From 3-6 to bowl champs: How Kent State football turned its season around

The Flashes attempt to block a field goal by Utah State on Friday Dec.20th, 2019. 

Kent State opened its football season with three of five games against Power 5 programs. Basically, scheduling — at best – a 2-3 record to the start of the season. 

That exact record came true, when the Flashes opened the season 2-3 with wins coming over FCS Kennesaw State in overtime and Mid-American Conference basement dweller, Bowling Green. 

The Flashes opened Mid-American Conference play with a 2-0 record against the conference’s two worst teams — Bowling Green and Akron.  They outscored them 88-23.

Following the win at Akron, they dropped three straight one possession games to put them at 3-6, one loss away from falling out of bowl contention. On the night of Nov. 14, it looked like a fourth straight loss, that would drop them out of bowl contention, was very likely.

Trailing, 27-6 with 7:39 left against Buffalo, Kent State’s season obituary had all but been written.

It would be the same conversation as last season’s 2-10 finish — close but not quite.

In 2018, Kent State had four one possession losses by a combined 17 points. The 2019 season seemed to garner similar results, as the Flashes three straight losses leading up to Buffalo were by one possession. 

Drops by leading receivers Mike Carrigan and Isaiah McKoy proved costly during the losing streak. The two combined to drop four passes that would have likely led to touchdowns during the three-game losing streak.

That changed against Buffalo. 

McKoy did not play because of a coach’s decision, but in his absence Carrigan played well, catching seven passes for 43 yards and a touchdown. He caught the game-tying touchdown on 4th-and-goal, and the Flashes pulled out a season-altering 30-27 comeback win over Buffalo.

Kent State racked up 177 yards on offense in the final quarter en route to the 24-point comeback win, marking the largest fourth-quarter FBS comeback of the season. 

“We believe,” Lewis said after the win. “This ain’t the old Kent State anymore.”


The word became a common theme amongst players and coaches over the final four games of the season.

Lewis told people close to the team that the Flashes wouldn’t lose again after beating Buffalo.

He was right.  

Following that win over the Bulls, the Flashes rattled off four straight wins, with their final win of the season coming over Utah State in the Kent State’s first-ever bowl win. 

This belief spread across the team, but it was most evident at the quarterback position.

Lewis’ belief in junior quarterback Dustin Crum grew each week. Lewis kept the belief discussion vague, only talking about the team’s success and his belief in them. 

Lewis’ first public comments on belief came in week seven after the Flashes’ 45-38 loss to Ohio, their first one possession loss of the season, specifically about his quarterback.

“There’s a reason that [Crum] earned the opportunity to start,” Lewis said after the loss. “He really managed all of the critical situations we put him in. We told him that there wasn’t a short leash and if he took hold of [the starting job] then it was going to be his. He’s done that and earned the respect of the team.” 

After Crum’s four passing touchdowns in the loss, the offense began throwing the ball down the field more.

In two conference games before Ohio, Crum averaged 8.7 yards per attempted pass. After Ohio, he averaged 9.9 yards per throw. He averaged over 10 yards per attempt in three of the final four games.

Lewis and Crum said they were just running the offense, but they clearly adapted the plan when Crum’s ability to throw the ball down the field became more evident. 

Despite throwing the ball down the field more, Crum led the MAC in completion percentage, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes while throwing a conference-low two interceptions. His 20 passing touchdowns were the most for a Kent State quarterback since 1997.  

Crum’s play did not result in the three game losing streak. He averaged over 250 yards per game and threw for seven touchdowns. 

Poor run defense became the common theme throughout the losing streak. Opposing teams scored nine touchdowns, and averaged 269 rushing yards per game on 46 carries per game over the three-game stretch. 

Crum and the run defense showed up in the biggest game of the year in Kent State’s first bowl appearance since 2012. He outdueled Utah State’s NFL ready quarterback Jordan Love while the run defense played well enough to win. They kept the Aggies’ offense under five yards per carry, allowing two rushing touchdowns in a 51-41 win. 

The win created a new buzzword for Lewis — evidence.

The Flashes have evidence that they can be a winning team under Lewis. 

“Two years ago we were asking high school coaches, recruits and current players to have faith because we really didn’t have any evidence [that it would work],” Lewis said on the Call to MACtion podcast on Jan. 7. “To have the success that we had at the end of the season now we have that evidence that we can point to and say that we’ve gone from 2-10 to bowl champions. We’ve been doing some pretty unprecedented things at Kent State in a short period of time, which has given us some momentum for when we hit the recruiting trail in a couple of days.”

Fluke or not, the 2019 season will determine the direction of Kent State football for as long as Lewis chooses to stay in Portage County.

Contact Ian Kreider at [email protected]