Football heads into last set of games with a division title in sight

Marquez Cooper runs it down field during Kent State’s 52-47 win over Northern Illinois on Wednesday night. 

The Kent State football team is coming off its biggest win of the season, knocking off undefeated Northern Illinois in one of the largest matchups in Dix Stadium history. 

But the Flashes face another tough challenge from the red-hot Mid-American Conference West Division, where Northern Illinois leads with a 4-1 conference record followed by three teams tied for second at 3-2. The bottom two teams of the West are 2-3, which would be good enough for third place in the East Division. 

KSU (4-1 MAC, 5-4 overall) will travel to Central Michigan (3-2, 5-4) on Wednesday, and a win would make the Flashes bowl eligible. 

A team is considered bowl eligible when it has six wins, because that’s the minimum number of victories you need to be selected for a bowl game. But it doesn’t guarantee you a spot in one. 

The Chippewas went 2-2 in their non-conference schedule with wins against Robert Morris (45-0) and Florida International (31-27) and losses against Missouri (34-24) and LSU (49-21). 

CMU lost 28-17 to Miami in its conference opener, the Chippewas gave up two touchdowns after entering the fourth quarter with a three-point lead. 

Central Michigan then won two straight, beating Ohio 30-27 on a touchdown with less than four minutes left and Toledo 26-23 on a field goal in overtime. 

The Chippewas were bested by NIU 39-38 after the Huskies kicked a game-winning field goal with less than a minute left, but CMU would bounce back the next week with a 42-30 win over Western Michigan. 

So, who sticks out on Central Michigan to coach Sean Lewis?

“Pimpleton. Pimpleton. Pimpleton. Pimpleton. Pimpleton.”

Junior wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton is the Chippewas’ primary wide receiver on the best passing offense in the MAC (282.8 yards per game) and the returner on the best punt return team in the MAC (20.3 yards per return and two touchdowns). 

Last week against the Broncos, Pimpleton scored three times in a five-minute span to help CMU take a 21-14 lead into halftime. He had a 70-yard punt return touchdown, an 11-yard touchdown pass and then another punt return touchdown, this one for 97 yards. He broke the MAC single-game punt return average record with 55.3 yards. 

“[Pimpleton’s] a game changer,” Lewis said. “He’s explosive, and they use him in a lot of different ways. One guy rarely brings him down. We have to limit the opportunities. We have to limit his touches wherever we can. We have to get hats to the football, and we have to play with great leverage and technique.”

Pimpleton is also fifth in the MAC in receiving (76.8 yards per game). 

Junior wide receiver Dallas Dixon only trails Pimpleton by 82 total yards, and he has a team-leading six receiving touchdowns. 

Redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson took over as quarterback in the middle of the third quarter in Central Michigan’s game against FIU, and he threw three touchdowns to lead a comeback victory. 

Since then he has started every game, and he has helped keep the Chippewas at the top as the best passing team in the MAC by throwing for 1,743 yards and 15 touchdowns. 

KSU’s secondary gives up an average of nearly 300 passing yards per game, the worst in the conference. It has allowed 300+ yards in its last three games, including 532 yards to NIU, the most passing yards in Huskies’ history. 

Lewis said one reason for the passing struggles was the defense’s priority in containing the run. 

“The number one thing we always talk about is that we have to kill the run,” Lewis said. “And our guys did that. NIU was averaging 250 yards per game, and for our kids to hold them to only 131 rushing yards, you have to commit numbers. You have to commit bodies to do that. And there were some explosive [passing] plays, no doubt, that will get cleaned up.”

Kent State was one of the best teams in the country in interceptions at the start of the season, and it had 12 through its six games. 

But the Flashes have only one interception in their last three games. 

KSU’s defense is second in the FBS in turnovers (20) and in turnover margin (+15). It has forced and recovered three fumbles in the last two games. 

