-star freshman Jim Jones, it isn't hard to see this unit as one of the MAC's best in 2015. With a little more push from a seasoned line, this unit could do some pretty significant damage.

Those linebackers were basically the only thing preventing Kent State from being the worst run stopping team in the country last season.

The Golden Flashes ranked 94th in the country in average yards per carry allowed, even with their solid linebackers, largely because of their small defensive line (keep in mind that while those guys were athletic, that doesn't guarantee they were/are particularly good at the footballing). In his weekly, must-read preview over at Illiniboard, Craig noted that Illinois has an average of 40 lbs over each KSU defensive lineman. Please maul appropriately, Ted Karras and Christian DiLauro.

KSU also has a pretty stacked safety unit with veterans Nate Holley and Jordan Italiano, two of the best playmakers on the defense. Their efforts are the main reason that a KSU defense that gave up plenty of yards last year was excellent in preventing big, game-changing plays. The Kent State defense was 34th in the country (!) in IsoPPP, a measure for the number of explosive plays a team gives up. They bent quite a bit, ranking 88th in opponent success rate (basically offensive efficiency), but they were able to limit the damage quite often.

Ultimately, this is a veteran unit with experienced and talented enough starters to give the Illini offense a run for its money. Illinois should be able to take advantage of this squad by throwing it around the yard and taking advantage of its far superior athletes. Expect the slot receivers to have several targets (DJ Taylor and Desmond Cain) coming over the middle, trying to spread out the linebackers and allow some lanes for Josh Ferguson to run through.

Don't be surprised if Illinois has a tough time in the first quarter or two against this defense, as the starters exert their will. But over time, Illinois should be able to wear them down with speed and those bigger linemen. We could be set up to see another big fourth quarter from Wes Lunt and the boys.

THE PREDICTION

Last year, I'm pretty sure I was wrong on just about every single prediction. Clearly, I know nothing about Illinois football.

If Jihad Ward plays at 80 percent strength, I think Kent State is going to have a tough time scoring in this one. Illinois' pass defense should be good, with Clements/Bain providing pressure up the middle and Smoot/Carroll Phillips rushing from the LEO spot. Those guys up front, plus the experienced Illini secondary, should be enough to help tame Reardon and hopefully get a couple of interceptions (!!!).

On the other side, you probably already know how I feel from what's been written thus far. Illinois may not break down this defense too badly in the first half, but I think they score more than enough points throughout the entire game to take this one.

Paul Haynes' Kent State squad is due for some positive regression and improvement through experience this season, but the Jimmy's and Joe's are more important than X's and O's in a game like this. Illinois has no excuse for losing to the Golden Flashes, even with Tim Beckman's firing early in the week.

Illinois Fighting Illini 33, Kent State 17