New starting QBs face off in first-ever program matchup

Jacob Hansen, Sports reporter

Even though the two football programs have never met, Kent State and the University of Washington have history.

“It’s pretty neat,” Head coach Sean Lewis said. “We are starting the 102nd year of Kent State football, and it’s the 50-year celebration of the 1972 team that won the MAC championship. Head coach then at the time, coach Don James left and ended up at Washington.”

Don James coached at Kent State from 1971-1974, capturing a MAC title in 1972. He came to Washington in 1975, where he became an icon.

In 1991, the Huskies won the national championship. James was inducted into the NCAA Hall of Fame in 1997 and is the winningest coach in the UW program history.

The Flashes and the Huskies see each other for the first time Saturday at 10:30 p.m. EST. KSU is going into this weekend picked to finish first in the Mid-American Conference East in the 2022 MAC football preseason head coaches poll.

The teams’ offense will be led by two new faces. The audiences will also see two new faces leading each competitor’s offense.

After last year’s star quarterback Dustin Crum left for a shot at the NFL, the Flashes turned the starting job over to redshirt junior Collin Schlee. This will be Schlee’s first start with Kent State.

Schlee saw some time last year, appearing in five games and throwing for one touchdown with no interceptions.

Lewis said Schlee is ready for the new leadership role.

“He’s been here for three years now, and he’s learned under a great one in Dustin Crum,” Lewis said in an interview with KentWired Aug. 18. “He knows how to handle his business accordingly. He’s a true dual-threat quarterback that’s able to run and pass.”

On the other side of the ball, the Huskies announced Indiana University transfer Michael Penix Jr. as their starting quarterback.

Penix Jr. has seen success at Indiana, where he had back-to-back 1,000+ yard passing seasons in the 2019 and 2020 season. In 2019, he threw for 10 touchdowns, and in 2020, he threw for 14 touchdowns.

The new star QB has had problems with injuries, with all three of them being season-ending. He suffered right ACL tears in 2018 and 2020 and a right sternoclavicular joint injury in 2019. In 2021, he separated an AC joint in his shoulder.

Head coach Kalen DeBoer, who was previously quarterbacks coach then offensive coordinator at Indiana, joined the Huskies this offseason.

Penix Jr. had his best year in 2019 with DeBoer as offensive coordinator. He passed for 1,394 yards, slightly less yards than 2020, but he had a much higher completion percentage at 68.8 percent.

Lewis said he sees UW’s offense as a potential threat.

“Penix Jr. and DeBoer were a pretty dynamic duo,” Lewis said. “With him being named the starter, we are going to have to contain him, and they have some dynamic wide receivers.”

While the Huskies finished eighth out of 12 teams in passing yards last year, they were up against some tough competition in the Pacific-12 Conference. Washington had a season high 398 passing yards for three touchdowns in a 52-3 victory over Arkansas State.

Washington had some success in the passing game last year, throwing for 2,700 yards, the eighth best in the Pac-12 Conference.

Kent State’s key to victory in this game will be to continue its offensive dominance into the season opener. Last season, the Flashes saw success in the run game, leading the Mid-American Conference in rushing yards.

Junior running back Marquez Cooper leads the back field into Saturday night. He rushed for 1,205 yards last year. Alongside Cooper is graduate student running back Xavier Williams, who had 812 rushing yards last season.

The running back depth should be the difference maker going up against a Washington team who gave up the second-most rushing yards in the PAC-12 last year, averaging 193.6 yards a game.

Kent State allowed 2,875 rushing yards last year, which equals to 205.4 yards per game. This was the third worst in the MAC.

Redshirt junior Dante Cephas leads the receiving core after posting the third most receiving yards in the MAC with 1,240 yards and nine touchdowns. Alongside Cephas is graduate student captain Issac Vance.

Schlee will see challenges against a team that was very strong in the secondary last season.

Last year, the Huskies carried the Pac-12 as the top defensive team against the pass, giving up only 143.3 passing yards per game with 10 interceptions last year. They were not only first place in their conference, but they also were first in the nation in receiving yards allowed.

KSU had problems defensively last year in the passing game. The Flashes gave up the most passing yards in the MAC, a whopping 3,724 yards, allowing 266 yards per game.

New defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson has seen success in his previous stint as coordinator at Northern Iowa from 2013-2021. There, Johnson’s defense ranked 14th in the FCS in total defense and 13th in the FCS in scoring defense in 2021.

For Lewis, Johnson’s personality brings a new light to practice.

“Every day you know what you are going to get, and the kids understand that,” Lewis said. “He asks you each morning, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ That energy and enthusiasm is contagious and has rubbed off on our defense. It has led to the confidence they are going to need to be in a position to get the ball to the ground.”

The upside for the defense is Kent State’s ability to get turnovers. The team led the MAC last season in interceptions with 16. This could be the difference maker against a Washington team that threw 16 interceptions last year, the second most in the PAC-12.

After this first battle, the Flashes do not get a break. Up next they will travel to No. 9 Oklahoma Sooners, their second of four non-conference games.

Lewis said this string of battles will show off his team’s versatility.

“When you are playing in these non-conference games, the depth of the rosters and and the depth in the quality of the perceived talent shows itself,” Lewis said. “When you have a deep room of talented individuals like we do in the running back room, it allows you to keep guys fresh later into the game.”

Jacob Hansen is a sports reporter. Contact him at [email protected].