“We have to do a great job, which we’ve done, of putting together a good plan,” Lewis said. “We have to do a great job of presenting some pictures that have confused some quarterbacks and generated those turnovers. Hopefully we can replicate that and take advantage of the opportunity when we get balls on hands, the way that we have.”

Central Michigan is seventh in the MAC in rushing with around 160 rushing yards per game. 

Redshirt freshman Lew Nichols is a workhorse for the Chippewas, and he leads the MAC in rushing attempts with 192. 

Because of his workload, Nichols leads the MAC with 1,082 rushing yards. That ranks fourth in the country.

The Flashes’ run defense has improved after giving up 300+ yards in back-to-back games against Buffalo and Western Michigan. They held Ohio, who at the time was third in the MAC, to 135 yards and NIU, who was at the time first, to 131 yards.

KSU is giving up 195.9 rushing yards per game, despite playing four of the five top conference running offenses. 

Graduate student linebacker A.J. Musolino has been a huge factor in the run defense, with a team-high eight and a half tackles for a loss and two sacks. 

Central Michigan’s defense is sixth in the MAC, bolstered by a great run defense, but dampened by a bad passing one. 

Kent State’s run attack against the Chippewas’ defense will be an interesting battle to watch. 

CMU is third in the conference in rushing yards allowed (137.8). 

The Flashes have the best rushing offense in the MAC and rush for an average of 235.6 yards per game. 

Lewis used one of his favorite clichés to talk about the importance of the matchup.

“The game’s won in the trenches,” he said. “It’s a strength of our guys up front and it’s a strength of their defensive line. Whoever takes control of that aspect of the game is probably going to have an advantage in this contest.” 

Sophomore Marquez Cooper leads the team in rushing yards with 731, and he is in fifth in the MAC. 

Graduate student quarterback Dustin Crum has 440 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. That’s the second most rushing yards by a MAC QB this season, and he is tied for third in touchdowns among all runners. 

Senior defensive lineman Troy Hairston, who was the co-MAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, is tied for second in the conference in tackles for a loss (10) and tied for third in sacks (five and a half). 

CMU is third in the MAC in sacks with 25.

Junior defensive lineman John Wesley Whiteside is second on the team in sacks with four and a half. 

The Chippewas defense is tied for 12th in the FBS in tackles for a loss with 62. 18 different players have at least one tackle for a loss this season. 

CMU’s defensive pressure will be a big challenge for the Kent State offensive line, which has been riddled with injuries and forced to put out a new combination of linemen nearly every week, and has done a great job protecting Crum in conference games. Against WMU they allowed six sacks, but they have only allowed two outside of that and are coming off a zero sack game against NIU. 

Lewis said constant development is a core aspect of the program that can lead to success like that.

“In all three phases we continue to show improvements in critical areas of the game,” he said. “And that’s a championship trait. [The offensive line] put together a really strong effort. The competitive depth that’s been created there is really cool. It makes all those guys better and pushes them day in and day out in practice.” 

Central Michigan has the second-worst passing defense in the MAC. It allows around 275 yards per game, and has given up 17 touchdowns. 

Crum, who is fifth in the MAC in passing yards per game (232.4), will look to have his fifth-straight 200+ yard passing performance. 

Cephas leads the team and is third in the MAC in receiving yards with 807. He has a team-high six receiving touchdowns this season. 

A win would not only make Kent State bowl eligible, but it would increase its chances and control over a division title. If the Flashes win their next two games, and Miami loses at least one of its next two, then KSU would clinch the East Division title. 

Lewis said his team is excited about the opportunity.

“The guys realize that this has always been the standard and the expectation,” he said. “Our identity is that we’re going to have a confidence about us that when we do the work, we’re going to work with a purpose and with intention and that’s to be champions. Before you can be recognized as a champion, you need to have championship habits and culture. Our guys have really leaned into that.”

If the Flashes were to only win one of their next two games, they would still have the chance to clinch the division in the regular-season finale against Miami. 

The next stretch of games are the most important in some time for Kent State, and if all goes right it could be looking at its first division title since 2012.

Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].